Calving and weaning, how can we help?

During my travels as a Nuffield Scholar, I visited three continents researching my topic, “Alternatives to Antibiotics in Agriculture”. I looked at aquaculture, (Fish Farming), Laying hens, Broiler chickens, Pig production, Dairy, Beef and Lamb production in an attempt to find good practice and to see if one sector had transferable skills that could benefit another in terms of limiting the need for antibiotics.

Regardless of country, farming method adopted, either high or low input, determination of farmer to succeed, or age of farmer, there was a consistent theme that flowed through my investigations. The healthier an animal was in its early life, the more production would follow. In other words, sick young stock had inhibited production capabilities for the rest of their lives.

I’d always wanted to travel to Tasmania, I don’t know why, a century earlier; I’d have wanted to avoid the place at all costs. What a beautiful place though. A mixture of native bush, magical coastline, emerald green grazing and bright blue sky, made this island feel special. The warnings of icy roads at every hair pinned corner, and there were a few, made me realize how close to the South Pole I actually was. My destination was a large salmon Hatchery owned by Huon Salmon. Upon leaving the tarmac road, I followed a dirt track for around ten miles and then I saw it, a purpose built fish hatchery nestling in the valley that lay ahead, a mixture of enormous buildings and silos, surrounded by fresh water lakes. I’d prepared myself for scale, but this place looked from a distance to be the same size as Aberystwyth. What a place! I got a great welcome, took photos, asked questions and marveled at what I saw.

The following morning, I was in the Capital City of Hobart, on the top floor of the tallest skyscraper on the island, aware of the depth and quality of the carpet under my feet, and very grateful for the early morning, top quality coffee on offer. I was meeting Huon Salmons’ veterinary team. Based on my tour of their hatchery I had a long list of questions prepared for them. The answers I got were simple and really focused my mind. The stronger and more disease free they could keep their fish at hatchery, the better they would perform once in the finishing stages in the sea cages where they are fattened for market.

I got a similar answer when studying pig and poultry. Management of youngstock that reduces stress from disease was often the difference between profit or less profit. In these sectors, the attention to detail in the animals early life was vital to crop viability.


 I compared this to the ruminant sectors, an area I knew more about. It seemed to me that we accept that lambs and calves get scour within a fortnight of birth, and that there is a dip in production at or around weaning.

In Alberta, Canada, the issue of youngstock disease became apparent as an issue for beef farmers. One of the feed lots I visited supplied McDonalds, and reared 35,000 head of beef annually. They had 28,000 cattle on site at any one time. The owner quoted his biggest issue as being sourcing new cattle. If he could get a regular supply from suckler cow units he was happy. He didn’t want beef from the dairy herd as the stress those calves endured in their early life determined their production within his feed lot. He didn’t want low performers. He needed uniform production, he didn’t want runts at any cost.


 He needed a great deal of feed and somewhere to put it. It was easy to spot his grain store.


What I learned from looking at the issue of youngstock health during my Nuffield travels is that we must not assume that our calves are going to be ill around a fortnight post calving. Calving pen hygiene is paramount. If our calves are born onto surfaces that are infected by disease causing bacteria three days before their immune system is built, then yes, they will likley scour. Ask yourself the question, Are my calves healthy in the first week of their lives? If the answer is yes, then good. If the answer is no, then rather than keeping on administring antibiotics to your sick calves, you need to change something. Start by analysing the cleanlines of where the calf was born.

Weaning can aso knock a calfs production. In Canada I became aware of a very simple system that enabled a two stage weaning. Calves at weaning were found to become stressed at loosing both access to milk and their mothers. To prevent this stress, a simple plastic nose tag is fitted to a calf’s nose at weaning. It prevents the calf getting milk, but it still has the comfort of being with it’s mother. A weak later, the calves can be weaned from their mothers with little stress. The company that produce the QuietWean tags report that:

  • Producers have found that QuietWean nose tags reduce “shipping fever” and respiratory infections 
    • Less need for antibiotics
  • Calves weaned using QuietWean spend 25% more time eating, 95% less time bawling and pace up to 15 miles less than traditional weaning!
  • QuietWean tags can be used again and again, making them very economical

Successful, low-stress weaning can be accomplished in only 4 – 7 days

It appears to me that with focus on what we do every day we can improve productivity in our beef production by limiting stress on our youngstock. In the past we’ve been ready to apply an antibiotic to fix our problems. It’s time we address our focus.

My Nuffield experience allowed me to understand the value of focus.


 One of our cockerels at home decided that I was a threat when I attempted to feed him and his hens as a boy. From the time of his attack to my Nuffield travels, I had a phobia of all things feathered. No, more!

The Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust rewards individuals in agriculture and rural industries with opportunities to travel, broaden horizons and advance industry knowledge. For more information try