Setting calves up for weaning success

South Dakota State University Extension experts offer some tips for successfully weaning calves.

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Proper feed and management can set calves up for success after weaning. (Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC)

In most of the Upper Midwest, the grasses are turning to gold, along with the leaves, and soon ranchers will wean their calves.

Weaning can be a stressful time for calves and for cattle producers. During an online Dakotafest forum last month, South Dakota State University beef experts gave some tips to make it an easier process.

Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension beef feedlot management associate, said feedlots are looking for calves that will stay healthy, perform well and efficiently and hang up a heavy carcass.

While not a lot can be done about genetics, disposition, the dam’s nutrition, colostrum intake and nutrient intake over the summer by the time of weaning, Rusche explained that there are things that can help bawling calves reach their full potential.

First, Rusche recommends castrating bulls as early as possible.


“If we do that earlier in their lifespan, there is less stress, less of a setback, less potential for problems as we go forward,” he said.

He recommends making sure calves have their nutritional needs met on pasture before weaning, which includes getting enough trace minerals, energy and protein. Getting the calves’ immune response ready also is vital. Rusche said two rounds of vaccines are best, but one is better than nothing. Follow all vaccine instructions and Beef Quality Assurance guidelines for properly administering vaccines. Using at least one modified live vaccine has been shown to help in respiratory health.

“Research is really clear that does a better job of preparing calves for success going into the feedlot,” he said.

Rusche said that when it comes to weaning, fenceline weaning, which involves separating calves from their mothers with a strong fence while still on pasture, has been shown to improve outcomes. However, not many people are set up to do that, and some sell their calves at the time they wean. So, he focused on drylot weaning, which is more common.

The two challenges in drylot weaning are in managing behaviors and rumens, he said. Calves need to get used to people, and they need to get used to feed other than the grass they were used to on pasture. Adequate bunk space and adequate water are key, and Rusche recommends keeping pen space small and walking calves to feed at first. Minimize distractions and try to walk through the calves daily to get them used to people and to get them associating people with food. If cattle aren’t drinking, he said running the water fountains over can help them figure out that the fountain “isn’t some scary thing in the middle of the pen.”

Not all calves eat every day, Rusche said, so it’s important to start them on nutrient dense foods. Hay is a good choice, since they’ll know what it is, but he said other feeds also can be good starters as long as they are high quality. The feed needs to be palatable, high fiber and have the right vitamin and mineral mix. Rusche recommends using a coccidiostat to head off coccidiosis problems. And he said weaning is not the time to worry about the cost of feed; feed costs can be reduced later, when calves are more mature.

Rusche said keeping calves on the hungry side for the first few days helps them get more aggressive about eating and helps producers identify stragglers who aren’t getting to the feed. Feeding twice a day at first also helps.

Rusche also urged producers who have multiple priorities to beware of “combine disease” in the fall. Calves need the right amount of attention when they are weaned, so try not to get pulled away too quickly by other tasks.


Mineral status

Year-round mineral supplementation can keep cows and calves healthy. (Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC)

Even before calves get weaned, there are things producers can do to make sure they’re setting up their cattle for optimum health. Adele Harty, SDSU Extension cow/calf field specialist, spoke on the Dakotafest forum about the importance of mineral supplementation.

While Harty’s work is focused in western South Dakota, she said people in eastern South Dakota and North Dakota often experience the same issues. Some common problems include copper and zinc deficiencies, which can affect immune responses. Harty said zinc deficiency can reveal itself through susceptibility to footrot. Selenium deficiency is not uncommon in eastern South Dakota, while the western part of the state sometimes has toxicity issues from high selenium. High iron, molybdenum and sulfur in feeds and waters can make the copper, zinc and selenium deficiencies worse, she said.

Every operation has different issues, Harty said.

“Testing forages and water and understanding your specific situation and challenges will be important,” she said.

Year-round mineral supplementation can help keep cattle balanced, and Harty said monitoring consumption is important, as is providing year-round salt.

As long as cows aren’t deficient during gestation, calves generally are born with adequate levels of trace minerals, Harty said. However, their levels can get depleted on pasture without supplementation, so providing mineral for pairs can help get calves ready for weaning and feedlot production.

Trace minerals have been shown to help immune response and response to vaccines, and Harty said if there are concerns about deficiencies, injectable trace minerals may help calves at weaning.


Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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