Early weaning

Sarah Maher – District Veterinarian Coonabarabran

There comes a time every year when calves begin to drain too much from our cows and need to be weaned. Unfortunately due to the drought this time has come early for many, so it’s time to think about early weaning.

Early weaning is an excellent tool which can be used to decrease the amount of feed required and allow for cow or ewe condition to be improved before joining. The success of early weaning is dependent on livestock, nutritional and animal management.

If you are considering early weaning you need to plan and act now, consider what practices or infrastructure you need implement before weaning, what your aims for weaning are, how will you wean them and what will you feed them and do you have enough on hand?

Here are a few quick points to consider if you are planning to early wean.

The key points of Early Weaning Lambs and calves?

  • Continue vaccination schedules as normal (5in1most important)
  • Calves should be at least 60kg at weaning, Lambs should be at least 18kg at weaning,
  • Early weaned calves and lambs have the following protein requirements


Protein requirement



60 – 140kg

15 – 22kg


140 – 200kg

22 – 30kg



30kg +


  • Draft based on size/weight
  • Have hay available ad lib
  • Feed should be energy dense (11MJME/kg)
  • Free access to water and shade
  • Draft off shy feeders regularly into a pen with lots of access to hay
  • Draft off sick lambs/calves and treat early

Practical early weaning considerations

  • Perform normal animal husbandry practices such as marking several weeks before weaning
    • Administer the first clostridial (5in1) vaccination 2-3 weeks prior to weaning
  • Wean in a yard or small pen – weaning in a large paddock allows for lambs to drift off and not eat and die or underperform
  • Ideal groups sizes for weaning are 400 lambs and 100 calves per group
  • Provide adequate trough or head space
    • Lambs should be provided with 15-30cm trough space/head
    • When using self-feeders 3-5cm of access should be provided per lamb
    • Weaned calves require 30-45cm trough space/head
      • By providing adequate head space you will reduce bullying and shy feeders.
  • Aim to be able to fill troughs or feeders without entering paddock/pen
  • Ensure adequate amounts of Calcium (lime) and salt are available – these maybe included in premade weaner rations or pellets, so check the label. If calcium is not included in the ration ensure you provide adequate calcium, this can be done by:
    • adding 1% lime and 0.5% salt to grain ration or
    • providing 50:50 salt and lime in a trough for lambs to access
  • Pulse grains are hard and unpalatable to young stock, therefore rolling, soaking or cracking pulse grains is often required.
  • Creep feeding prior to weaning can aid in transitioning young stock onto  high protein diets prior to weaning
  • “imprinting’ - expose calves/lambs to grain prior to weaning this will reduce shy feeders and increase intake post weaning
  • Monitor faeces daily – look for diarrhea, large amounts of undigested grain, bubbles forming with faeces
  • If rain is coming or there is a change in weather – increase access points to hay
    • Risk of rebound acidosis – change in barometric pressure decreases feed intake temporarily, acidosis can result in high grain diets when intake increases again
  • Water intake varies greatly with water quality, it is best to wean with water troughs, as these can be cleaned regularly, water troughs should be placed away from feed sources to ensure that troughs do not become contaminated with feed. Placing water troughs at least 10m away from feed sources allows for excess food to be dropped before drinking.

For more information refer to Department of Primary industries handbook Managing drought and Confinement feeding of cattle in drought: protecting the environment or contact your local District Veterinarian or Ag Advisory staff member.

Related news

Related information