Weaning Grassfed Calves

Traditionally, a rancher who wanted to wean some calves would separate them from the herd and pour feed to them.  The calves would fatten up on the grain until the rancher decided what to do with them.  He/She would decide which calves needed to return to the herd, which ones he/she was going to continue to fatten up to eat, and which ones he/she would sell.  With a grassfed herd, the traditional way to wean is out.  One cannot wean their calves on grain and sell them as grassfed.

Some of our weaned calves.

Some of our weaned calves.

Therefore at Cross Creek Cattle Company, we wean differently.  We still separate the calves from their mothers.  In order to make the transition less stressful, they are separated by a stout metal fence.  The cow and calf can still see each other and call to one another.  The calves just cannot nurse.  Usually by the second day the cows decide to leave their calf and go grazing in a different pasture.  Sometimes a cow will decide sooner.  Either way the cow knows where her calf is and she knows that it is fine.

The calves have access to plenty of water, hay, and grass.  We carefully monitor the grass situation to ensure that the calves have what they need.  After a week or so, we begin feeding them alfalfa pellets, which is dehydrated alfalfa grass in pellet form.  Alfalfa is a high-quality grass.  It is high in protein.  Therefore, the calves do well on it.  Unfortunately, alfalfa does not grow well in this area, which is why we choose to feed it in pellet form.

However, cows can bloat on such rich grass if their bodies are not adjusted to it slowly.  We begin with 1/2 pound of alfalfa pellets per calf a day.  We slowly work them up to 2 pounds a day of alfalfa.  This helps to ensure that their body condition does not fall behind while they are going through the transition of weaning.

We have several pens in which to graze so that they always have a good supply of grass.  We even use electric fencing to help us separate large pastures into smaller grazing fields.  This ensures that all the grasses are getting eaten.  Sometimes cows will selectively eat a pasture.  Then a rancher has to come behind them and shred the grasses that are left.  This is a waste.  It is like a child who will not eat their vegetables and a parent who throws them away every evening.

Our calves look just as good as the traditionally weaned calves.  They have maintained great body condition without the use of grains and other feeds.  They have eaten grass in several forms: fresh in the pastures, dried in the form of hay, and dehydrated in pellets.  Grass and water is really all a cow needs.  It is healthier for them and for us, which is why we raise grassfed beef.

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20 Responses to “Weaning Grassfed Calves”

  1. Brent Gill Says:

    Good morning, from Springville, California. I live in Tulare County, in the southeastern area of the Great Central Valley. I live on 65 acres of foothill range, and am raising a few grassfed cattle on this ground. You raise a point that I have been considering, which is the idea of either pulling a pasture down to the nubs (well, maybe not THAT low – but well down) and only then moving the cattle off, or pulling the cattle off and then going in and mowing. I only have a little irrigated ground, and the rest is dry pasture with cured grass during the summer.

    The question: if you leave cattle on a specific piece of ground until the pasture is very well eaten down, you risk stressing the animals, at least a little, because they have been forced to eat forage they have been leaving until last, a lot like a child will leave the broccoli until they have no choice. How do you assure that your animals “eat their broccoli” without losing a little condition?

    The obvious answer, I suppose, is very tight management of the herd. But it seems to me there remains the potential to stress the animals a bit, insisting they eat the specific pasture down short.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Lara DeHaven Says:

    First. I want to thank you so much for your comment and question. You have pointed out some areas in my article that need clarification. We do not want them eating the grass to its nubs. Four to six inches of green grass is a minimum length we desire in our pastures. Otherwise, it takes too long for the grass to rebound. Seasonally, there are two different grazing goals. In the winter, cattle graze for food. They eat what they can. In the summer, the cattle graze for food obviously, but mainly their job is to help us manage the grass. We keep them in small pastures to ensure that they keep any of the grass from becoming overly mature. If you open them up to large grazing areas only, the cows will eat the tenderest and tastiest grasses and leave other still nutritious grasses. The latter will grow to be tough and begin losing some of its nutritional value. Therefore, we carefully monitor the small grazing areas to ensure that the cows are eating the grasses while not over grazing the pastures. They begin looking forward to moving again into a different small grazing area. I hope this answers your question. If not, don’t hesitate to respond.

  3. Bodybuilding Tips – How to Develop Your Calves Says:

    [...] Weaning Grassfed Calves | Welcome to a Ranch! [...]

