Supporting calves through weaning and preconditioning practices

Julia Herman, DVM, MS, DACVPM Beef Cattle Specialist Veterinarian, NCBA, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff | April 18, 2023

A calf’s life seems simple this time of year. Calves are out in pastures with the cowherd, learning to eat grass and creep feed while having the assurance of a warm milk meal when they want it. At every stage, nutrition, health, management, and facilities will affect the productivity of the calf and its ability to rebound from stressful events. Several events in a calf’s life have the potential to become significant stressors that may impact their performance for the rest of their lives.

Calving is the apparent first stressor as the calf is hitting the ground though weaning and shipping are the classic examples of stressful events in a calf’s life. Weaning occurs when calf suckling is stopped through a variety of techniques which allows the calf to transition to the next growth stage and also allows the cow to begin preparing for her next half. Weaning and shipping have many supporting factors including change in nutrition, disruption of the social bond between calf and dam, increased social stress as calves establish hierarchies within their groups, and impacts of an environment that is not familiar. It is not realistic to fully prevent all of these stressors, though it is the responsibility of cattle producers to reduce calf stress by minimizing the effects of these stressors as much as possible. Addressing all of these stressors in steps versus all at once may be more feasible to the operation, depending on labor. 

Stress is important to consider from an animal welfare perspective though it is difficult to directly measure. Appetite, immune response, and social behavior can all be negatively affected if weaning is not done appropriately, and each of these can have long lasting effects on productivity. Typically, behaviors such as walking, vocalizing, suckling attempts, and time spent lying, grazing, or eating are associated with stress. Growth performance and average daily gain can be an objective way to assess stress in animals, especially growing calves. Ideally, proper preparation of the calf through weaning and preconditioning will provide a healthy, confident calf ready to perform at the next stage of production. With drought affecting much of the country, special considerations will also be covered to manage calves and the herd when experiencing drought.

Weaning strategies 

All weaning strategies described below will be a stressful event that will have a negative impact on calf performance and health. It is important to find steps to minimize this stress and help the calf bounce back to normal appetite and behavior as quickly as possible. The checkoff-funded Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program has information on low-stress handling, proper nutrition, and tips on herd health planning that will provide calves with the right foundation to handle any stressful event, including weaning.     

  • Abrupt weaning – This involves complete separation of calf from the dam and is often seen as ‘weaning on the truck’. Shipping at the time of weaning has shown the most risk of calves developing disease, especially Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD), and poorer performance at the feedyard or next production stage.        
  • Fence line weaning – Calves are separated by a fence which allows visual, auditory, and physical contact with the dam but removes the ability to suckle. Timing of this ranges between 7-14 days and will require space and a strong fence to separate the cows and calves. This technique gradually breaks the cow-calf bond which reduces stress. 
  • Nose flaps or anti-suckling device – This is a two-stage weaning process where devices are inserted into the calf’s nose which prevents calves from comfortably nursing their dams. Calves are then completely separated a few days to a week later when the nose flaps are removed. Separation can occur abruptly or combined with fence-line weaning. 
  • Strategies needing more research 
    • Transient weaning – The calf is transiently removed from contact with the dam for 24 hours on two separate occasions, prior to complete weaning via abrupt or fence line. The theory is the calf has some stress being removed from the cow but is returned to her the next day. The following removal, the calf is more comfortable with being away from the dam. 
    • Nursing weaning – Calves are allowed to consume a milk meal prior to being separated overnight in a pen with creep feed. This is completed for up to seven days before complete separation occurs. This allows for gradual breaking of the cow-calf bond in addition to training calves to eat from a bunk. 

Each operation will need to assess which weaning strategy is best for their operation. It should be noted that weaning calves prior to shipping has been shown to be effective in reducing BRD, even without vaccination 1. Positive effects can be seen in periods as short as 7 days, although most preconditioning programs recommend weaning at least 30 days prior to shipping. 

Preconditioning advantages 

 The USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Beef Cow-calf Study 2017 2 describes preconditioning as, “Practices that help a calf become ready to leave the operation of origin and that help reduce the calf’s stress when adjusting to a new location, such as a feedlot.” Preconditioning practices are becoming more popular due to both animal welfare considerations and added value to the calves when sold. Calves that are preconditioned generally transition to the feedyard better with better appetites and good nutrition keeping their immune systems healthy. 

Typical practices, according to the NAHMS study, in a preconditioning program include: 

  • Weaning at least 45 days prior to selling 
  • Dehorning (if horned) 
  • Castrating bulls 
  • Administering appropriate vaccines (that may include at least one modified live 5-way vaccine, at least one clostridial vaccine, and potentially one Mannheimia haemolytica vaccine) 
  • Deworming 
  • Training the calf to eat from a feed bunk and drink from a water tank 
  • Note that a true preconditioning program requires more than just vaccines given before weaning. 

Through this important growth time for the calf, it is integral to have a resource team to best care for your calves. Nutritional consultation with a nutritionist or feed company employee, extension beef specialist, or veterinarian to assist in developing a ration based on available foodstuffs is important. As the BQA program highlights, optimizing nutrition has multiple benefits including overall health of the calves and potentially better vaccine response. 

Preconditioned calves can benefit the seller by selling additional weight, receiving a higher market price with or without a labeled program, and maintaining healthier immune systems in calves 3. These calves have higher potential for profit in the feedlot due to stronger immune systems leading to lower risk of BRD illness and deaths, which is why they tend to sell better than calves who have not been through a preconditioning program. 

Effect of drought 

Climate, foodstuff availability, and pasture conditions are all external factors in choosing a weaning or preconditioning strategy. This year with much of the western states in some degree of moderate to severe drought, those decisions may be coming earlier than expected. Early weaning can benefit the cow as her calories and nutrition are now staying with her, helping her maintain body condition. It can also lessen the stocking density on pastures, save forage, and allow those pastures to rest and recover better next year. Ensuring that these calves have been castrated, dehorned, branded, and vaccinated at least two weeks ahead of weaning will help alleviate some stress. If you are considering early weaning, having a plan on where and what to feed them or having a marketing plan to a stocker operation may be advantageous. Work with your herd veterinarian for advice on what plan is best for your operation. 

The array of decisions when choosing weaning and/or preconditioning strategies will be dependent on each operation’s individual goals, expectations, and resources. Any of these practices will require an assessment of the operation’s labor requirement, current facilities, and available feedstuffs. Working with a resource team of a beef nutritionist, extension agent, or herd veterinarian will help in making these plans and improve your herd and bottom line in the midst of a difficult season. For guidelines on calf health and nutrition management, check out the BQA Manual and other resources at   

1 USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System 2020. Beef cow-calf management practices in the United States, 2017. (Accessed July 17, 2021). 

2 Taylor et al. 2020. Comparison of effects of four weaning methods on health and performance of beef calves. Animal (2020), 14:1, 161–170. 

3 Hilton 2015. Management of Preconditioned Calves and Impacts of Preconditioning. Vet Clin Food Anim 31 (2015) 197–207.   

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue of NCBA National Cattlemen newsletter.