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Is It Worth Your Effort And Expense To Consider Different Weaning Strategies?

By Dr. Casey McMurphy - Red Angus World Resources Editor

It’s pretty obvious that abrupt weaning of calves creates distress when you wake up the next day after weaning and there is a calf 3 miles from the corrals. If you have Red Angus cows, it may be the cow that has traveled 3 miles instead of her calf. Even if we can visually see that there is distress we have to understand the impact this has on the calves and then be able to market the mitigation processes that we have to undergo to reduce this stress. At the end of the day, we have to match our production practices with our marketing strategies or market our production practices because it is best for the industry.

Researchers evaluated 3 independent weaning strategies over a 2 year period and the subsequent impact on feedlot health and performance during the first 28 days on feed (Boyles et al., 2007). To accomplish this, they had 3 weaning strategies, 1) Truck weaned, 2) Fenceline weaning for 7 days followed by 30 days in pasture before shipping and 3) Abrupt, drylot weaning for 30 days prior to shipping to the feedyard. These treatments were structured so that all of the calves left the ranch at the same time and entered the feedlot on the same day. The performance results of this study are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Feedlot performance of calves exposed to non-contact truck weaning, non-contact drylot weaning, and contact pasture weaning strategies


Weaning Treatments







No. of Steers





Pre Ship Weight





Arrival Weight





Shrink %





Avg. Daily Gain





Dry Matter Intake





Feed to Gain





Morbidity %





a, b, c Means within a row different superscripts are significantly differnt (P<0.05)


Surprisingly, the calves all weighed the same on the day they were shipped to the feedlot regardless of weaning strategy. Therefore, one might interpret these data to suggest that if I am not retaining ownership in the feedlot then I should wean them on the truck because there is no difference in sale weights of calves at the time of delivery to the feedlot. This again is assuming you would sell the calves at the same age regardless of weaning regimen. However, these data demonstrate that if a producer is retaining ownership then contact-pasture weaning can be beneficial to their bottom line by reducing morbidity in the feedlot by 47%, reducing the cost of treatment and potentially mortality. This is also valuable to a feedlot operator who is looking to purchase your calves, but you have to be able to use this information to negotiate a higher price for your cattle in order to get rewarded for your efforts. This study is a good evaluation of these weaning strategies because it compares weaning on a truck to preconditioned calves that are the same age.

In the end, it is our duty to practice animal welfare strategies, but we have to market these efforts. We can challenge research all we want, but this is a very well conducted paper and can be supported on a more basic level. Hickey et al. (2003) actually compared systemic indicators of stress (i.e. cortisol, catecholamines and others) in calves abruptly weaned to those that were still with their dams to evaluate social distress of abruptly weaned calves. These researchers found that abrupt weaning increased physiological measures of stress hormones and stress has been associated with disease susceptibility. This in tandem with placing cattle in a dusty dry-lot setting could potentially explain the increase in morbidity detected in the study by Boyles et al. (2007).

We all know what is right for the cattle, but we have to make it worth our efforts. May all of your efforts be rewarded.

Download this article

Boyles, S.L., S.C. Loerch, and G.D. Lowe. 2007. Effects of weaning management strategies on performance and health of calves during feedlot receiving. Prof. Anim. Sci. 23:637-641. Download Article

Price. E.O., J.E. Harris, R.E. Borgwardt, M.L. Sween, and J.M. Connor. 2003. Fenceline contact of beef calves with their dams at weaning reduces the negative effects of separation on behavior and growth rate. J. Anim. Sci. 81: 116-121. Download Article

Hickey, M.C., M. Drennan, and B. Earley. 2003. The effect of abrupt weaning of suckler calves on the plasma concentrations of cortisol, catecholamines, leukocytes, acute-phase proteins and in vitro interferon-gamma production. J. Anim. Sci. 81: 2847-2855. Download Article


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