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Stress free weaning sucklers on Newford Farm

Iarlaith Collins, Farm Manager on the Newford Suckler demonstration farm in Athenry Co Galway gives us a brief update on the pre weaning process and explains how they aim to reduce stress during the weaning process on both the cow and calf.

Weaning of the weanlings at Newford was carried out in three stages.

  • The first batch was weaned on the 7th of September.
  • The second batch on the 14th of September
  • And the third batch were weaned on the 21st of September

Overall, the average weaning date for the weanlings at Newford in 2020 was the 12th of September. Weaning was split into three groups for a number of reasons. Firstly, the cattle had to be returned to the home farm from out blocks. As well as this, the smaller groups meant they could make the best use of the cattle sheds on the home farm as well as suiting the weaning practices used on the farm.

Preparations were made on the farm well in advance of weaning. All the male progeny were castrated in early July at less than six months of age. Castration can be a stressful process so it was completed 2 months in advance of weaning, to minimise stress on the animals at weaning as well as complying with animal health and welfare regulations. Meal feeding of calves started on the 4th of August. The calves were also allowed to creep graze ahead of the cows. These practices helps to break the cow/calf bond while the creep feeding underpinned performance of the calves and the early adaption to meal feeding helps to settle the weanling’s quicker when they are housed. The calves were treated to control worms and they also received their IBR booster vaccination in advance of weaning.

On the day of weaning, both the cows and calves were weighed, and each of the cows was body condition scored. Once the weighing was completed, the Newford farm weaning procedure which has been tried and tested for many years commenced. The weanlings were housed in adjacent penning to their mothers. Field gates were temporarily tied to the dividing gates so that the weanlings could not access the cows to suckle. At this point the weanlings could still see and sense their mothers, which helped to reduce stress.

While housed, the weanlings were given access to concentrates and silage, and the cows were offered straw only to help to reduce their milk yield, and encouraging them to dry off. After a separation period of 36 hours, the weanlings were joined back with their mother’s for their last suck. The weanlings were then moved to a straw-bedded shed which was out of sight of the cows where they continued to have access to concentrates and silage. The largest group weaned was 46 weanlings and as the weather was very clammy in mid-September, the group was split into two sheds to improve ventilation and too avoid any health issues. 

The next priority was to get the weanlings back to grass as soon as possible. This is usually done within a week of weaning. Returning the weanlings back to grass for a period helps to reduce the risk of any additional health issues after weaning as well as maximising the number of days at grass for the weanlings before being housed for the winter. This process also underpins positive performance with the weanlings being offered the best quality grass along with 2kg of concentrates. During the drying off period the cows were fed straw only for 3 days as well as having access to mineral licks before moving onto silage on the 4th day after weaning.

Slats were scraped daily and a light layer of lime was spread on top of the slats. This practice has proven to be very successful over the last number of years on the farm in helping to reduce the numbers of incidences of mastitis.

The average weaning weight of the 40 male weanlings was 314 kilograms, giving them an average daily gain of 1.39 Kilograms from birth.

The male weights ranged from 377 Kilograms to 228 kilograms. The average weaning weight of the 56 heifer weanlings was 305 Kilograms, giving them an ADG of 1.31 Kilograms from birth. The heifer’s weights ranged from 372 kilograms to 224 kilograms. The average weight of the cows at weaning was 575 kilograms and the average body score was 2.5.

The Newford suckler cows achieved an average weaning percentage of 55% of their bodyweight. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd calvers achieved an average weaning percentage of 61% of bodyweight. This figure has increased this year and we believe it is due to a combination of better selection of our replacement breeding heifers and good management.

The advantage of weaning early in September means we will get an extra months grazing at the back end of the season. This is due to the fact that the cows can be tightened up tighter after weaning and if the weather breaks those cows can be housed and the weanlings can stay at grass. September was good month weather wise, so Iarlaith took full advantage of this and returned the cows to grass to clean out paddocks before closing. Weather dependent, the plan is to keep weanlings at grass until the 10th of November.