Reducing stress in early weaning and receiving calves

Aug 12, 2019

Whether you’re dealing with forage shortages, thin cows or if it’s part of your marketing strategy – you might be considering early weaning this year. Sam Strahan discusses some management tools for decreasing the stress load in these calves at such a critical time.


Tom:      We’re talking today with Sam Strahan, a nutritionist with CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplements, about early weaning and receiving calves and some of the associated nutritional challenges.

               First off, Sam, could you tell us what’s meant by early weaning?

Sam:      Sure, I’d be glad to. A typical weaning time for beef calves is around seven months of age. In the beef industry, 205-day weaning weights are often used as a standard for comparison between animals of similar breed and gender. Early weaning, then, would be defined as calves removed from the cow earlier than this; typically, in the three to five months of age range.

Tom:      And why would a producer choose to early-wean calves?

Sam:      There are several reasons that could lead toward a producer making this decision, but most often a shortage of forage will likely be the driving factor. When we think of calves over four months old, a large portion of their diet is now forage because milk production of the mama cow has already peaked and her milk production is now in decline.

RELATED ARTICLE: Don't miss a lick: The benefits of saliva production during weaning

                However, as long as she is producing milk, her nutritional requirements are higher than when she is not nursing, so as soon as the calf is weaned, her requirements are lowered. If forage is limited — let’s say due to dry weather during the summer — early weaning can allow a producer to lower the demand for pasture by weaning and selling calves, thereby saving the forage for the breeding herd.

                A lower number of animals, plus lower requirements of the cows, could decrease the amount of forage required. Fortunately, in the summer of 2019, we’re seeing fewer areas of drought across the U.S., so there is less talk of using early weaning as a forage-saving strategy in this regard.

                Another scenario for early weaning could be as part of the marketing strategy used by the producer. Typically, a lighter weight calf will bring more dollars per pound, so if the farm manager determines he can make more profits selling more calves annually at a higher price per pound, early weaning might be used as a marketing strategy.

                A more desperate reason for early weaning might be used if a producer has some thin cows with nursing calves and breeding season is rapidly approaching. Early weaning at a few weeks of age would reduce the energy drain on the cow while she is producing maximum milk, allowing her energy intake to go towards improving body condition for better breeding success. This is a risky strategy as young calves are more vulnerable to getting sick, and thin cows may not have adequate time to build body condition to effectively improve conception rate.

Tom:      Are there any special challenges created by early weaning?

Sam:      We do always need to keep in mind that the digestive system of a young calf is still developing through the first several months of life, adapting from being a non-ruminant at birth that cannot digest fibrous materials, to one that relies on grass and hay as a mainstay of the diet by about six to seven months of age.

                By removing the calf from the high energy and protein provided by milk, this involves changing the diet pretty significantly to ensure continued growth and development — perhaps introducing grain to the diet for the first time — which requires further adaptation by the digestive system.

Whenever we change the environment of a young animal, there’s a higher level of stress associated having to adjust to a different diet, leaving mama behind, maybe changing to a new location. All of these things can have a negative health impact on a certain percentage of calves.

                Certainly, it is important to consider ways to minimize these various stressors to reduce health impact. As anyone who has taken a child to preschool or kindergarten for the first time may have discovered, sickness often accompanies radical environmental changes. This occurs mainly due to a depression of the immune system caused by stress hormones as calves or children are exposed to many new bacteria or viruses, a different diet, different schedule and unfamiliar surroundings.

Tom:      So, what are some management tools for reducing these stressors?        

Sam:      A good management approach would be to introduce some of these changes prior to weaning, allowing calves time to adapt. The term generally used for this approach is preconditioning. For instance, by feeding the calves similarly pre-weaning as will be fed post-weaning (such as introducing grain), a manager can reduce the impact of dietary changes.

                Secondly, if calves are to be vaccinated, do so in advance of weaning to reduce the negative impact of running them through a shoot and all the associated stress that that can bring. Fence line weaning has been successfully used and recommended for years and entails weaning calves in a field adjacent to the mama cow so that calves are still able to see and be close to their mothers.

