If raised relatively naturally, in a pasture setting, calves born in the spring wean in the autumn. At that point, their mothers are usually well into their next nine-month pregnancy. That system of weaning isn't practical for all farms and ranches, especially larger commercial enterprises that require earlier weaning for economic reasons. When to wean cattle depends on the type of animal, along with variables such as grass availability and market factors.
Cattle are ruminants or cud-chewers. That means their stomachs consist of several compartments, including the rumen. This section ferments their food, which the cattle regurgitate and chew. While there's no beneficial bacteria for fermentation in the rumen at birth, bacteria starts entering the rumen on the first day. By offering small quantities of good quality calf starter at the age of 1 week, you can jump-start rumen function. The calf always must have access to fresh, clean water for proper rumen development. A calf can't be weaned, technically meaning eating only solid foods, until the rumen reaches a certain stage. If you're bottle-feeding an orphan calf, the earliest you could wean the animal is approximately 4 weeks of age. That's when the rumen should be working sufficiently to ferment the forage and feed consumed by the calf.
Most dairy calves are separated from their mothers shortly after birth and raised on calf milk replacer or whole, often waste, milk. While weaning dairy calves doesn't involve actual separation from their mothers, that doesn't mean weaning isn't a stressful time. If you have a small farm and practice once-a-day milking -- meaning that you milk the cow once daily while leaving the calf with the mother to suckle so that traditional twice-daily milking isn't necessary -- follow the weaning procedures for beef calves since the calves are with their mothers.
Dairy Calf Weaning
North Carolina State University recommends you feed a dairy calf milk or commercial milk replacer for one to two months, until the calf eats at least 2 pounds of a good quality calf starter concentrate feed for three consecutive days. NCSU recommends early weaning at 6 weeks of age, as long as the calf consumes the proper amount of calf feed. This starter feed should contain 18 to 22 percent crude protein and consist of 80 percent total digestible nutrients. Look for a starter feed that includes medication to control the coccidia protozoa, which causes coccidiosis.
Most beef calves nurse from their mothers until weaning. When you separate and wean one depends on various factors, including forage availability and the cow's condition. If milk production is severely stressing the mother, earlier weaning is in order. However, the Oregon State University Extension Service advises that while nursing calves can be weaned between the ages of 3 and 8 months of age, older is better. By the latter age, most calves basically have self-weaned and consume little or no milk from mama. Older calves experience less stress, although you should expect some excess noise-making for a few days.
- Oregon State University Extension Service: Weaning Beef Calves
- Louisiana State University Agricultural Center: When Can Calves be Weaned?
- Beef: The Weaning Two-Step
- New Mexico State University: Minimizing Weaning Stress on Calves
- North Carolina State University: Feeding Dairy Heifers from Birth to Weaning
- Calf Notes: Calf Note #05 – Rumen Bacteria in Calves
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