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Early weaning stress: Helping calves cope

As I write this blog, it’s a typical, stuffy summer morning in southern Ohio. The air is still, the fog is thick and the forecast is calling for humidity in the 80s and temperatures in the 90s. This is not exactly a perfect recipe for cows to comfortably maximize their grazing abilities in our fescue pastures, but there is plenty of quality forage available for them to consume — and that’s a far cry from what our beef-producing friends in other parts of the country are experiencing. Some of my friends and family in northeastern Wyoming recently commented that, since the beginning of 2021, rain has been only a dream for them, and local producers are in dire need of affordable stored forage — not only for the upcoming winter, but to supplement drought-stricken pastures this summer and fall.

Regardless of geography, the lack of precipitation is taking its toll on several key beef-producing regions of the U.S. and is setting the stage for a flood of early-weaned calves hitting the market a few months earlier than their normal sale date. Compounding this difficult situation is the lack of forages available to cow/calf producers to precondition or background their calves at home and get them properly geared up for the next stage of the game. Basically, to use a metaphor, instead of getting a good foundation laid at preschool, there will likely be a lot of little “kids” (a.k.a., calves) jumping right into kindergarten or first grade without having received the required vaccinations or having a grasp of their ABCs.

Early weaning is not a new concept; many producers do it as part of their normal management programs and excel, with little to no issues, while using specific vaccination protocols and nutrition programs. However, calves and managers not prepared for early weaning can end up in a difficult situation that sometimes results in a terribly expensive outcome. Properly preparing calves for early weaning can pay huge dividends, and ensuring that they have the proper mineral and vitamin status can be key for laying the groundwork for calves to eat, drink and respond well to vaccines.

What can we do to help the process?

Providing calves with access to a high-quality, palatable mineral supplement — such as a CRYSTALYX® mineral and protein product — prior to weaning can be a simple way to build this foundation of health. However, achieving an acceptable mineral intake in young calves can pose some challenges. First, palatability is essential, as calves are a bit more finicky than other cows, so the typical loose mineral products can provide widely variable intakes. Secondly, ensure that the feeder is accessible. Mineral feeders can be placed too high, with lids that are too difficult to deal with, and sometimes, there is simply too much competition with big cows and not enough space for young calves.

Whether weaning your own or receiving calves from another operation, consider these significant factors when preparing for weaning day:

Providing access to fresh, open water sources in readily accessible locations is paramount when it comes to calf nutrition. Properly hydrated calves boast stronger immune systems and higher feed intakes — the two main factors for getting calves off to a good start.

Offering a palatable, high-fiber starter ration, with plenty of accessible bunk space, is the next step to ensuring proper dry matter intake. Promoting dry matter intake early in the weaning process has proven to result in high-performing cattle through the finishing phase and will pay dividends to everyone involved.

The proper supplementation of trace minerals can be the difference between calves that stay healthy and perform optimally versus calves that only respond moderately well to vaccines and detrimental health challenges. Trace minerals — such as copper, zinc, manganese and cobalt — are the building blocks of a strong immune system, and the organic proteinate forms of these minerals are significantly more bioavailable to the animal. Providing these four key trace minerals in an organic form not only increases their bioavailability for the calf and allows the animal to better maintain adequate tissue levels; it also equates to more efficient and economic utilization of the product.

Promoting proper digestive health with yeast products is another factor that can be invaluable to getting young calves off to the best start possible. Maintaining rumen microbial activity and regulating the rumen pH can be the driver of a healthy appetite, which keeps calves coming to the feed bunk from the start and maximizing their lower gut health can increase their nutrient utilization and help prevent disease.

Consumption is key!

Utilizing CRYSTALYX self-fed supplements prior to weaning to deliver mineral and fly control in the cow herd is an effective way of ensuring that calves have a sufficient mineral status on weaning day to combat the stress of separation, diet changes and transportation. We know that calves consume CRYSTALYX alongside their mothers at a very young age and reap the benefits of the mineral and vitamins it contains.

Once they are in the weaning pen, you cannot force calves to eat or drink, but you can provide them with many crucial nutrients in a very accessible, palatable form that reduces the pressure of competition. CRYSTALYX® Brigade® and Blueprint® Battalion® self-fed, stress-fighting products are specifically designed for palatability and to deliver vital nutrients to calves in challenging situations. The highly palatable, weatherproof form of CRYSTALYX allows for its flexible placement in the elements, where calves can freely access it on their own without the social pressures and anxiety brought on by comingling with unfamiliar calves, new pen configurations, and foreign feed and water sources. Its dehydrated molasses-based formulation makes it a block that attracts calves and encourages them to consume by licking, which generates saliva production and, as a result, helps buffer the rumen and regulate the rumen pH. The salts, sugars and B vitamins included in the block aid in the prevention of dehydration by providing essential electrolytes and promoting water consumption.

Additionally, the elevated levels of Bioplex® organic trace minerals included in CRYSTALYX formulations help boost potentially depleted trace mineral levels in calves, thereby maximizing their immunity and vaccine response. CRYSTALYX Blueprint Battalion takes trace mineral supplementation one step further by delivering Total Replacement Technology (TRT) — that is, utilizing 100% Bioplex organic trace minerals in its formula, along with supplemental chromium as another line of defense in the most demanding situations. The inclusion of organic selenium aids in the relief of excessive metabolic activity resulting from above-average heat and physical activity.

Supplemental vitamins further support immune function in calves. Vitamin A plays an influential role in the weaning process by maintaining the health and integrity of the tissues lining the respiratory system. This is especially necessary for bawling calves living in dusty or confined conditions.      

Finally, calves’ rumen health benefits from the inclusion of Yea-Sacc®, which plays a significant role in keeping the rumen functioning at a high-level during times of ration changes and intake variability. Blueprint Battalion also includes Bio-Mos® 2, which optimizes lower gut function by promoting nutrient absorption.

We can’t control the weather or which cards Mother Nature deals us, but we can minimize our risk when we’re dealt a less-than-perfect hand. CRYSTALYX Brigade and Blueprint Battalion stress products can provide managers with that all-important trump card for calves when dealing with the challenges of early weaning.