A Smooth, Healthy Transition to Feedlots?

Have you heard the latest? There is a new procedure out there that significantly drops the pull rate for new calves in the feedlot, and also drops the death rate. Consider what a feedlot would think of your calves and pay for them if you can offer pull rates less than 3% and calves that step up to the bunk and start eating.

Applying this "new procedure" involves you planning to wean the calves at least 1 month prior to sale, similar to the requirements for pre-conditioning back in the Red Meat Program of the 1980's.

Work in the Ontario calf market by Dr. Ken Bateman and team, from the University of Guelph in 1999, looked at treatment rates for vaccinated, vaccinated pre-weaned, and regular calves in the Ontario marketplace, as shown in the table below. If results like this came in a needle we would consider it the new wonder treatment.

Table 1: University of Guelph Study 1999 Ontario Calf Sales

Calf Management Prior to Sale
# calves
% treated

Those results are nice but weaning is "hard-impossible-not doable on my farm", is the first thing calf producers come out with when weaning is suggested. Or the other famous quote is "feedlot guys tell me that you ruin the calf by weaning it". And that would be correct if you yank the calf off the cow and shove him in a dark, dank airless barn with very little bedding and over feed grain.

However, fenceline weaning (Fig. 1) and 2-step weaning (Fig. 2) are two newer methods that can turn out heavier, healthier, bunk broke calves. This also creates calves that shrink less if you are transporting them any distance to market and the feedlot. These methods of weaning don't require a new set of buildings, but perhaps a new way of thinking and a little forward planning. Good pastures and or a well balanced creep feed will help the calves gain to their best potential without ruining the rumen or getting them fat, and allows you to prepare them for the feedlot.

Photo of cows and calves at fenceline
Figure 1. Fenceline weaning

Photo of calves with nose flaps
Figure 2. Calf nose flaps offer another means of reducing weaning stress

Calves get sick when the immune system isn't working the way it should. The immune system quits when it gets completely overwhelmed or the nutrition isn't there to support its functioning. When the calf gets over stressed by too many changes at once it quits eating just when it's immune system needs more groceries to put up a defence against all the new challenges being thrown at it. This sets up a vicious circle both for the calf and for our industry.

These types of weaning allow you to control the amount of stress the calf deals with at any one time. The result is calves that move through weaning and marketing with less pulls, sickness and drug costs. With both methods of weaning we change the diet first, then we change the social structure then we change the environment.

For fenceline weaning you need a good pasture and a good hot wire or page or rail fence. Ideally, you will put the whole herd in for a day to get the calves used to the pasture, then move the cows out to the pasture beside the calves. Both groups will camp up or stand across the fence from each other for the first 2 or so days. However, the calves will go out and graze and then come back to the fence. The cows will do the same and there will be some bawling. Over the course of the week the calves will show less interest in the cows and can then be moved on in a grazing rotation, with or without other feeds depending on the quality of your pasture.

The 2-step or nose tag weaning starts with running the calves through the chute and installing the light plastic nose tag that prevents the calf sucking. Then the calves go back out with the cows for 4-7 days. The calf can't nurse but can graze or eat feed with the cow. His diet changes over this time but he still has Mom close for comfort. After a few days calves will stop trying to suck. Then the calves are removed from the cows to a new pasture or feedlot and the nose tag is removed.

In both cases if the calves have a chance to eat wrapped haylage with their mothers they will transition to silage in the feedlot easily. As the calves still won't gain as well during weaning, the cow calf producer needs to plan on weaning at least a month prior to marketing and feed well to allow the calf to make those extra gains. Also, if calves are going to show sickness it often happens about 10 days after weaning. Ask any feedlot operator what those pretty baby bloom fresh weaned calves look like 10 days later in his feedlot. This is often when we hear the word "wreck" applied. On the home farm you probably won't see the same affect as calves don't face all the challenges at once. As one producer who has tried the nose tags 2 years running said "We used the flaps on all our calves this year with great results. Picked the WORST WEEK EVER to wean ...crappy weather RAIN up and down temps ,,,,had BIG bottles of drugs on hand only treated a few..1% of the bunch!"

Photo of calves in feedlot
Figure 3. Preweaned and vaccinated calves make a smooth transition into the feedlot

Now is the time to start planning on how to market calves for the most money and performance. Consider fence line or 2 step weaning to give your calves that extra weight and health, for a smooth transition to feeding.

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