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Managing your weanings to reduce suckle-herd stress


Teagasc logo.

Teagasc logo.

Teagasc logo.


Weaning is when the calf is taken away from the mother and should ideally happen from six months of age onwards.

A calf at six months of age should be well grown, eating roughage in the diet and not dependent on milk for survival.

Weaning date for a spring-calving herd will vary from farm to farm, some farms are able to graze later in the year and may wish to wean and leave cows and calves out on pasture, while other farms, if ground conditions deteriorate, may wish to wean and house for the winter.

Stress caused by weaning has a negative effect on the immune system, making calves more susceptible to diseases such as pneumonia and bovine respiratory disease. It is important to reduce stress at weaning by gradually encouraging the calf to become less dependent on the cow. Stressful tasks such as de-horning, castration etcetera should not be carried out in the period three to four weeks pre- and post-weaning.

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Suckler cows should have a body-condition score of three at weaning to allow for loss of condition when diet is restricted to reduce milk supply.

Avoid an abrupt weaning strategy where cow and calf are separated at housing and the calf doesn’t get to see or suckle the cow again.

Initial separation of the cow and calf should begin with creep grazing, where calves are allowed to creep graze fresh pasture to control parasites ahead of the cows for five to six weeks pre-weaning.

A suggested method for doing this would involve replacing an ordinary farm gate with a creep gate or the use of an electric fence to divide the field, allowing calves under fence.

Concentrates should be introduced four weeks pre-weaning and two weeks post weaning, which is a popular option among farmers participating in the Beef Environmental Efficiency Programme - Sucklers.

The target is to have calves consuming at least one kilogramme of meal per day at weaning time.

Research at Teagasc Grange showed that supplemented calves were less immune-compromised, started consuming meal faster when housed indoors and spent more time lying down post weaning compared to non-supplemented calves.

Weaning with the gradual removal of cows out of a group involves the removal of a quarter of the cows at a time until all cows are removed, while leaving their calves in the group.

This system puts calves under less stress as they are already familiar with their surroundings.

With indoor weaning the cows and calves are placed in adjacent pens where they can still see each other but not suckle. The calves are offered high-quality silage and concentrates, whereas the cow’s diet is changed to straw or hay to reduce milk production.

A final suckle is allowed after 36 hours of separation before calves are removed to another straw bedded shed for a week or so. Then both cows and calves, if conditions allow, can be removed out to separate pastures with the weanlings on the best pasture until winter housing.

Be vigilant of the main animal-health risks around weaning time such as pneumonia, stomach worms and hoose for calves; and the risk of cows getting grass tetany or environmental mastitis.

Weaning should be carried out in a way that stress is reduced and animal performance is not affected, which can only be done with good planning and preparation.