Nutritional challenges of newly weaned calves

Nov 8, 2018

Weaning time is a stressful time for both calves and producers. Beef Nutritionist; Sam Strahan discusses what cow-calf producers can do to combat decreased feed intakes and elevated stress hormone levels as calves are weaned or preconditioned.



Tom:      I’m Tom Martin, and joining me from Madison, Va., is Ridley nutritionist, Sam Strahan, to talk about a critical phase in producing quality calves that perform well in the feedlot and beyond.

               Thanks for joining us, Sam.

Sam:      Sure.


Tom:      What are some of the concerns at weaning, and why is this a big deal?


Sam:      Well, weaning can be quite a stressful time for calves, as you consider the many changes that they could be exposed to — especially separation from their mothers, who have nursed and protected them for the first several months of life. That’s like a child being dropped off at daycare the first time or taken to kindergarten. There’s a change in surroundings, mixing with other animals, likely, a dietary change and just an overall disruption of schedule.

               Calves may also be given shots or dehorned or have some other treatment. All of these changes can be stressful and potentially cause sickness during the weaning period.  So, there have been many programs over the past years that attempt to lower stress. The success may depend upon one’s management program.

Related article: Supplementing for calf weaning success

               One successful strategy, for instance, is called fence-line weaning, in which calves are separated but kept in an adjoining pasture for a period of time, so they’ll still have contact with their mothers across the fence. Due to the low-stress nature of this type of program, calves tend to have less sickness. However, a lot of farms wean calves from their momma and, in the same day, take them to a sale barn to be sold as stockers to other farms or stockyards for backgrounding. Calves handled in this manner will have serious stress induced, again, opening the door for disease.     


Tom:      For these calves — the ones that are sold the same day as weaning — what kinds of stresses do they face?


Sam:      Much like most people, cattle do not like changes, generally. A calf that is weaned and taken to a sale barn will first undergo the separation anxiety from its mother in a noisy atmosphere, due to the handling of many animals. They’re then herded, perhaps with horses or four-wheelers, and put on trucks, probably for the first time in their life. Depending on how many calves are being weaned and sold, they may be co-mingled with calves from other farms and exposed to any potential health issues from those farms.

               These calves are transported anywhere from a few miles to many hundreds of miles to a central site, where they co-mingle with other calves with the similar size. During the transit period, food and water will not be available. Arrival at a sale barn would allow for feed and water, but it is likely to be different from what they’re accustomed [to].

               Again, sight, sounds, noise levels, lights on all night contribute to a different and stressful environment — sort of like going to a forage camp for the first time. Once calves are sold they, again, will be loaded on a truck and move to a farm or feedlot where they may be given shots, and a whole new diet will be introduced. This is where we hope to be able to intervene nutritionally.


Tom:      So, let’s talk about some of those nutritional challenges that a newly weaned calf might face.


Sam:      I’ve already mentioned the diet changes that the weaned calf may face. So, adaptation to a diet may take a few days. We also know from research done at Texas A&M about twenty years ago that the trace minerals – copper and zinc, which are important components of a strong immune system — decline over the first several months of life. These minerals, as well as selenium, are not very prevalent in milk but are important to the immune system.

Research has also shown us that stress hormones will depress the immune system. So, when you combine all these factors — of a lowered intake of a new and unfamiliar diet, reduced trace minerals needed for the immune system, and a lowered immunity in general, due to those higher stress hormones — a large percentage of calves end up getting sick and need to be treated. Typically, respiratory diseases are the biggest challenge to be addressed.


Tom:      Tell me about a few management tools a beef producer can use to minimize some of these challenges?


Sam:      Some calves are put through a program pre-weaning called “preconditioning,” which has very specific protocols, including vaccinations and getting calves introduced to bunk feeding through a good nutrition program. This type of program is intended to acclimate calves to the bunk and improve overall health.

The preconditioning nutrition program should contain minerals and vitamins that we know support a strong immune system, such as with sources of highly bioavailable copper, zinc and selenium. At weaning, when calves arrive at the receiving farm or feedlot for backgrounding, it’s important to acclimate them as quickly as possible to the new environment. So, providing easy access to water and quality forage is critical, as these are already familiar to the calves.

               It’s generally recommended not to administer shots until calves are fully acclimated, as the stressed immune system cannot benefit from the medicine. A good, palatable diet balanced for protein, energy and electrolytes that may have been depleted during transit, and highly available minerals and vitamins that are essential.

               We know that organic, or chelated, trace minerals are better absorbed than inorganic, such as the sulfates and oxides. So, providing these in the new diet post-weaning will allow the body to replenish these critical nutrients.


Tom:      And what types of nutritional solutions does CRYSTALYX® offer for successful weaning?


Sam:      In the CRYSTALYX line, there are essentially three recommended products. Beeflyx™ was the original block introduced for this purpose and should be used with those calves handled under lower-stress situations. Brigade® has been the go-to product we’ve had for several years for higher-stress calves because it contains Bioplex® organic trace minerals, electrolytes, yeast and a high vitamin E level.

               We’re very excited about the newest stress block, called Battalion®, which was just introduced into our Blueprint® line-up of products, containing total replacement of inorganic trace minerals with organic Bioplex minerals. It also contains chromium and Alltech’s Actigen® to help with gut health. Battalion is recommended for those very highly stressed calves exposed along transport, co-mingling with calves from other farms, weather challenges and other things like that.


Tom:      You’ve touched on a little bit here, but maybe you could elaborate a bit on how these products help with calf health during these stressful times?


Sam:      Sure. First and foremost, these are extremely palatable products, which use molasses to entice calves to readily consume the excellent nutritional package.

              We recommend strategically locating these tubs along fence-lines or wherever the calves will have easy access during the first few hours after arrival. Since cattle have a natural tendency to lick, they will readily take to this molasses-based supplement and the stress components inside.

               The licking action helps the calves to naturally produce bicarb, which in turn helps maintain rumen pH and avoid acidosis. I’ve already alluded to some of the essential components required for a healthy, strong immune system, such as copper, zinc and selenium. Brigade and Battalion both contain Bioplex copper and zinc, along with organic selenium, and have a high vitamin E level, which is a strong antioxidant.

               In Battalion, we add another trace mineral called chromium, which is known to help regulate energy production at a time when energy intake has generally declined. Yeast, in each of these formulas, is another palatable ingredient known to help the rumen microbes digest feeds more efficiently. Because stress and reduced feed intake can severely reduce the microbial population and upset the gut, it’s critical to get the digestive system working properly again.

               Actigen, added only to the Blueprint Battalion, is a concentrated form of Bio-Mos® and improves gut health by encouraging beneficial microbes to populate the gut while also disrupting the colonization of bad bugs. From a recent feedlot trial of nine hundred calves in Alberta, Canada, Actigen-fed calves gained about a half-pound more daily, and the mortality in treatment rates was significantly reduced.

               So, to sum it up, by feeding a nutrient-dense CRYSTALYX stress block, a producer can expect to see morbidity and mortality levels reduced, quicker adaptation of feed and an overall improvement in calves’ weaning time.   


Tom:      Okay. Ridley Nutritionist Sam Strahan. Thanks, Sam.


Sam:      You’re very welcome. I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you.