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Weaner Management

Weaning is potentially one of the most stressful and therefore one of the most important procedures in the production cycle of beef cattle. If poorly executed, weight loss, morbidity and mortality can occur. Done effectively, weight gain can be achieved during the weaning process itself (Australian Livestock Production Services unpublished data, March 2017). Weaning calves as early as possible has a range of benefits including the ability to manage body condition score of cows (refer to body Condition Scoring Tech Note for more information) and allocate feed resources to growing stock.

The Economics of Earlier Weaning

It is energetically more efficient to feed high quality forage to a young calf than to a cow to feed the young calf, and this effect is established by the time the calf is two to three months old. Earlier weaning converts more of the available feed energy into saleable beef by increasing the growth rate of young stock, increasing the sustainable number of breeders, allowing more opportunistic trading, or a combination of all these.


Weaning should be planned and prepared for several weeks before it is implemented. Preparation for weaning includes the purchase of vaccines (5-in-1 for clostridial diseases and 7-in-1 for clostridial diseases and leptospirosis; including the initial priming shot in some cases), the provision of high quality pastures or nutrient dense feedstuffs, management of dust or mud in yards and working areas, and the allocation of time and staff for daily handling during the weaning process.

How vaccines affect antibody level

This graph is a schematic representation to demonstrate the principles of vaccination. Actual levels of antibody following vaccination will vary from vaccine to vaccine and animal to animal.

One of the most important elements of preparation for weaning is castration. To minimise the production cost and negative animal welfare aspects of castration it should be done as early as possible after the birth of the bull (Huerta Leidenz and Rios, 1993). Castration should be performed prior to weaning to eliminate it as a stressor.

Calves castrated prior to weaning should have received at least one injection of a clostridial vaccine (5-in-1 or 7-in-1) and can therefore be given a booster at weaning to minimise the risk of losses due to clostridial diseases. The clostridial disease that poses the greatest risk with intensive yard weaning or weaning onto high quality forage is pulpy kidney (enterotoxaemia). Enterotoxaemia can occur under any feeding conditions where a high concentration of readily fermentable carbohydrate is delivered to the intestines through a high rumen outflow rate and can therefore occur on either grain supplements or lush forage. Symptoms include diarrhoea, bellowing, mania or dullness, blindness, convulsions and sudden death of animals otherwise considered to be in good condition.

Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) is a multifactorial disease of intensification 5-6 (Cusack and Mahony, 2016; Cusack et al., 2003) and can therefore occur at weaning. Being a multifactorial disease, the use of vaccines can reduce the incidence of BRD but not eliminate it 1 (Barnes et al.,2014).

Effect of reproductive and other diseases

Weaning stats

It is essential that weaners are weighed at the commencement and completion of weaning to ensure weaning weight targets are met, to match feed nutrient density (and particularly protein density) to the lowest weight calves in the weaning group, and to measure the success of the weaning process in terms of growth rate. Effective weaning therefore requires accurate scales with an NLIS transponder reader, and a data logger interface for performance recording and monitoring.

Calving of cows is matched to the time when feed is most available. Therefore, weaning is typically occurring after the main growth period for pastures, but also the ideal time for internal parasites for that region. Calves are highly susceptible to worms as they are yet to develop immunity, so burdens will typically be at their peak in calves at the time of weaning.27 (Taylor 2016) Whilst the data from controlled studies on the production value of a weaning drench is equivocal, 25 Smeal (1995) concluded that a weaning drench is warranted. Appropriate early weaning in southern Australia will occur in December/January with late winter/spring calving, or in August/September with autumn calving.

Ensure an effective drench is used as weaners are moved onto summer pastures.

Some drenches provide efficacy at the time of treatment (‘knockdown’), however if sustained action is required e.g. if calves remain on contaminated pastures, an injectable macrocyclic lactone (ML) treatment with persistent activity may be given. The aim at weaning should always be to wean calves onto appropriately spelled pastures of low parasite risk.

Pour-on treatments should be reserved for situations where facilities are poor, fly control or biting lice control is needed, or for WHS reasons.

Worm egg count monitoring is of value in determining whether drenching of weaners is necessary and whether the drenches being used are effective. 

Effect of internal parasites on weaners


Weaning Systems

Paddock Weaning

With traditional southern Australian paddock weaning, calves are abruptly separated from their mothers and placed in a paddock with their total nutritional requirements provided by pasture.

Yard Weaning

Calves are abruptly separated from their mothers and held in confinement for a variable period, during which their nutritional requirements are provided as conserved forages, grains and pulses, protein meals, or a combination of these. It is customary to handle the calves on most days of their confinement to train them to respond appropriately to humans, horses, and/or dogs and to familiarise them with the handling facilities.

