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Weaning practices can affect calf health and performance

August 30, 2013

By Dr. Jeremy Powell, Professor & Veterinarian, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture

Fall is upon us, and it’s time to begin marketing your spring-born calves.  In doing so, remember that how you manage these calves at weaning can improve their opportunity for better overall health throughout the rest of their life.  A calf’s health can be affected by stress factors such as weaning, a naïve immune system, and poor nutrition.  A preconditioning program can minimize a calf’s likelihood of disease, and thereby improve post-weaning gain, improve carcass value and most importantly improve the lifelong welfare of the animal.

Many research reports exist indicating a benefit in selling price for calves that were vaccinated, weaned, and held on the ranch for 45 days prior to shipment.  A recent University of Arkansas survey1 of calves sold in AR auction markets indicated that preconditioned calves captured an average price premium of $5.00/cwt compared to calves that had not been preconditioned.  These preconditioned calves are more desirable to calf buyers due to their potential for improved health and increased gain performance.

The University of Arkansas conducted recent research that compared how different weaning practices can affect calf health and performance after they are shipped to a stocker cattle research facility.  The study2 compared 2 groups of calves that had undergone different management practices before being shipped to the research facility near Fayetteville. The study utilized 236 steer calves that underwent preconditioning on their farm-of-origin before shipment.  Calves originated from Arkansas ranches and were weaned, vaccinated, and held on the ranch for 45 days before shipping.  Furthermore, 292 calves (210 bulls and 82 steers) were also purchased from multiple Arkansas auction barns and shipped to Fayetteville to be compared with the ranch-sourced calves.  These calves had an unknown history of vaccination and weaning status.

The effects of preconditioning management were analyzed to determine if there were any differences in calf morbidity (illness), health costs and weight gain performance during the 42-day receiving period.  The data displayed in Table 1 indicates that market origin calves exhibited considerably higher morbidity rates and poorer gain performance compared to the pre-conditioned calves.

Effects of weaning management

Undeniably, weaning can be a stressful period for a calf which subsequently can affect health and performance.  This study has indicated that a higher morbidity rate and higher health costs can be expected in calves purchased and shipped without any preceding preconditioning. However, by weaning calves on the ranch for 45 days, improved health and performance can be expected after they are shipped.  These preconditioning management practices are not only an opportunity for producers to maximize the price they receive for their calves, but also in the best interest of the future welfare of the cattle.

Fenceline weaning can also help reduce weaning stress.  Fenceline weaning allows calves to remain in sight of and in close proximity to their mothers followed by gradual increases in separation distance by moving electrified wires or tapes further from each side. This technique can also allow high-quality pastures to be used as weaning facilities in place of dusty drylots. A recent research study3 conducted at the University of Arkansas Livestock and Forestry Research Station near Batesville compared calves that were weaned either by abrupt separation or by fenceline weaning.   The average daily gain during the 14 day weaning period tended (P < 0.10) to be greater for fenceline weaned calves compared with traditionally weaned calves (2.55 and 1.6 lb/day, respectively).

When you gather your calves to sell this fall, consider the opportunity of adding in a little extra management by providing them a preconditioning program.  Not only does it give you the chance to benefit from a higher price, but it is the right thing to do to improve the long-term health of your calves.  For more information about beef cattle production management, visit your county Extension office.

1Troxel, TR, et al. 2011. Arkansas ANSC Department Report. Series 597.

2Richeson, JT, et al. 2010. Arkansas ANSC Department Report. Series 584.

3Ness, K, et al. 2012. Arkansas ANSC Department Report. Series 606.

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