Reducing Weaning Stress

— Written By and last updated by

Weaning is a very a stressful time for calves. Reducing weaning stress in calves can increase their daily gain. There are four stress factors that calves can experience during weaning: physical, environmental, nutritional, and social. Proper management can reduce or eliminate some of these.

Physical stress can occur happens periods of moving or standing in working facilities, rough handling in the chute or hauling. Castration and dehorning at weaning can greatly increase stress, so by castrating at birth and vaccinating before weaning producers can reduce this type of stress.

Environmental stress can be created by the producer or a product of the climate. The weaning pen is a huge factor in this type of stress. When you bring calves from a clean pasture to a weaning lot, and they are not familiar with the new surroundings it can be a stress factor. These calves may have never eaten from a feed bunk, or drank water out of a tank, so the stress adds up. Putting calves to dusty dry lot, where they walk the fence in a confined space stirring up dust, can cause respiratory problems and decreased weight gain. Weather such as rain, ice, snow and wind are a fact of life, but you can try to schedule weaning time to avoid those conditions.

Social stress is usually caused by removing the calf from its mother. While this is an inevitable part of weaning, you can decrease the stress by using fenceline weaning. This method involves separating the calves from their mothers with a strong fence between them that will keep them apart, but allow them to have fenceline contact. This calms the calves to a degree and separation isn’t such a large stressor. Even a greater distance apart, as long as the calves can see the cows, stress levels will be reduced.

Nutritional stress occurs when calves are moved from momma’s milk and pasture diet to a stored forage and grain diet. Having high-quality pasture available to calves during weaning time in the spring and the fall helps reduce nutritional stress. For fall weaning, calves can graze regrowth on hayfields or stockpiled fescue fields. Producers should graze or clip pastures and fertilize between mid-August to mid-September to allow enough time for regrowth. Turn calves into the pasture when forage is 8 to 12 inches tall and graze until grasses are 3 to 4 inches tall.

Pasture weaning can really reduce stress levels compared to the conventional dry lot method. Pasture weaning reduces the nutritional and environmental stress as calves are already used to pasture and their diet doesn’t drastically change. To be successful with this method, it will take planning on your part regarding high-quality, available pastures.