The duration of yard weaning is usually 5 to 10 days, depending on the initial temperament of the cattle, available conserved feeds, and the quality and quantity of allocated pasture for turn-out. Yard weaning requires at least 2.5 m2 /hd  yard space, at least 3 cm/hd water trough space, and continual access to forages and concentrates. Addition of an ionophore such as Bovatec to concentrates being fed assists with the management of coccidiosis. The target at the completion of yard weaning is to have weaners of a temperament that allows them to be easily handled with a minimum of stress for both the cattle and the handlers, and for them to be gaining weight with well-developed rumens and robust immune systems.

Wean in batches

Where larger numbers of calves are being weaned or where different groups of calves from different paddocks or properties are being weaned centrally in one set of yards, batch weaning may be necessary. Avoid constantly adding calves to a larger group or mixing calves with very different backgrounds.28 (Taylor 1998) Take each batch through the yard weaning process and then turn them out into a paddock.

Group sizes for yard weaning need to be kept to manageable levels – avoid group sizes of >100 head where possible or wean calves in their paddock groups if this is not practical. This may require some investment in infrastructure to allow sufficient pens or weaning needs to be staggered over a period of time so available facilities can cope.  

Avoid mixing or drafting different groups of calves until after yard weaning has been completed. If dividing calves from larger groups into smaller groups for weaning, sort them into weight ranges as cattle of similar weight or larger weaners will bully smaller weaners and potentially reduce access to feed.

Mix different groups in open paddocks after weaning. Extra space between cattle reduces the ability of respiratory pathogens to spread.

Nutritional Management of Weaning

Early weaned calves benefit from high dietary protein concentration, and we should aim for 16 to 18% crude protein with the bulk of the protein provided as true protein.2

The combined requirements of high energy density from fermentable carbohydrate, and high protein density, make the following feeds suitable for yard weaning:

High quality legume hay combined with oats or milled cereal grain
High quality silage combined with cereal grain plus protein meal
High quality silage combined with pulse grains (e.g. lupins)


Daily Schedule Checklist

Day: Approximately 4 weeks before weaning or earlier at calf-marking:

Administered all primary vaccination
  • Clostridial diseases (5-in-1 or 7-in-1) 
  • Bovine respiratory disease (BRD); i.e.MH and/or IBR and/or Pestigard 
  • Pinkeye vaccination may also be considered 
Ensure all calves to be weaned have been castrated

Day: Approximately 7 days before weaning:

Ensure required feeds and supplements, vaccines and drench, are on hand
Place bins, hay/silage feeders in the yard weaning facility
Slash or scrape the weaning yard(s) if any undesirable weeds are present or manure build-up has occurred from prior use
If possible, with summer/autumn weaning, reduce dust by watering yards in the week leading up to weaning

Day 1: Weaning Day:

Administer all booster vaccinations
  • Clostridial booster
  • BRD Booster (if necessary) or single BRD vaccination (if not done earlier)
Drench all weaners with an effective drench
Weigh all animals
Sort calves into weaning pens based on paddock origin and weight

Days 2 to 6 or 2 to 9:

Calves should be handled daily using low stress handling techniques
  • The calves should be taught to respond quietly and calmly to the handler
  • The calves should be walked through the yards and crush daily and then returned to their weaning yards

Final Day:

Move all weaners onto high quality pastures
  • Targeting at least moderate energy density and high protein density (10 MJ ME/kg DM + ideally ≥ 16% CP) such as lucerne or summer/autumn forage plus supplements, or spring pasture for autumn calves

Potential Traps

Inadequate preparation –planning and the allocation of sufficient time and labour will make weaning a stress free process for calves and producers.

Dust – weaning in summer/autumn frequently presents a dust challenge in the yards and this increases the incidence of BRD 18 (MacVean et al., 1986), which weaners are particularly susceptible to. If dust is likely to be a recurring challenge with weaning in a given system, where possible, sprinklers should be installed to eliminate the problem.

Ensure that yards are scraped clean of excess manure prior to weaning.

Flies - Once yard weaning has been completed, scrape the yards clean to remove built up manure and hay as this may create an ideal breeding ground for nuisance flies following rain.

Mixing – weaning in batches in smaller groups and mixing in turnout paddocks reduces stress on cattle at weaning and subsequent risk of BRD.

Clostridial diseases, chiefly pulpy kidney (enterotoxaemia), can cause losses where weaners are placed on nutrient dense feeds, either grains or lush pastures, and up to date vaccination with 5-in-1 or 7-in-1 is essential to prevent this avoidable loss.


Weaning Management has been written by Paul Cusack BSc. BVSc. MVSt. MACVSc. M.Agribus.PhD.

For further information please also refer to the following ReproActive Tech Notes on Weaner Management, Body Condition Scoring, Critical Mating Weights and Joining Periods.



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Further Reading

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