Many methods for weaning calves exist, and every farmer or rancher will tell you that his is the best way. The fact is that the right way to wean a calf completely depends on the situation; there is no cookie cutter method. No matter what the circumstances, the basic goal of weaning is to convince the calf to start eating solid foods so you no longer need to provide a source of milk. A more advanced goal should be to do this in the least stressful way possible.
Dairy calves are removed from their mothers within hours of birth. They are usually raised in individual hutches or small group pens that allow you completely control of their access to food and water. This makes weaning much easier. The easiest and least stressful way to wean dairy calves is actually to allow them to wean themselves. I usually just keep a small bucket of calf starter and a bucket of water in the hutch from the first day. Calf starter is small pellets that provide complete nutrition. Starters with molasses work best for young calves because most animals love the sweet taste. Calves are naturally curious and will nose around the hutch between feedings. Even very young calves will lick at grain and water and begin to get the idea that these things are food. Be sure to freshen up both calf starter and water daily to keep the calf’s interest. As time goes by, these calves will eat more and more grain between milk feedings. If a calf is really stubborn, a small handful of calf starter in the bottom of their daily milk bucket will help them get used to the taste and recognize it as edible .When they are eating enough, simply stop providing milk. The amount of grain that they need does vary by the size and breed but a general rule of thumb is that when they are eating three pounds of calf starter a day they are ready to go off milk. Different calves mature at different rates so do not pressure them to be weaned just because their companions are. Most calves will wean themselves between one and three months of age, although some may take longer.
Some beef calves are raised as ‘bucket calves’ because they have been orphaned or because they were a twin whose mother did not provide enough milk for two calves. These calves can be treated the same as dairy calves and weaned just as easily. If they are going to go out to pasture after weaning, however, make sure you provide small amounts of grass while they are still in their hutch. Calves that go straight from milk and grain to lush pasture grass will often suffer from severe diarrhea.
Most beef calves are not weaned until they are separated from their mothers. Usually they will be born in the spring and allowed to nurse from their mothers all summer before being weaned in the fall. These calves are old enough by weaning time that they are almost always relying on grass for the majority of their nutrients. The most popular way to wean beef calves is simply to sort cows into one pen and calves into another. Although it is not very labor intensive for the owner, this abrupt transition is very stressful for calves. One way to make it less stressful is to put the cows in a pen directly adjacent to their calves for a few days. This way, they can still reach each other over the fence and become more gradually adjusted to the idea of not being together. The least stressful way of all is to use calf weaning rings. Several brands are available and they are all a little bit different but the general idea is that a temporary ring is placed in the nose of each calf for about one week before weaning. The rings work in two ways; they hang down near the calf’s mouth to make it difficult for the calf to reach the cow’s teat, and they have little prongs on the side facing the cow that poke her when the calf tries to nurse. Being poked by the prongs makes the cow push her calf away. Using calf rings allows the calf to be weaned from milk while still having the comfort of being near mom. After a week of no milk they are usually getting independent enough to be removed from cows without stress.
Stress at weaning time can predispose calves to disease and temporarily decrease growth rates, but planning and a little patience can prevent adverse effects and allow a smooth transition into the next phase of life.