Early weaning: nutrition, vaccination

Drought conditions across the Midwest have some producers looking at an early weaning plan for calves. Taking into consideration forage quality and quantity and developing an early weaning nutrition and vaccination program, could work for some producers in drought stricken areas, according to Rick Rasby, professor of animal science, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

According to Rasby, weaning calves at 45 to 60 days of age is a viable management strategy in drought conditions, and weaning calves at three to five months is also an alternative if forage is scarce before fall, but a management plan for the calves is critical.

“Regardless of weaning age, calves that start eating dry feed immediately after separation from their dam have fewer incidences of morbidity and mortality than calves that do not eat for 24 to 48 hours after separation,” Rasby said.

Bunk and waterer height should be adjusted for the calves, Rasby said, and a creep feeder offered three to four weeks prior to weaning can get calves started on processed feeds, to help with the weaning transition.

“It is critical to get calves to eat as soon (as possible) after being separated from their dam. If calves are creep fed before weaning, they will adapt quickly to being separated from their dams,” Rasby said.

According to Rasby, the starter ration should be fed until the calves are consuming 4 to 5 pounds per animal per day, or 1 to 1.5 percent of the body weight. This can take 10 to 14 days.

Along with the management plan, early weaning requires some extra planning on vaccinations.

Vaccinations such as bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV), infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), parainfluenza three (PI3) and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), given roughly a month prior to weaning, with appropriate boosters at or near the time of weaning, are common in cow-calf producers’ preconditioning programs, according to Russ Daly, DVM extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University.

Daly says producers should still plan on vaccinating early weaned calves.

“In the past, researchers worried that antibodies from colostrum would interfere with vaccine response. More recent work shows that killed vaccines, modified live intranasal vaccines or adjuvanted modified live vaccines used in calves as young as a couple months of age can protect against active infection with viruses, such as BVDV,” Daly writes in an SDSU early weaning paper.


Daly recommends consulting a local veterinarian, as changing the timing of a vaccination program can be challenging.

“The specific timing of respiratory vaccines (along with the typical Clostridium combinations) is something best discussed with your veterinarian,” Daly says.

However, Rasby does share some general statements on preconditioning shots:

If calves are seeing respiratory vaccines for the first time now, ideally they should get that vaccine no less than two weeks prior to weaning. Any vaccine, especially the first dose, needs time to stimulate the immune system prior to exposure (in this case, exposure to the stress of weaning) — generally, the more time allowed, the better.

Pay attention to vaccine booster doses and their timing. The best immunological “bang for the buck” is when the booster dose is given in the timeframe mentioned on the product label (typically three to four weeks after the initial dose). Try to give boosters at that time regardless of how close to weaning the first dose was given.

Calves that were given respiratory vaccines at branding time are blessed with a bit more flexibility. The response to a booster dose of vaccine is quicker than the response to the initial dose. Boostering the vaccine at weaning time is an acceptable practice; however, doing this even a few days prior to weaning would ensure a good immune response on board when the calf is weaned.

David Lalman, professor and beef extension specialist and Oklahoma State University, says the most critical time for early weaned calves is the first two weeks.

“Calves must overcome the stress of weaning and learn to eat dry feed very quickly. The first ration should be very palatable and high in protein and energy, since the total ration consumption will at first be small,” Lalman said.

Lalman also recommends a creep feeder in the pasture prior to weaning, but points out that most calves won’t eat much creep while still nursing.

“Remember that early-weaned calves are started with a ration high in energy and protein and are gradually changed to a grower-type ration as their total intake increases,” Lalman says.

“In the case of little 150- to 250-pound calves, you are taking on the role of mother and mother nature in terms of replacing milk and high-quality pasture with feed or harvested forage, so the feed product needs to be calf-appropriate. This can be a challenge with common ranch resources,” Lalman said.

The nutritional management program needs to be closely monitored and managed daily.

“Feed intake, scours, hair coat, calves consuming dirt or chewing wood and fleshiness are things to keep an eye on. The calves should be licking themselves and hair coat should be bright and fresh, not brown and stale looking for black calves for example,” Lalman said. “My suggestion would be to limit feed intake once it reaches about 2 percent of body weight to keep calves from getting too fleshy. In our recent experiments, we pretty much fed the calves about all they would consume just to learn how much they would eat compared to their contemporaries still nursing their mothers. As a result, the early weaned calves were fleshy by the 205-day mark.”

Lalman offers more early weaning tips and an early weaning three step ration plan at:


Vitamin A deficiency is another factor to consider with both drought conditions and early weaning, according to Lalman. Vitamin A is one of the most important vitamins to supplement.

“Vitamin A is necessary for proper bone formation, growth, energy metabolism (glucose synthesis) and skin and hoof tissue maintenance, as well as vision. The vision function is associated with visual purple in the eye when animals are trying to adapt from light to dark,” Lalman said.

Vitamin A deficiency symptoms include night blindness, reproductive failures, skeletal deformation and skin lesions.

“The best source of this vitamin is beta-carotene, a pigment in green plants that animals convert to vitamin A. If cattle are grazing green grass, they will get plenty of vitamin A. During winter months or drought, vitamin A deficiencies are common because dormant plants don’t contain the levels of beta-carotene needed compared to the green forage levels in the growing months,” Lalman said.

Coccidiosis is also a big challenge according to Lalman.

“We have a history of problems if we confine calves in a dry lot during a stressful period for any length of time and don’t include a coccidiostat. We haven’t had a problem controlling the disease as long as we include the additive,” Lalman said.

Bottom line, weaning can be successful, and calves can be efficiently raised to a normal weaning weight in a drylot, Lalman said.

“While early weaning is certainly not recommended as standard practice, it should be useful in times of drought when purchased feed may be more efficiently fed directly to the calf than to the lactating cow. Early weaning may also offer cattlemen a chance to achieve high conception rates in cows to thin to rebreed otherwise,” Lalman said.


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