                Many of these groups of calves will be sold and moved to another farm. The preconditioned calf generally fairs much better from a health standpoint than one not exposed to these protocols, but still undergoes significant stress when transported. They may be commingled with calves from other farms, could be deprived of water for a period of time, and put on a new diet.

                Calves being received at a new location require special handling, especially those younger early-weaned animals. So, starting calves on a diet that’s similar to what they were fed prior, such as with a high-quality grass hay, clean water and minimal grain in the first few days is recommended. It is best to offer readily digestible feed sources, including nutrients that can help stimulate a compromised immune system and include electrolytes that may have been significantly lowered during the selling and receiving process.

Tom:      Okay, you mentioned taking steps to stimulate the immune system through the diet. Can you explain further how to do this?

Sam:      Sure. Past research in this area has shown how important trace minerals are for supporting and boosting immune system response. The trace minerals of greatest importance are zinc, copper and selenium, along with Vitamins A and E. Alltech® research in calves and other species has also proven these trace minerals when fed in the organic or chelated form — branded as Bioplex® trace minerals — contribute to helping your animals with lower levels of mortality and morbidity.

                We offer some stress blocks at CRYSTALYX — one called Brigade® and the other Blueprint® Battalion® — which contain these organic trace mineral forms, along with high vitamin levels to enhance the immune system response in stressed calves. The organic form is proven to be better absorbed by the animal than inorganic form, such as sulfates and oxides, and more closely mimics the form found naturally in plants.

Tom:      That sounds fascinating. Can you tell us more about the CRYSTALYX stress blocks?

Sam:      Yes. These have been instrumental over many years in demonstrating how effective self-fed supplements can be. The original stress block, called Beef-lyx®, is still used today but it has mostly been replaced by the next generation product called CRYSTALYX Brigade.

                Brigade offers an enhanced nutritional package including the Bioplex organic trace minerals I mentioned earlier and organic selenium, plus higher Vitamin E and Vitamin B12. Since low intake of the diet is always a concern with stress animals as they are received, molasses, yeast, and the Vitamin B12 are all components which encourage intake of these nutritionally-dense products.

                Given that cattle naturally like to lick, when these blocks are strategically placed along a fence line where calves will first travel in a new location, the highly palatable CRYSTALYX blocks become an immediate source of beneficial nutrients. The licking action has two additional benefits: it enhances natural bicarb production in the animal to buffer the rumen pH and reduce acidosis, plus it encourages water intake at a time when calves might be dehydrated to some extent.

                Since dehydrated calves also tend to be short of essential electrolytes, potassium, sodium and chloride, CRYSTALYX stress blocks include all three of these minerals to help return these to normal levels.

                Our newest CRYSTALYX stress block is called Blueprint Battalion. It differs from Brigade in three important aspects, with a 100% of the trace minerals – copper, zinc, manganese, and cobalt in the Bioplex organic form again, similar to the form naturally found in plants.

                We also have added another important trace mineral — chromium — proven to enhance diet digestibility and improve energy conversion at a time when adequate energy is lacking. Finally, an ingredient called Actigen®, a concentrated form of Bio-Mos®, is added for improved gut health, helping to reduce the negative impact of pathogenic bacteria.

                In a recent feedlot trial with 900 calves in Alberta, Canada, Actigen-fed calves gained about a half pound more daily and mortality in the treatment group was also significantly reduced.

Tom:      It sounds like CRYSTALYX can be an important part of an early weaning or receiving program for calves.

Sam:      Yes, we really believe our Brigade and Battalion stress blocks can help a cattle producer in a well-planned management scheme overcome some of those nutritional challenges he or she might face with young calves.

                A CRYSTALYX block offers several benefits to producers, such as convenience, reliable intake and an exceptional nutrition package that is palatable and encourages the calf to indulge in its natural instinct for licking. Testimonials from across the country and on our CRYSTALYX website proved these blocks perform at a high level and are worth far more than they cost.

Tom:      Sam Strahan, nutritionist with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements.

                Thanks, Sam.

Sam:      Thank you, Tom. I appreciate talking with you this morning.

Tom:      You bet.


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