Triple Creek Journal: Weaning on pasture.

We have weaned our calves since I was a little kid and we started improving our cows.  In our area of southern Virginia, tobacco has dominated farm activity, so most of the calves from our neighbors have been weaned on the trailer on the way to the stockyard.  Many of the problems with animal health in the beef industry result from that.  This problem is compounded when the calves have been grazing on toxic tall fescue.  Implementing a good weaning program is one of the best ways to improve productivity of calves, especially in the tall fescue belt.

Weaning 84 pairs on pasture at Triple Creek Ranch, July 2021

Our goal for weaning at Triple Creek is to give calves a chance to get used to life away from their mothers, and get them started on non-toxic feed.  We still have about ½ the farm in toxic KY-31 tall fescue, so most of these calves carry a load of toxin in their bodies.  We learned early on that keeping these newly weaned calves on KY-31 would result in very poor gains.  So, starting on weaning day they are introduced to very high quality non-toxic hay (ryegrass or novel endophyte tall fescue) and some dry concentrate feed.  After the calves are over their moms, they will graze annual forages, either sudangrass or crabgrass, or a complex mix (Ray’s Crazy Mix) for the rest of the summer.

We have always used Abrupt Pen Weaning as our management approach.  Our system and our pen gradually evolved with occasional “breakouts” that most folks that have weaned calves will understand.  We participated in a cost-share program in 2004 that helped us build a really nice weaning pen with a good heavy use surface.  Having the good pen really helped….although we still had one epic breakout (“the Mother’s Day Breakout of 2009”) when 110 calves broke out and left the farm.  Despite that one time, we learned how to make pen weaning work well for us, although I always found it a stressful and noisy experience.

Recently, there is increasing interest in different weaning systems including using “nose clips” that prevent suckling for a week before weaning, the use of “Pasture Weaning” where calves are kept on pasture across a fence from their mothers during weaning, and “Late Weaning” where the calves are weaned 60 days later than the usual 7 month age.  We have done research on each of these systems, and there appears to be little difference between the systems in terms of calf performance, and subsequent performance in the feedlot.  However, many aspects of each system are quite different.

Using the nose clips greatly reduces bawling in the weaning pen.  These cattle are remarkably silent as they got over losing their access to milk before being removed from their moms.  However, they also had slightly reduced gains during the period right after weaning and also showed some sores in their noses from the clips. 

Pasture weaning works better than many producers would perceive, especially those that like the security of confinement in a pen.  However, both the cows and calves remain calm during pasture weaning, especially if the grass in their pastures is really high quality.  They lay across the fence from each other, but if they are well trained to electric fence they stay where they are supposed to be.

In our studies, delaying weaning didn’t reduce bawling or change other behaviors at weaning, but performance of the calves during the 60 days they were still on the cow was better than the calves that had been weaned and were eating feed and hay.  Reduction in the total amount of feed would be a great benefit as long as cows remain in good body condition.

This year we decided to do Pasture Weaning at Triple Creek.  Our weaning pen is still in good shape, but last year there were several times when Barry (my helper) and I nearly got hurt loading out all those calves to haul to the weaning pen.  We adopted late weaning several years ago, so the calves are  now weaned in mid-July when they are 7 to 9 months old. 

Our plan was to separate the 85 pairs as we normally would, but then wean them on good quality crabgrass behind a 4 strand temporary electric fence near the working pen.  We put up a pretty stout temporary fence and then made sure we had a lot of power (4500 volts) with a good strong spark when you grounded it out.

The pasture was Quick n Big crabgrass that had been growing 3 weeks and that was about 6 to 10 inches tall.  As soon as we put the calves out on their side and then put the cows on the other side, they all went to grazing and didn’t even realize they had been separated.  By the end of the day they did realize it, but behaved well, keeping about a foot distance from the fence.  We had no breakouts and by day 4 the cows were ready to go to the next pasture and leave the calves behind.  The calves had access to good hay in addition to the crabgrass, which worked out to last them a week.

Today, 3 weeks after weaning day, the calves are doing very well and grazing sorghum-sudan.  Not having to deal with the messy pen, having the calves in a better location on the farm (with easier access to annuals), and a reduction in the stress on me and Barry were the biggest benefits.  These calves still show some signs of fescue toxicosis, but their hair coats are improving and they are not suffering from the heat as much as they did in May and June. 

Weaning on non-toxic forages is the best way to prepare calves from the fescue belt for their future in the beef industry whether that is to become cows or feedlot steers or heifers.  However you wean, finding a system that reduces stress on the calves and on you Results of some of the recent research on weaning can be found here.

~ Matt Poore, NCSU


The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org

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