Every fall, the beef calves in our herd go through the weaning process where we separate them from their mothers. We do this because the calves need a different level of nutrition than the cows do, so weaning them allows us to feed them separately. Also, this gives the cows time to put on weight to be ready for the winter looming ahead in the next few months. To ease this transition for the calves from being in the pasture to entering the feedlot, we take several steps to keep the calves healthy and content.
Ranchers like us start well before weaning to make the event successful. This starts with a pre-weaning vaccination program. Just like people, cattle have certain diseases that vaccines can help prevent. For cattle, these are often bacteria and viruses that cause respiratory disease. We vaccinate before they are weaned so that the protection is there when the calves are dealing with the stress of weaning.
In addition to vaccinating, we start giving calves the feed they will eat when they are away from the cow. By four to five months of age, the calves are consuming quite a bit of grass on their own and less milk. By supplementing this with a little sweetened grain called “creep feed” the calves learn how to eat out of a bunk. That way they don’t have to learn how to eat out of a bunk at the same time they are weaned.
The next step comes with the actual weaning process, which for us occurs around six to seven months of age. While there are many ways to do it, my favorite way to wean calves is a method called “fenceline weaning”. With fenceline weaning, calves are separated from their mothers, but are kept directly across a fence so they can still touch noses. The first day, the cows and calves spend several hours across the fence from each other talking back and forth. However, this amount of time rapidly decreases, and in four to five days they calves and cows do not care to seek each other out.
After this, calves are fed a diet of grain and mostly forage in order for them to grow. It is higher in protein, because we want them to develop their skeletal and muscular system. We do this by allowing them to graze grass and cornstalk residue, in addition to feeding them a by-product of ethanol production called distillers grains. We do not want them to get fat when we own them. The fattening process happens after we sell them to a feedlot, where they are fed a grain diet to put on the fat that the majority of beef eaters want their steaks to have. Our goal is to give them the frame so they have a place to grow the beef you eat.
And that’s how our weaning process works. Not every rancher does it this exact way. But what we all try to do is make weaning as easy on our calves as possible, so they can stay content and healthy.
Photo Credit: http://wavy.com/2015/04/15/would-you-eat-this-school-lunch/