Farm Tales: Weaning Young Livestock
Summertime is busy for livestock owners, no matter if you run a larger commercial operation or small hobby farm. Between cutting and baling hay, to getting ready for show season and selling off animals for market or breeding purposes, the summer is no time to waste time! If you have any baby animals hanging around the farm, it may also be time to start thinking about weaning them off their mothers and having them eat solid food on a regular basis. Weaning is certainly a topic that is largely dominated by the opinion of whoever you ask, but there are some basics that can be applied to pretty much any animal you raise and need to wean.
The age of any animal is probably the most important factor to consider when you are thinking about weaning. Every species is different, but regardless, all young livestock need to stay on mother’s milk long enough to develop properly and healthfully. As a goat owner who bottle fed all my kids, we would typically start decreasing feedings around 3 months of age. Up until that point, we would feed kids at least two or three times a day. Because bottle feeding is popular among smaller hobby farms and 4-H members, it is easier to control weaning because the young animal has become accustomed to getting its food from a human and not its mother. You have more control over when and how you wean them.
You are what you eat
This phrase comes to mind here because a healthy, well-fed mother will provide the best-quality milk that a young animal needs for a strong start to life. If factors like feed availability and costs are compromising a mother’s quality of milk, it is important to consider when and how you wean. Wean too soon and you run the risk of poorly-developed offspring. But if you aren’t able to keep a mother in good nursing condition because of feed issues, it may be worth looking at alternative forms of nutrition for the young animal so that both he and his mother will thrive. There are lots of options for people who choose to wean their livestock earlier than desired, whether it is another animals’ milk, replacement milk and supplements or other forms of early-livestock nutrition. Regardless of when you choose to wean, it is important to consider the nutrition and health of both the mother and her young, especially in operations where profitability comes from a good breeding program. Keeping mothers in good health will allow them to be safely bred more often and consistently produce healthy and productive offspring.
How to do it
Again, this varies from species to species, but there are some similarities across the boards. Generally speaking, if you bottle feed your animals, you will have an easier time controlling when and how you wean. Most people think of weaning as a process, but many farmers choose to wean cold-turkey style—that is, just cut ‘em off! This may sound mean, especially since in reality, these are still very young animals, but trust me—they will be just fine! After a few days of crying and maybe some extra lethargy around the pastures, they will learn that hay and grain taste just as good as fresh milk and you’re doing them no harm. It is highly recommended to offer your young livestock hay and fresh water from the time they are born. Not that they’ll start munching down the hay or drinking the water bucket dry, but it is good for young livestock—especially ruminants—to have access to the food their bodies are meant to process. In my experience with dairy goats, I would cut daily feedings down gradually until the kids were eating regular amounts of hay and grain. Over the course of about two or three weeks, I’d have them down to one or no bottle at all. That may be on the slow side, others may take even longer or shorter, but it’s really what works for you and your farm. Many dairy cattle farmers will follow a similar approach, whereas beef farmers typically wait until calves reach about 400 to 600 pounds before they begin to wean. Beef calves are almost always raised on milk from their mothers directly—no bottle feeding—because it allows them to put on the weight needed for production. When they reach the 400 to 600 lb. mark, they are separated from their mothers and fed grain in order to continue their weight gain.
As usual, if you have questions about weaning and how it will affect your animals, it is a good idea to talk to your veterinarian or other trusted livestock owners to see what they recommend. Along with their advice and some of your own research and judgment, you can make the right decision for your personal situation and the health of your animals.