How to minimise calf stress if forced to wean early

Weaning calves early to help eke out winter forage stocks is good practice but must be carefully managed to minimise stress on the young animal, according to vet Jenny Hull.

Many cattle farms in the UK are facing a potential feed shortage this winter after a cold spring and drought-hit summer reduced grass and fodder growth.

These farms may be looking to wean calves earlier, which is a good way to maintain the cow’s body condition, says Dr Hull, a partner at the Black Sheep Farm Health practice in Northumberland.

The young calf is also a more efficient converter of feed into meat, so there is a double benefit for the farm business.

See also: Guide to weaning beef calves to reduce stress

Protein shortfall

However, Dr Hull warns that weaning the calf on to a basic grass silage ration at 10-12% protein, even with extra barley, will not maintain health and growth rates.

Early weaning: maintaining growth rates and minimising stress

  • Provide rumen undegradable protein 
  • Initial high-protein ration (18%)
  • Avoid abrupt weaning process
  • Creep feed and offer silage while calf is still suckling
  • Divide housing to prevent suckling but allow some contact
  • Ensure housing is clean, dry, well-ventilated and draught-free
  • Implement health plan including pneumonia protection

“Alongside its mother the calf receives milk with 26% protein and grazes growing grass at about 20% protein, she says.

“The gap between this high-protein diet and a basic silage ration is obvious.”

Dr Hull advises offering an additional source of rumen undegradable protein (RUDP) such as a coarse soya.

This type of protein bypasses the rumen – avoiding the gut microflora which would degrade its value – and goes straight into the calf’s system via the abomasum.

It is an expensive feed and alternatives such as distillers’ grains may be more economical. But the key is to provide about 18% protein to the calf in the first month after weaning, Dr Hull explains.

This can be reduced to 15% over the following two to three months, she adds.

Managing stress

As well as providing a good ration to promote health and growth, it is important to ensure there is a smooth transition at weaning.

Abrupt weaning causes the calf stress through separation from its mother, and its digestive system cannot adjust quickly to a fodder-based diet alone. The calf also needs to recognise silage as a type of food, which it may not do automatically.

Poor dry matter intakes mean growth rates are checked and the calf is more vulnerable to disease.

“It is better practice to offer some silage and creep-fed cereal to the calf while it is still suckling to help its rumen develop,” Dr Hull says.

She recommends a simple system that divides up the floorspace within housing, using two strands of electric fence to allow continued contact between the newly weaned calf and its dam.

“It stops the calf suckling but reduces the stress of sudden and total separation,” she says.

Housing must also be managed to reduce stress and the risk of disease. Dry, fresh bedding and good ventilation without draughts are of paramount importance to maintain health, Dr Hull stresses.

Vaccines

A vaccination programme, worked out with the farm’s vet, will also reduce the chance of growth checks, health issues and stress.

“Protecting against pneumonia is cost-effective and good welfare practice,” Dr Hull advises. “Other diseases and parasites that may be on the farm, like BVD, lungworm and fluke, should also be tackled to give the young calf the best chance to thrive.”