Beef cattle: weaning of calves
It is important to
decide when and by what means to wean beef calves, because it influences the
weaning mass of calves as well as the condition of the cows, and indirectly
their conception rates.
- The major priority in beef production is to
produce as many calves as possible. The main objective of weaning is
therefore to enable a cow to calve every year by allowing her to regain
condition after weaning.
- Calves are ideally weaned when they are 7 to 8
- The right time to wean a calf depends on the
condition of the cow and not the age of the calf.
- Calves should be weaned before the condition
score of the cow falls below 2,5 if adequate winter feed is available and
the cows maintain their condition. The calves should preferably be weaned
before the cow's condition score falls below 3,0.
- During years of drought and poor feed supply, calves
should be weaned early (about 6 months), to allow the cow to recover
before the onset of winter.
- It is important that the cow should recover and
that the secretory tissue be restored before the next calf is born.
- In the eastern parts of the country calves born
during spring can be weaned early in May at the age of about 7 to 8
- In the more western parts of the country calves
can be weaned late in May or early June at the age of about 7 to 8 months
as the breeding season tends to be later in these areas.
- This practice should only be considered during
times of severe drought or feed shortages.
- Calves weaned at a relatively young age (less
than 5 months) experience severe setbacks.
- If the condition of the cow deteriorates
considerably before the planned weaning time, the producer must decide
– wean early and supply concentrate feeding to the calf
– provide a roughage supplement to the cows that are still
suckling their calves.
- This decision will depend on the availability
and cost of feed. Generally, the feed (mainly concentrates) costs to rear
early-weaned calves are relatively high. Therefore, feeding concentrates
to calves should only be considered during adverse conditions.
Methods of weaning
Circumstances on the farm
determine the method of weaning. The following methods can be used:
- Keep the calves in a kraal or well-fenced camp
and remove the cows to a distant camp, preferably out of earshot of the
- Remove the cows temporarily from a camp and in
their absence move the calves to another distant camp. Cows tend to look
for their calves in the camp in which they were last seen and this method
should prevent the cows from breaking out of the camp.
- Exchange calves from two different herds. The
calves will then have the company of cows. Some cross-suckling is,
however, likely to occur.
- Separate the cows and calves by a strong,
close-strand wire fence. This method can reduce weaning stress.
- Nose plates, commercially available or
home-made, can be fitted to calves for 7 to 14 days. These prevent
suckling, even if cows and calves remain together throughout the weaning
period. When the nose plates are removed the cows and calves are
separated, but with relatively little stress.
- Perform castration, dehorning and branding when
calves are 2 to 3 months old, not immediately before weaning. This will
ensure that the stress associated with these operations does not add to
that of weaning.
- A few dry cows can be kept with the weaners to
- Provide sufficient good-quality roughage, water
and shade in the weaning camps. To prevent excessive walking and trampling
the camps should not be too large.
- The weaning process could last 7 to 14 days,
depending on the age at which the calves are weaned as well as the breed
of the cow.
For further information contact
Directorate Technical Support Services, Potchefstroom
This publication is also
available on the website of the National Department of Agriculture at:
Compiled by Directorate
Communication, National Department of Agriculture
in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture North West Province
Printed and published by
the National Department of Agriculture
and obtainable from Resource Centre, Directorate Communication
Private Bag X144, Pretoria, 0001 South Africa