Ranchers need to reduce stress at weaning to get better results

Teresa Clark
for The Fence Post
Weaning can be the top stressor for calves before they are moved to the feedlot.
Photo by Teresa Clark |

It is a well-known fact that weaning is one of the biggest periods of stress for a calf. At weaning, calves are separated from their mothers, exposed to new feed and ways to get it, and in some instances, changes in the way they drink water. In a group with other calves, a new order of social dominance will also be established.

What can ranchers do to make this transition easier for the calves they have raised? Clint Krehbiel, who heads up the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Nebraska, offered producers some tips during a recent Ranching for Profitability meeting in Gordon, Neb. “The No. 1 practice I would like to see producers do is to wean their calves and hold them for 30 to 45 days,” he said.

Despite the approval of several antimicrobial drugs in the last 20 years, mortality rates continue to increase in feedyards, he said. Most death losses are caused by respiratory diseases like shipping fever and pneumonia. Krehbiel said in high death-loss pens the days on feed goes up, while daily gain and feed efficiency go down. “Being placed in a feedyard is a big adjustment for calves from what is norm for them. They are now in a new environment, and possibly penned with calves they weren’t raised with,” he added.

“We need to think of our best animal husbandry techniques to find ways to eliminate stress in weaned calves,” he said. How the calves are weaned, and if they have been preconditioned, vaccinated, castrated and dehorned all factor into how that calf will perform in the feedlot. Other factors, like cattle handling, nutrition, transportation to the feedlot, and how they are doing once they arrive and are processed, are also important.

“The purpose of proper animal husbandry is to reduce the risk to the animal by stressors like weaning stress, commingling, environmental, handling, nutritional and people stress,” he said. “If you can reduce the risk of clinical disease, it will enhance performance and carcass merit.”

Krehbiel said several studies have looked at different ways to wean calves from pasture and fence-line weaning to no suck devices, confinement with minimal separation and confinement and weaning with complete separation. “The weaning method you use will influence the behavior of your calves,” he said to producers. “In one study, a lot less calves were observed eating when they were completely separated from their mothers.”


Weaning strategies can alter behavior in calves, but it has minimal impact on performance after a 28 to 70 day period. If producers can precondition their calves, it will decrease weaning and shipping stress. Bunk breaking the calves can also be beneficial, he said. Feed intake is the single most important driving force affecting the production of feedlot cattle, Krehbiel said referencing a study conducted in 1995 by Mike Galyean of New Mexico State University.

Krehbiel highlighted three points from feed intake studies: “Unstressed cattle consume feed in quantities sufficient to maintain adequate energy intake. Feed intake decreases by more than 50 percent in cattle with BRD and a fever. It may take 10 to 14 days before feed intake returns to normal.”

The animal scientist shared with producers some tips they can use to prepare weaned calves for transport to a feedyard. “I would recommend vaccinating the calves,” he said. “Make sure they are castrated and dehorned, and healed from these procedures. They should be weaned for at least 45 days and bunk broke.”


What is considered a weed?

One of the questions University of Nebraska range and forage specialist Mitch Stephenson gets quite often is what is and isn’t considered a weed. Stephenson considers a weed as any plant that is growing where it is unwanted, and a plant having a negative value within a management system. Noxious, native and exotic plants can all be considered weeds, as well as poisonous plants.

Stephenson told producers the best way to control weeds is by developing a good defense. “I would create a good strategy and define what my objectives are. It will help control my time and costs,” he said. “Monitoring results is also important. He recommends recording changes in pasture and rangeland with photos, instead of relying on the eye to remember.

Even well-managed rangelands can have some species of weeds invade them, he said. One of the most common is cheatgrass or Downy brome. “Cheatgrass actually has high nutritional value early in the growing season,” Stephenson said, noting a current study underway that is looking at how often cattle will select cheatgrass early in the growing season, and if it is harming native perennials by trying to graze it before it matures.

Other noxious weeds, like musk and Canadian thistle, leafy spurge, Eastern Red Cedar and Diffuse knapweed should also be controlled. Stephenson said some management options are herbicides, mechanical methods like mowing or cutting it down, fire, targeted grazing and bio-control.

“Herbicides can provide the most direct and complete control of invasive species,” Stephenson said. He also told producers about the “Nebraska Herbicide Guide,” which provides an overview of what herbicides are available and most effective. He said recommendations of when to spray may differ based on whether the weed is an annual or perennial. “A lot of times, we treat when we can, but to get the most bang for the buck, we should treat when it’s most effective,” he said.

Other speakers during the Ranching for Profitability meeting were Travis Mulliniks on nutritional management of breeding cattle, and Darren Redfearn, who discussed irrigated forages and the use of annual crops for grazing. ❖