  4. Kurt Smith Says:

    I was just wondering a few things….i am getting ready to buy 3 weaned calves and put them on roughly 7 to 9 acres of pasture….the grass is pretty tall and was wondering if i should mow it down before i put them on there….and my other question was how much of the alf alfa pellets or hay can i feed if the pasture is getting low….is this something i can give a weaned calf for replacement of pasture or is this far too rich for them to have as full feed…I only have a limited number of acres right now so im just trying to get by with theses calves until fall….any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!! thanks

  5. Lara DeHaven Says:

    I would not mow it unless it is full of weeds. We only give alfalfa pellets when we are weaning calves. You do have to be careful not to overfeed the cattle. They can bloat. When it is necessary to give alfalfa pellets, I would give one pound per head and slowly work them up to more. It should not be more than 10% their body weight. Give hay free choice. Allow them to eat as much as they like just like grass.

  6. Erin Says:

    I have a quick question for you. We are currently researching to buy a couple of calves to raise ourselves for grass fed beef. I am finding TONS of conflicting information online about how long to bottle feed, when to wean, whether to wean onto grain or grass/hay, etc. I want my animals to have as close to a natural diet as possible. From what I’ve read, we should bottle feed them for 3 months? How long do you keep yours on their mother until you wean them as described above? We don’t have easy access to REAL milk for the calves so they would be on milk replacer… any tips on that? We could feed them real milk for about a month, but then the cost would become prohibitive… so I don’t know if we should do milk replacer for 3 months then wean or real milk for 1 month then wean? I’m very confused and will be eternally grateful for any advice you could give me!

  7. Lara DeHaven Says:

    Erin,

    In our experience, calves do not grow out as well on milk replacer as on mother’s milk. If we ever have to bottle fed our calves, which luckily for us is few and far between, we do not keep them on the bottle for as long as we keep the calves on their mothers. Usually we wean calves at about 8 months, which is longer than traditionally raised calves. My husband just heard a seminar led by another Texas grass fed rancher and she keeps the calves nursing until 10 months of age. Keeping that in mind, I don’t think you could successfully bottle fed a calf for that extended amount of time.

    We have never bottle fed a calf on the grass fed program because at about 3 months we introduce them to grain. It is not necessarily because we don’t think that it is possible, but because we do not bottle fed many calves. The cards are stacked against you by bottle feeding, but it is worth the try.

    I hope that I have been able to answer your question. If not, please write back. We want to support anyone trying to raise grass fed beef.

    Lara

  8. John Says:

    Hi! thanks for all the info here. I just bought 2 steer calves and am getting ready to aquire 2 more next week. I am doing milk replacer b/c I also cannot afford real milk. In answering the last question above, you state that at three months you introduce them to grain. Did you mean the alfalfa pellets. i thought you did not use grain? Since we got these calves so close to winter, we really focused on getting them to eat out of a bucket the milk replacer, and that works great. I was wondering what advise you could give me to get these calves through the winter with as much of their natural diet as possible. I am getting info that doesn’t make sense. i am being told that if i let them eat the grass that their stomachs can’t handle it very well and they will get sick. Also i am being told that I NEED to give them grain as the grass they could manage to eat will have no nutritional value for them and will only succeed at filling them up? All of this is info is very confusing b/c if they were in the wild they would eat grass so what’s the big deal? One calf is a little over a month and the other is just around a month.Tthe two coming next week are not even two weeks I believe.

  9. Lara DeHaven Says:

    John,
    I appreciate you taking the time to ask your questions. However, I am a little confused about your first statement. We do not wean at three months and I re-read the article and can find no such claim. I did re-read the comments and I did tell someone that we have not raised any bottle-fed calf in our grass fed program. Traditionally (with grain) a calf would be weaned around 3 months of age and put on a grain feeding program. However grass fed beef is different.

    Compared to traditionally raised cattle, we wean our calves at a much later date. Usually between 8-9 months, we will begin the weaning process. We do not feed them grain, but we do begin feeding alfalfa pellets to help them maintain their condition throughout the weaning process. By this age, the calves have already been eating grass at their mother’s side. They are offered as much grass as they can possibly eat and supplied additionally with the alfalfa.

    I am sorry that you are getting so much differing information. If you want to raise your steers as naturally as humanly possible without their mother, then I would keep them on the milk replacer for months. Give them access to grass and hay. And eventually begin introducing the alfalfa pellets, but make sure that you do it gradually as stated in this article. You don’t want them bloating.

    I hope this advice helps you out. You can always contact me again.

    Thanks,
    Lara

  10. Michael Says:

    Thanks much for all the information. We are just starting a registered Devon herd and are getting ready to wean our first crop of calves. We want to return them to the herd as soon as we can. How long will it take to completely wean the calves from their mothers? Also, do you vaccinate at weaning and if so what vaccines do you administer? Thanks again.

