Top 5 Missed Opportunities in Weaning a Calf

FBN Network

Mar 18, 2024

This panel was originally presented live at Farmer2FarmerVI in Omaha, NE. 

Weaning season is coming up for calves. To help livestock producers through the process of separating calves from their mothers in a manner that promotes calf health, Dr. Brian Dorcey, DVM, shares the top five missed opportunities in weaning a calf. 

Below, we’ll cover: 

  • Minimizing stress

  • Addressing parasites

  • Managing nutrition

  • Managing biosecurity

  • Prioritizing health and immunity

Watch Now: Top 5 Missed Opportunities in Weaning a Calf

Watch Dr. Dorcey in the video “Top 5 Missed Opportunities in Weaning a Calf” or continue reading below. This educational session was originally presented live at Farmer2FarmerVI's Livestock University series in Omaha, Nebraska.

Top 5 Missed Opportunities in Weaning a Calf

1. Minimizing Stress

“When does stress start on a ranch?” asks Dr. Dorcey. “You could go all the way back to birth and calving.” The veterinarian explains that not only could stress happen at any phase, but that “it carries through the entire life of that calf.”

He outlines several phases in which calves are particularly vulnerable to stress.

Fenceline Weaning

Dr. Dorcey recommends fenceline weaning as one of the most effective tools used on ranches. It can be as simple as setting up a pan with some sucker rod close to the corral. This allows the mama cow to still see, smell, and touch the cow as it adjusts, which usually takes three or four days. This strategy has health and nutritional benefits. 


Consistency in how ranchers, their staff, and any additional helpers work around the calves is critical, says Dr. Dorcey. For example, if a rancher always rides horseback and neighbors show up to help on a dirtbike, it could spook the calves. Or, if a rancher typically drives a pickup and suddenly switches to a horse, the calves may be scared of the animal. 

“As we change that means of interaction or that tool that we use to interact with our cattle, it dramatically changes the behavior on weaning day when we go to split those pairs,” says Dr. Dorcey.

He suggests gathering on the best weather days — dust, for example, can become an issue — and the days help is available. However, don’t rush the process. “We’re way overpressuring these cattle,” cautions Dr. Dorcey. “Teaching our people to go very slow and steady has been a very helpful tool.”

Sale Barn and Transportation 

When possible, pick a sale barn that will promote the health and well-being of the calf. Everything from poor barn design to poor staff instruction can impact a cow’s stress and health, which can ultimately be detrimental to sales. 

“Have transportation lined up ahead of time,” advises Dr. Dorcey, who notes that having a livestock transportation specialist can make a difference in calf stress. While acknowledging the impact of freight on ag businesses, he says it’s important to consider headcount:  “Headcount makes a difference on the truck, and it shows up in morbidity and mortality at about 60 days on feed.”

Something to keep in mind is that up until the sales barn and truck, a calf may not have been exposed to pathogens outside of its mother. Farmers can work hard and do everything right beforehand, and then the calves may be exposed to pathogens and other stressors. Therefore, it’s beneficial to build relationships that help limit the number of sources a calf is exposed to.


Once calves arrive on the feedlot, Dr. Dorcey recommends letting them rest and get acclimated. “My rule of thumb is for every hour that they’re on the truck, I want them to rest a minimum of two hours.” 

“Water on arrival is key,” he says, noting they may have experienced dehydration during transit. 

The time to rest allows them the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their new surroundings. He says, “It gives them some time to look around the pen and see where they may stack up in the pecking order. 

Dr. Dorcey recommends starting them off in a quiet part of the yard. It’s helpful to remember that they may have never heard the sounds of a feedmill or passing truck before. Until those become commonplace background noise, they could put them into a flight-or-fight response that heightens their cortisol levels. 

Overall, keep the environment low-stress when moving young cows. Yelling and hot-shots may induce stress. 

2. Addressing Parasites

“Moving to a parasite project that addresses both internals and externals is super important,” Dr. Dorcey says. He recommends planned conversations with nutritionists and veterinarians to discuss new and upcoming compounds as part of a rancher’s standard protocol for managing parasites. 

“There’s a study that 99% of South Dakota cattle come out with coccidia in them as they come into the feedyard as they’re weaned,” he says. Addressing this parasite upfront helps to reduce respiratory issues and mortality from all causes. 

“Have a deworming strategy for your farm,” Dr. Dorcey urges. He recommends using injectable dewormers or white dewormers.

Likewise, he notes that lice can cost livestock producers two-tenths of a pound of average daily gain. Use a treatment for both biting and sucking lice. 

Shop for parasiticides and dewormers through FBN®.

3. Managing Nutrition

“What I’ve been excited about being a veterinarian with Farmers Business Network is now we’ve got a nutritionist that we can go to,” says Dr. Dorcey. “Having a focused and intentional teamwork approach to nutrition and health — and seeing those both being absolutely interlocked — has been exciting because these calves have huge nutrition changes coming at them.”

When looking at the livers of deceased calves, he finds that most of the calves are deficient in copper, selenium, and zinc. He therefore recommends having mineral that’s accessible to the calves.

Dr. Dorcey says to provide “slow steady bumps of feed,” starting with 1.5% of dry matter. Feed calves on time and consistently. The behavior calves learn while they’re young will carry with them through their lives. 

4. Managing Biosecurity

“The swine folks are the ones who have really perfected the biosecurity mentality,” commends Dr. Dorcey. When it comes to managing biosecurity in calves, he has several recommendations. 

Limit Exposure in Pens

“Get a pen built by seven to 10 days,” says the veterinarian. “We don’t add to pens after seven days.” 


“Pre-weaning vaccination really has a dramatic impact on health, and we see that in our feedlot records,” Dr. Dorcey says.

Provide Clean Water

The veterinarian recommends ensuring water is clean every three days. To get rid of pathogens that may be lurking, he says, “I have our farmers use bleach, especially in a commingled situation.”

5. Prioritizing Health and Immunity

Even though most precautions should have already been made, he says, “it’s not too late to manage immunity” at the feedlot. 

A few of the strategies he considers:

  • Building on pre-weaning vaccinations

  • Inner nasals 

  • Metaphylaxis

To determine the best course of action, he reviews what the calf has experienced and what makes sense for the ranch’s goals. 

Set Up Your Calves for Success

Minimizing stress, managing parasites, providing proper nutrition, ensuring biosecurity, and managing health and security are each important to weaning a calf and helping it grow into a healthy cow. 

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FBN Network

Mar 18, 2024

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