All the steps taken prior to weaning have been focused on ensuring calves remain healthy and continue to thrive when weaned from their mothers. Achieving this goal is critical on farms that intend to sell calves at between eight and 10 months of age.

A pneumonia outbreak immediately after weaning has the potential to dramatically reduce the sale value of calves on these farms, and therefore reduce herd output.

Over the past two weeks, we have detailed the steps you can take in advance of weaning to reduce the risk of health problems:

1) Administer a mid-summer worm dose.

2) Administer primary shot of clostridial vaccine followed by booster shot four weeks later.

3) Allow calves to creep graze ahead of cows.

4) If implementing a vaccination programme, then administer primary shot of respiratory vaccine plus IBR vaccine. Administer booster shot four weeks later. Vaccination programme should be complete two weeks in advance of weaning.

5) Introduce meals.

6) Administer worm dose 2-3 weeks in advance of weaning.

7) Build up a supply of good quality grass to carry calves from weaning through until sale or housing.

8) Move cows and calves into good quality grass and commence weaning on a graduated basis.

9) Minimise stress by only weaning on a dry fine day.

10) Keep weaned calves on good quality grass and continue to feed meals through until sale.

Implementing a dosing regime that ensures calves’ lungs are in a healthy condition prior to weaning is an essential part of any pre-weaning strategy, along with meal feeding and implementing a graduated weaning procedure where cows are removed from the group over a period of time.

If implementing a vaccination programme, the final booster shot should be administered two weeks prior to weaning in order to ensure maximum immunity is achieved.

Management: Getting it right

While each of the steps outlined above will help reduce the risk of running into health issues, there is no substitute for good management post-weaning. It is essential that the following simple management practices are adopted to ensure all your hard work pre-weaning was not done in vain.

  • Wean on a dry fine day:
  • During periods of wet and cold weather, both cows and calves are under stress. Grass intakes are low and the risk of calves getting a chill is high. Therefore weaning during periods of unsettled or muggy weather should be avoided. Where possible try to wean calves when the weather is still fine and ground conditions are good.

    There is no advantage in allowing early spring-born calves to suckle cows until October. Therefore, make the most of any good weather in September to start weaning.

  • Keep good grass underfoot:
  • Provided that you have taken the necessary steps to build an adequate supply of good quality grass, there is no reason why calves that have been properly conditioned prior to weaning will not achieve in excess of 1kg of liveweight gain per day for the 14-20 day interval between weaning and selling.

    In most cases where calves have not been conditioned properly and grass supplies are tight post-weaning, selling weight can actually be less than weaning weight, even where no major health problems have been encountered.

    Ensuring you have an adequate supply of good-quality grass post-weaning will also help reduce stress levels.

    Moving calves from a mainly grass-based diet to round bale silage, for example, will add stress due to the change in diet.

    Where possible, the diet of the calf post-weaning should remain constant for at least two to three weeks after weaning. Any necessary changes should be introduced gradually. This advice extends to the type of ration being fed. This should be kept constant during the entire weaning process. Any variation in meal feeding levels should be carried out gradually.

    Check regularly

    Regular checking of calves post weaning is vital to winning the weaning challenge. For the two weeks after weaning, calves should be monitored at least three times per day. Feeding meals is a good way of determining the health status of calves. Watch out for any calves slow to come to the trough or lying away from the main group. Where calves are being fed meals adlib, then you need to spend time going through stock making sure there are no health problems. Key signs to look for are calves that:

  • look empty and are collapsed in around the stomach;
  • have their eyes sunk back in their head;
  • are breathing heavily;
  • have their neck extended out in front of them and have their heads down;
  • are drooling around the mouth.
  • Early detection and treatment of respiratory conditions is critical to ensuring animals make a full and speedy recovery. Adopting a policy of delaying action and hoping for a miracle cure is playing with fire. Vets often comment on how some farmers have noticed calves sick yet have failed to take action until the following day.

    Calves should be kept close to the yard or near handling facilities so that, if necessary, they can be handled in a stress free manner. Trying to remove one sick calf from the group can often result in placing it under severe stress.

    Therefore, it is often better to bring the entire group of calves to the yard and then remove the sick animal.

    When in the yard you should carry out a quick health check.

    This will help you determine whether or not a calf is showing the early signs of a respiratory problem. If a calf fails this health check, then you should consult with your vet as to the best course of treatment.

    Checklist for a healthy calf

  • Rectal temperature of between 38.5-39.5°C
  • Pulse ranging between 72-92 and is strong and regular
  • Breathing is calm and regular
  • Respiratory rate 20-40 breaths per minute
  • Raised skin fold immediately levels out after 1-2 seconds
  • Top tips: Keeping your weanling healthy after purchase

    It is important that the necessary steps are taken to ensure weanlings remain healthy after purchase.

  • 1) Inspect stock before they enter the ring
  • It is important not to simply head straight for the sale ring when you arrive at the mart. At best you will only get 30-60 seconds to look at the calf. Often you can miss some of the telltale signs that indicate trouble. You should go down to the yard and look at the selection of stock on offer. Pick out the weanlings that best suit the system you are operating and record their lot numbers. Avoid selecting weanlings that are showing signs of not having been weaned properly. You should continue to feed 1kg of meal for at least two weeks after purchase. Not only will the meal help them to settle, but it is also an ideal way if identifying sick animals.

    Where grass supplies are running tight, you should increase meal feeding levels to 2kg per day until housing.

  • 2) Check stock regularly
  • Early intervention is the key to treating sick weanlings. It is essential that you check stock at least three times per day for the first weeks after purchase and twice daily thereafter. Always check weanlings first thing in the morning as cold wet nights can trigger a pneumonia outbreak.

    When you suspect an animal is sick, the first thing to do is complete the health check outlined above.

  • 3) Dosing programme
  • If you are unsure of the dosing history of a weanling and suspect it to have a heavy worm burden, do not move in with an Avermectin-based drench right away. Treating an animal with a heavy worm burden using an Avermectin-based wormer can actually cause a pneumonia outbreak. Wait for at least three to four days after purchase and then treat with either a white drench or a Levamisole-based product. These products have a reduced worm kill and are not as severe on the animal. As they provide no residual cover, you should administer a second Avermectin-based dose within seven to 10 days.

    Where you do not suspect a worm problem, dosing should be left until three weeks prior to housing. You should then treat animals with an Avermectin-based product that will provide protection for four to six weeks depending on the product. This will ensure that calves’ lungs are in a healthy condition prior to being housed.

  • 4) Do not castrate after purchase
  • You should avoid castrating bull weanlings for at least two weeks after purchase. The added stress can lead to health problems. Remember under EU regulations calves over six months of age must be castrated by a veterinary surgeon.

    Key points from week three

  • Carry out a health check on any weanlings you suspect to be showing early signs of suffering from a respiratory condition.
  • Treat sick calves immediately.
  • Only wean calves when the weather is dry and fine.
  • Avoid sudden changes to the diet immediately postweaning. Where possible try and keep calves on the same diet post weaning as fed pre-weaning.
  • Missed week one and two of our healthy weaning series? Read them back here:

    Week one: Getting your calves healthy before weaning - herd health programme

    Week two: Getting your calves healthy before weaning - creep feeding