  11. Lara DeHaven Says:

    Michael,
    I appreciate your questions. We like to leave our calves separated for atleast a month. Usually that amount of time is sufficient to stop the desire to nurse as well as dry up the cows. We vaccinate for minimally. I will get back with you the exact names of the vaccinations. We choose to vaccinate for what is required to maintain good herd health.
    Thanks,
    Lara DeHaven

  12. Grass Fed Beef Basics | Welcome to the Ranch! Says:

    [...] At Cross Creek Cattle Company we raise grass fed and grass-finished beef.  We raise our calves with the herd along their mothers’ sides.  Around eight months of age, we wean the calves from milk.  To read more on how we wean our calves, read “Weaning Grassfed Calves.” [...]

  13. Krystal Says:

    I also am very interested in hearing about the vaccines you feel are a must. In general we avoid all such, but I know there are some that are required for sales, etc. We would at least like to keep ours to a minimum as well. BTW, we’re starting a herd of American Milking Devon cattle here in WA.

  14. Lara DeHaven Says:

    Krystal,
    We vaccinate for black leg and bruscellosis. We are a bruscellosis-free herd; however, wild hogs are carrying the disease according to the state of Texas. These are the two vaccinations we feel are a must for our cattle. Good luck with your herd in WA.
    Lara

  15. Kay M Zirkel Says:

    Hi, I am a Prime meat goat producer in WA state. I acquired two 4mo. old steer calves and am running them with my herd on natural pasture and organic mix grains ( 14% protein). My question is can these calves be fed the same grain I feed my meat goats or should I feed them on ground corn? The calves were started on corn and grass hay. I feed alfalfa/ orchard grass hay in winter, but my pastures are in good shape with a lot of grass. ( goats like weeds rather than grass). I have had the calves only for a week and they were banded and pulled off the cows just before I got them. Also should I mix dry milk replacer with the grain, if so how muck. Thanks Kay

  16. Lara DeHaven Says:

    Kay,
    Thanks for your question. However, I find it ironic that you are asking a grass fed operation this question. With that said, 14 % protein grain should be fine for these young steers. I know that goats and lambs cannot eat the same feed because of copper. I would read the label on your feed and research what is in it. Most likely, it is fine. I just don’t know what are the ingredients of your feed to say definitively. I definitely would not put the calves on straight corn.
    Hope this helps.
    Lara

  17. Monica Chandler Says:

    We are raising a small herd of belted galloways, all-natural, grass-fed. However, we recently had a problem birth. Problem was wind-chill of -10 and we had to bring the little guy inside until morning. He won’t go to nurse from his mom and we finally have him on a bottle; haven’t given up on getting him back on his mom though. He is about 5 days old now. I am concerned about all the things I’m reading about rumen development and the necessity of grain. I don’t want to feed grain, our cattle aren’t bred for or used to grain. He has access to hay and water (not that he’s figured out drinking, but he does eat snow). When should we give him alfalfa pellets, how long should we bottle him if we can’t get him back with mom, are there any natural additives like kelp or yeast that may help with rumen development?
    And thank you for this great site and great info.

  18. Lara DeHaven Says:

    Monica,
    I appreciate your question and do not envy your situation. It is always better for the calf to stay at its mother’s side and it is always better for the owner, too. However, you are dealing with your situation in the best manner possible. Saying all of this, I am not an expert in the needs of bottle fed calves. If you are feeding him, its mother’s milk, then I would not introduce anything additional to him. If you are feeding him formula, then it can really get expensive, which is one of the reasons that most ranchers force feed on bottle fed calves so early.
    I would work very hard to get him to get back with his mom for many reasons. We have had to put the mama in a squeeze chute and teach the calf to suck from her. It requires time, patience, and a strong back. If this fails, then I would consult a veterinarian for his needs. Since he had a difficult birth, he might be susceptible to illness, especially if he did not receive her colostrum. If he did not get colostrum from his mother or synthetic, then I hate to say there is not much hope for him. We have never had any luck with calves who did not get colostrum in the first 24 hours.
    Let me know if he makes it.
    Lara

  19. Theresa Says:

    Hi, We are getting a mini jersey calf in the next few days. I know nothing about cows let alone calfs but your page has been very helpful. She is 3 months and has been weaned. They have been using grain to wean her. We would like to rasie her as close as we can to nature. Would you recommend alf alfa yet? My question is this can I start to bottle feed her once she has been weaned And how often would I do that? And what about Keifer or Clabbered milk as a supplement? Made from raw cows milk. I would like to get her off the grains but is this where she is getting most of her protein? I feel bad bringing her here so young I had to Idea they needed to be with mom for so long. Please any advice you may have to help with this little one would be great. We feel very strongly about being the best stewards we can to all are animals.

  20. Lara DeHaven Says:

    Theresa,

    I have a quick question that might help me better answer your question. What are you planning on doing with calf? Are you planning on milking her in the future, raising her for meat, or having a pet?
    Lara

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