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 months old.
- 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 months.
- 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 whether to
– 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
- Keep the calves in a kraal or well-fenced camp and remove
the cows to a distant camp, preferably out of earshot
of the calves.
- 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 calm them.
- 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
Tel. (018) 299 6504
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