Most problems associated with the weaning process will arise in the first two to three weeks after splitting cows and calves. While farmers will naturally concentrate on the health and well-being of the weaned calf, do not forget about the cow.

When it comes to post-weaning management, every farm and every year is different. This autumn, heavy grass covers are having a big influence on weaning management on suckler farms.

Many farmers are planning on delaying weaning until sward covers start to run out or until just after housing time.

In contrast, on farms where spring-born calves are sold in special sales in early October, heavy grass covers create challenges for managing freshly dried off cows.

Outlined are some of the issues farmers should consider with post-weaning management, as well as some recommendations for dealing with the challenges presented.

1. Wean thin cows early to help regain body condition

There is merit to delaying weaning if there are heavy grass covers still to be grazed off. But only do so with cows in ideal body condition.

Thin cows, older cows and first-calved heifers will be under nutritional stress and will benefit from weaning now. Equally, cows that are overfat should be weaned last.

Remember, the time to alter body condition score (BCS) in spring-calving suckler cows is in mid-pregnancy. For a February/March-calving herd, this means altering BCS in October and November.

Weaning the thinner cows now gives animals more time to regain body condition before housing for winter.

Once dried off, if grass supplies and ground conditions allow, these animals can return to grass as a single grazing group. Just ensure they are grazed on paddocks out of sight and smell of their calves.

2. Managing dry cows at grass

Where cows are already weaned, farmers are reluctant to keep these animals housed, given the abundance of grass along with good ground conditions.

If rough grazing is not available and farmers are concerned about grazing lush swards with highly maternal cows that have just been weaned, then consider strip grazing to control grass intakes.

By giving a daily grass allocation, there is less chance of cows starting to bag up again and developing mastitis.

An alternative is to use dry cows to clean out paddocks after higher-priority animals.

Just keep a couple of paddocks between low and higher-priority grazing groups, especially if dry cows are sweeping up after weanlings.

If ground conditions allow, stocking dry cows at a high density increases the grazing pressure, which again helps to control grass intakes.

3. What if turnout to grass is not an option post-weaning?

If cows are being weaned next month and turning animals back out to grass is not an option, then it is important to pen cows according to BCS.

Again, thin cows should run as a separate group for priority management. Some first-calved heifers will benefit from inclusion in this group.

These cows should have unrestricted access to good-quality silage to help regain condition. Target BCS 3 for a dry spring-calving cow.

If a cow is in BCS 2, building up to BCS 3 is the equivalent of gaining 50kg to 70kg of liveweight depending on mature cow size. This can take seven to 10 weeks to achieve.

At the opposite end of the scale, overfat cows should be penned separately and either weaned late, or have forage restricted.

4. Keep slats and bedding clean when drying off cows

When cows are housed for drying off, shed hygiene needs to be good. Use a hand scraper at least once or twice per day to make sure slats are kept clean.

This reduces the chance of faeces causing an infection in the cow’s udder. Once cows have been dried off and teat canals are closed, the risk of an infection is much lower.

Clipping the cow’s tail at weaning time also improves udder hygiene, as there is less hair for faeces to stick to.

5. Silage quality

Feeding silage with a dry matter above 30% and reasonable fibre content will keep faeces firm. This will reduce soiled matter sticking to the cow’s legs, tail and underbelly, all of which improves shed hygiene.

6. Keep an eye for cows sucking other cows on slats

One of the biggest scourges for any suckler farmer is cows that suck other cows once housed. This can stop cows from drying off properly, or stop thin cows from regaining condition.

While nose spikes are a good deterrent, they need to be replaced regularly because when spikes have been blunted, cows will start sucking again.

7. Delay handling calves after weaning

Moving to calf management, do not wean calves on the same day they are being housed, as this increases stress levels significantly.

Equally, delay any routine management tasks such as vaccinating or worming calves for at least one week after weaning to allow calves settle again. Handling too soon can be a stress trigger, causing an outbreak of respiratory problems in weanlings.

8. Clipping calves to help regulate body temperature

Once calves have settled after weaning, clipping along the animal’s back, neck and head will remove excess hair. This prevents weanlings from overheating and sweating in sheds, particularly on still days when there is no natural air flow. Clip a strip five to six inches wide on either side of the calf’s spinal cord.

9. Feed fresh meal daily to pick up sick calves

Regardless of silage quality or size of calf, all weanlings should get meal for 10 to 14 days post-weaning. It doesn’t have to be a massive quantity. Feeding 1kg/head on a daily basis is adequate. The point of feeding meal post-weaning is to help monitor calves for early signs of sickness. A calf in the early stages of pneumonia will be slow to come forward and feed.

Check the body temperature of such animals and treat as necessary to prevent respiratory issues becoming a bigger problem.

10. On-off grazing with weanlings

If cattle housing and the yard setup permits, allow calves to creep outside to grass for a few hours every day after weaning.

Calves will make good use of grass in late autumn without causing ground damage. Getting animals out to fresh air will greatly improve animal health. On wet days, calves can remain housed.

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