Feeding Strategies for Early Weaning

20th February 2018

Advice from Northern Tablelands Local Land Services Officer (Beef Cattle) – Jason Siddell

There has been a bit of storm rain about (and let’s hope it continues) but there is, of course, a lag between rainfall and feed growth. Early weaning is a tool that can be used by Northern Tablelands cattle producers to manage feed costs and maintain productivity. Please find below strategies for early weaning:

Older than six weeks (80-140kg, 18-20% Crude Protein 13MJ/ME/kg/DM (Energy))

As with very young calves, it’s likely to be a simpler and more profitable strategy to sell calves older than six weeks straight from their mothers, but if you’re planning to feed them they are a little bit easier to handle than calves under six weeks of age.

Calves older than six weeks require high quality pellets and roughage or a grain and protein meal mix with high quality roughage.

It is advisable to delay marking, branding and dehorning of these calves for a few months.

Older than 12 weeks (³ 140kg-200kg, 14-16% Crude Protein 12MJ/ME/kg/DM (Energy))

These calves are far easier to manage and there are more feed options.  Feed costs are much lower than with very young calves. You could sell these calves straight to market or feed grain and roughage. Fortified molasses diets fed with roughage can provide good results.

It is advisable to either have these animals marked, branded and dehorned a few weeks before weaning or wait a month after weaning to do these jobs. If rings are used opposed to surgical castration I would advise that rings are applied post weaning to reduce the incidence of infections and liveweight loss but prior to six months of age.                                                 

The health of these calves is usually a concern and it is useful to plan how to control parasites and problems like pink eye. Speak to your local vet or seek advice from agencies such as Local Land Services.

Feed Mix suggestions – Calves 2 – 5 months

Mix (100kg):  60kg cracked grain, 18kg protein meal, 19kg roughage (good quality pasture hay or lucerne hay), 1% Sodium Bicarb, 1.5kg Limestone (Calcium) and 0.5kg salt (sodium)

Ideally the roughage source fed should be chopped at muzzle width (30 – 40 mm) which will prevent calves sorting and leaving behind the more fibrous stalks especially if lower quality roughage is being fed in ration.  Be mindful if lower quality roughage is fed, it may be good for rumen development in the case of good quality barley straw, however it is lower in quality with averages around 3% crude protein and 5 MJ/ME/kg DM. A greater proportion of grain/protein meal needs to be fed to offset the effect on it decreasing protein and energy in the ration.

Transport costs aren’t reduced for poorer quality straw, hay and stubbles. If you’re going to transport feed long distances transport quality feed and use the NSW DPI Drought Feed Calculator  (now an app) to calculate cents/MJ/ME/kg/DM and $/kg protein.

Further tips for early weaning:

  • Vaccinate calves with 5 in 1, two doses 4-6 weeks apart, with the first shot given ideally 2-3 weeks prior to weaning, otherwise at the point of weaning commencing.
  • Feed the weaning supplement two or three times while the calf is still on the cow. Rumen microbial populations can require up to 14 days to completely adapt to a new diet.
  • Avoid mobs of greater than 100; mobs of 50 or less are preferred.
  • Feed animals of similar age and weight - don’t mix 100kg calves with 200kg calves.
  • Feeding twice daily is preferred (morning and afternoon). It allows for a more gradual increase in the ration, reducing the incidence of gorging and acidosis.
  • Start calves on rations slowly. Start with 0.5 kg/head/day and build up 0.25 kg every 2–3 days. Remove uneaten pellets or grain ration each day. Calves will reject ‘stale’ pellets.
  • Separate sick animals and shy feeders – it may be best to sell these as they can be an ongoing problem.
  • It is best for the site you choose to have all-weather access and avoid feeding areas that are likely to get boggy after rainfall.
  • Provide shade in the yard or paddock.
  • Allow enough trough space for the calves - 30cm per head is recommended if you are feeding daily.
  • Provide clean water with an adequate flow rate for the number of calves being weaned.  Weaned calves require 10-15L/day with up to 25L/day on hot days.
  • Ensure manure burdens are removed from the weaning yard to minimise the potential for house/stable or buffalo flies which can quickly spread pinkeye. Specific fly treatment products which control flies and lice are available and, if required should be applied immediately prior or on entry to the weaning yard.  Follow label directions for application.

For more advice and information on beef cattle on the Northern Tablelands, contact Jason Siddell, Northern Tablelands Local Land Services Officer (Beef Cattle) on 02 6730 1941, 0459 162 295 or jason.siddell@lls.nsw.gov.au.

Media contact: Annabelle Monie on 02 6720 8317, 0429 626 326 or annabelle.monie@lls.nsw.gov.au

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