Weaning and drying off the cow

3rd August 2018

Weaning and drying off the cow

With the rains after coming back, we can get back to the job of growing grass and hopefully top up winter fodder reserves for the coming year.

As we are now in August, we start to turn our attention to autumn chores. This week we are going to look at weaning the calf and cow.

To wean ideally, a calf should be weaned at 200 days (6.5 months) of age, but this can be done earlier if managed correctly, in countries such as Australia its common practice to wean at 12 weeks or 100kg live weight.

Once the calf is 200 days, only 25% of its nutrient requirement comes from milk. Feeding the calf directly is more efficient (calves have a feed conversion (x3) better than the cow) than putting feed through the cow to produce decreasing amounts of milk at the risk of her losing body condition. This way the calves can be allocated the best grazing and supplemented with high quality concentrate and the cow if need be can be supplemented with cheaper feed e.g. hay.

Concentrates contain starch which is much easier to digest than cellulose and so will help alleviate heat stress somewhat and enhance rumen development. Ideally, calves should be eating concentrates for at least 21 days before weaning to ensure as smooth and stress-free a transition as possible.

In preparation of weaning, ensure all calves are, free of parasites, particularly lung worms, do not worm/vaccinate at weaning as calves will have elevated stress levels and the immune response will be low, wait more than 2 weeks post-weaning. Calves with damaged lungs are more susceptible to viral pneumonia at weaning time. Wean on a gradual basis, taking the most well grown, heaviest first. And move the cows away from the calves not the other way around, keeping the calves in familiar surroundings will reduce stress.

Ensure all cattle have access to fresh, clean water. This is of paramount importance given the warm weather still, cattle drinking from rivers and or stagnant waterways are at a higher risk of ingesting disease carrying pathogens, so this should be avoided if possible.

Drying of procedure

Summer mastitis

Summer mastitis is usually found in July August and September with 70% of cases occurring in August alone. The most susceptible time for a cow is at weaning and for 6-8 weeks after, heifers, lactating cows and even male cattle (although rare) are also susceptible! Very seldom will a cow recover and treatment is usually a salvage operation, a case of summer mastitis can reduce milk production in a beef cow by 10%.

It's thought to be transmitted by the head fly (Hydrotea irritans), the eggs survive over winter in sandy soils. The flies live in hedges and trees and can only fly in certain conditions, i.e. low wind, mild, humid, damp conditions. As a result, summer mastitis can be associated with 'problem' fields which meet the criteria above.

In the early stages of summer mastitis will show itself as a gradual enlargement of the teats and glands up to about a week before the animal becomes clinically ill. The clinical signs will appear as a large swelled quarter/teat with a lot of fly activity, the symptoms will progress to lameness/stiffness and the animal may go down if not treated. On closer examination the udder will be hard, warm and will evoke a response if touched. When stripped the discharge could be bloody or yellow and lumpy often accompanied by a foul smell.

Treatment will involve a course of antibiotics, mastitis tubes and anti-inflammatories. Teat amputation can result in haemorrhaging and corticosteroids can cause abortion in cattle so always consult your vet before treating animals. The teat should be cleaned, gloves worn and the teat stripped into a container and disposed of safely to prevent the discharge contacting the surrounding environment and further spread of the infection.

Additional fly protection should be given to infected animals such as creams or tar as well as pourons and or tags. It should be noted pour ons and tags will not protect the udder so half a dose can be rubbed around the udder using a glove but contact your vet about prevention and treatment on your farm.

Preventative action includes avoiding problem fields at drying off and trying to pick higher and or more exposed pastures away from water and manure heaps. Clip tales and dirty hides and use fly repellents on the cows.

Drying off

Preferably weaning should be done gradually, as this lowers both stress on the calf and cow. Having spoken previously about the benefits of forward grazing the calves, this can also be used as a drying off procedure.

While the calves are moving ahead eating the higher quality pasture the cows can be held back and forced to eat out the lower quality grass and also restricted on feed to help reduce her energy intakes creating a more gradual drop in the milk content of the calves diet resulting in a more steady transition. The fly replants mentioned above should be applied before weaning and repeated where necessary.

Alternatively, cows can be weaned abruptly either indoors or outside, this is the less desirable option as it results in very high stress levels in both calf and cow with increased risks of things like pneumonia as well as a check in growth rates.

The energy density of the cows diet needs to be lowered at weaning, the options include restricted grazing or supplemented with hay or straw for at least 5 days to ensure they have stopped lactating. If the diet is composed of 100% straw be wary of constipation and introduce grass into the diet where needed.

If cattle are indoors use this time to treat sore and cut udders to reduce fly activity after drying off, also fly creams or tar can also be applied at turnout on top of other fly repellents as an added protection. The cow in the image above is being treated to help heal cuts on the teats while also providing a deterrent for the flies at the same time.

For all cows at drying of ensure they have adequate magnesium in the supplementary mineral to help with stress levels as Mg requirements and stress levels are correlated.

After weaning cows should be grouped by body condition and fed accordingly, BCS 2.5 (spring calving) 3 (Autumn calving).

This year after weaning, it is important to assess your grass budget, 2nd/3rd cut infield and fodder already in store to plan your fodder reserves for the winter. Scan your herd for empty cows and decide what you want to cull or retain. Carrying passengers for the winter will be a luxury few will be able to do this year.

If you want any more advice on weaning and nutrition for the cow and weanling or how to optimise your fertiliser programme to grow more grass on farm for the autumn, please get in touch to speak to one of our nutritionists or agronomists.

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