Weaning the Calf Crop

  The first order of business in the weaning process is to have an adequate weaning pen.  This pen should be STOUT and capable of holding the calf crop.  Remember, these calves are going to try to get back to mama and any out-of-the-ordinary night noise is liable to spook them.  It requires a good fence to stop 60 calves on the move from something that spooked them in the middle of the night.  For calves that are trained to electric fences, fronting the existing fence with a couple of strands of electric wire can be effective.  Most recommendations would indicate that a lot of about 3 to 5 acres is the optimal size for weaning 50,000 pounds of calves (i.e, 100 head of 5-weight calves, 83 head of 6-weight calves).  Everyone's circumstances are a little different but that's a good starting point.
    Another consideration is that during this time of the year adequate shade is a must.  Similarly, a liberal supply of drinking water is also a must.  Many producers will feed these calves and once they begin consuming 18 to 20 pounds of dry feed in the summer heat, daily water consumption will increase dramatically.  Further complicating the water problem is that these calves will tend to move around and thus drink as a group.  When 60 calves come to the water trough and begin drinking the reserve capacity of the water source needs to be quite large.
    Various weaning strategies have been tried over the years, some feel that weaned calves should be able to see their dams on the other side of the fence while others think that they should not even be within hearing distance of one another once they are separated.   Production data does not favor one over the other, basically the calves are going to bawl for a 3 to 4 day period and then settle down and accept the situation.  My only suggestion would be to get the weaning pen as far away from the bedroom as possible so that you can at least get some sleep during the weaning process.
    Ideally, feeders should be placed perpindicular to the fenceline so that calves that pace the fences will have to run into the feed at regular intervals, this will certainly encourage early feed intake by the calves.  A few small square bales of hay work very well for these first 48 hours of getting the calves to eat.  During this first 48 hours, the calves should be fed all the good quality hay that they want.  Ideally, this would be fed in the same trough or bunk that the concentrate feed will be fed in so that the calves become accustomed to eating out of a feedbunk.  However, for many situations this is not practical and the hay will need to be fed in hay rings.  Whatever the case, use some good quality hay!
    One of the simplest strategies for getting good performance from the calves and doing it in an economical manner is the use of soyhulls.  These soybean hulls are EXTREMELY palatable to young calves and getting them on feed is not a problem.  Calves weighing 600 pounds will quickly be consuming in the range of 20 pounds of soyhulls per day if they are offered in a free-choice manner.  The real caution for using this system is the potential for a calf or calves to bloat when consuming this amount of soyhulls.  This may be a rapid bloat such that your first clue of any bloating is a dead calf.  The best preventative for this is to incorporate an ionophore into the feed, one such example is Bovatec.  For exact amount to incorporate please contact me. Another alternative would be to feed a mineral that contains the ionophore.  It is also important to make sure that the calves always have free-choice hay and do some exercising.  A lack of either of these two factors will exacerbate the bloat problem.  In our controlled studies, we have consistently produced gains in the range of $0.28 to $0.34 per pound of gain (feed costs only) assuming that soyhulls can be purchased for approximately $70/ton.  For heavy calves given continual access this cost may get in the $0.40 range which can be costly for some people.  The only solution is to slow down intake either by limit feeding or by mixing something else with the soyhulls.  Two feeds that we have had good success with are broiler litter and rice mill feed.
    Our initial work with rice mill feed has shown that mixes of 60:40, 50:50 and 40:60 rice mill feed:corn or soyhulls as produced very good results.  The calves gained in excess of 2.5 pounds per day with feed costs at $0.25 per pound of gain.  Rice mill feed was purchased for $40/ton and the soyhulls or corn for $70/ton.  Always feed a good mineral containing both calcium and phosphorus when using these levels of rice mill feed.  For specific details please contact me.  Many other options exist but these are simple and quite economical.
    Another topic that surfaces whenever weaning calves is discussed is the issue of shrink.  Shrink costs a lot of cattlemen a lot of money each year.  A simple case of 20 calves weighing 500 pounds that shrink 5% equals to 500 pounds of lost weight (one calf) that no one got paid for.
    One of the good reasons for weaning calves is to reduce this shrink.  I think everyone would agree that getting calves up and sorting them from their mamas and then loading them onto a trailer for sale at the nearest auction market results in a substantial amount of lost weight by those calves, especially if this whole process occurred the day before they are actually sold.  Here are some figures that have been used with regard to shrink in calves:

        Every 30 min. that calves are moved around a corral = 0.5%
        2% more shrink for a truck ride compared to equal time of standing in a drylot
        During transport 1% per hour for the first 3 to 4 hours then 0.25% for the next 8 to 10 hours
        Overcrowding increases shrink
        Hot weather may increase shrink
        Average values
                8 hrs in drylot -       3.3%
                16 hrs in drylot -     6.2%
                24 hrs in drylot -     6.6%
                8 hrs in truck -        5.5%
                16 hrs in truck -      7.9%

    Obviously, one of the best ways to market calves is to sell them straight off of a farm and paid on the weight at the nearest set of scales.  Usually this also involves a 2% pencil shrink to keep it fair between the seller and the buyer.
    The main point is that weaned calves that are taken right out of the pen and loaded onto a truck are going to shrink considerably less than those that have to be sorted off of their mamas prior to loading.  Add onto this the amount of time required and the shrink of unweaned calves begins to get rather large.  So even if you do not get more $/pound for weaned calves you are still selling more pounds of calf under most circumstances.  One point to note is that the weaned calves need to be weaned for at least 30 days prior to sale so that they can compensate for the weight lost during the weaning process.