Weaning is one of the most stressful times during the calf’s life. Several factors contribute to the amount of stress endured by the calf – separation from the dam, new surroundings, new feed, and human handling. The stress negatively impacts the immune function of the calf at a time when it is needed the most. Additionally, stress reduces feed intake and the nutrients needed to mount an immune response. A weaning strategy to minimize stress is critical for the success of a preconditioning or backgrounding program, and a key part of that is transitioning the calf to new feed. 

In addition to a correctly formulated weaning diet, encouraging feed intake is a very important aspect. Palatable feedstuffs such as dried distillers grains, molasses, and cottonseed hulls can increase feed intake in young calves. These feedstuffs have good texture and smell that encourages feed intake. Also, using familiar feedstuffs can encourage calves to eat such as good quality grass hay rather than silages in the diet. Corn and grass silages have a different smell and taste that requires acclimating calves and should be avoided unless calves have exposure to these feedstuffs prior to weaning. 

One way to familiarize cattle with the weaning diet is to provide the concentrate portion of the diet as a creep feed 3-4 weeks prior to weaning. This allows the calves time to get familiar with the feed while other feedstuffs and milk are still available to provide necessary nutrients. Additionally, creep feeding allows the rumen bacteria time to acclimate to the weaning diet prior to weaning. By providing creep feed prior to weaning the transition to the weaning diet will be smoother. 

Feed intake can be hampered by poor water quality and inadequate access. One of the first signs of inadequate water availability is decreased feed intake. Water access is critical during the stressful time of weaning and should be made easy for calves to find and consume all the water necessary. Calves on pasture may have been drinking from streams or stock ponds and do not know how to drink from a fountain/waterer, especially a ball fountain. Water should be provided in open tanks in the fenceline where calves will find it while walking the fence. If calves are weaned in a large trap it may be helpful to let the water run over the tank so that calves are attracted to the sound of running water. 

Weaning in a drylot facility has convenience with being able to build tight fences and check calves daily, but weaning in a grass trap has several benefits for the calf. Calves weaned in a grass trap can spread out reducing the exposure to pathogens resulting in less morbidity than when weaned in a drylot. Additionally, calves know how to graze and even though there may only be enough forage for a few days, the grass is a familiar feedstuff for calves until they acclimate to the weaning diet. 

A properly formulated weaning diet is critical to providing the nutrients necessary for adequate immune function and growth. It is good practice to consult with your veterinarian or extension specialist on the weaning diet you plan to use. They can provide an assessment of whether the diet provides the necessary nutrients. Example diets are shown in Table 1 formulated to provide a rate of gain of 1.5 to 2.0 pounds per day for 500-lb calf.  

Table 1. Diets for growing calves to gain 2 lb/day 
Feedstuff Diet 1 Diet 2 Diet 3 
Cracked corn 51.0 30.5 22.0 
Soybean hulls 19.0 – 25.0 
Dried distillers grains – 53.0 – 
Wheat midds – – 25.0 
Cottonseed hulls 14.0 20.0 15.0 
Soybean meal 11.0 – 7.5 
Molasses 4.2 4.5 4.5 
Limestone 0.6 1.2 1.0 
Dicalcium phosphate 0.6 – – 
Vitamin/mineral mix Recommended rate Recommended rate Recommended rate 
Ionophore Recommended rate Recommended rate Recommended rate 
Chopped hay could be substituted for cottonseed hulls if delivering feed as totally mixed ration (TMR) or cottonseed hulls could be removed if free choice hay is provided to calves