Low Stress Calf Weaning

Weaning time has traditionally been traumatic for calves, mama cows and ranchers, but in the past 20 years many ranchers have found better ways to wean than sticking calves in a corral and taking their mothers away. Weaning creates physical and emotional stresses for the calf, and the emotional trauma is just as hard on him as suddenly being deprived of mama’s milk. A big calf doesn’t need milk anymore; but still feels dependent on mama, and insecure without her. If put into a weaning pen, calves pace and bawl, often running frantically back and forth. If corrals are dry, this churns up dust that can irritate respiratory passages and open the way for respiratory infections. The calf is doubly susceptible to respiratory problems at this time because stress hinders proper functioning of the immune system. It’s much better to wean calves in a grassy pasture, if possible. On green pasture, there’s no dust to irritate the respiratory system, and calves do better than when fed hay, since they are accustomed to eating grass and don’t go off feed as much. If grass is drying out, the pasture can be supplemented with a little good-quality alfalfa hay.

One way to reduce stress at weaning is to wean calves a few at a time, hauling their mothers away and leaving the weaned ones in their familiar pasture with the rest of the herd, with adult cows for security. If mothers of the weaned ones are taken far away where they cannot see or hear them, the calves usually don’t try to go through fences to find their mothers. If the last place a calf nursed his mother before separation was in the field with the herd, he usually won’t look any farther than that, and soon resigns himself to her disappearance. The last group to be weaned no longer has adult cows for security, but they have the calm, already-weaned calves for company.

Another method that works well is to leave a few babysitter cows with the weaned calves in the pasture, to give the cows some companionship and security until their emotional crisis is past.

Fenceline weaning

About 20 years ago, some ranchers started experimenting with fenceline weaning – putting cows and calves in separate pens or pastures next to one another. If calves and cows can be adjacent for a few days, they are not as stressed. Even though they cannot nurse, the calves have the security of their mothers, nose to nose. By the third day, the pairs are not so desperate to get back together. This works, if the fencing is secure enough to keep the animals from going through it. A pole fence, or netting that’s tall enough the cows can’t reach over to mash it down, or several strands of hot wire, will generally work.

Kit Pharo, a rancher at Cheyenne Wells, CO, has been using fenceline weaning for more than 15 years. “Properly done, it’s very low stress for both the cow and the calf. Our favorite method involves leaving them on grass, since there’s less sickness or other stress-related problems if you can keep them out of dusty or muddy lots. It’s not natural for cattle to be confines, eating harvested feed. Calves are less likely to spook and stampede if they are not penned up. We’ve never had our calves spook and try to run through a fence since we quit penning them up,” Pharo said. “We like to move pairs into the pasture a day or two ahead of weaning so the calves will be staying in familiar surroundings. This should be a pasture with good grass. The calves will locate all the water sources and perimeter fences while still with their mothers,” he said. The primary water source should be near the fenceline close to the adjacent pasture where their mothers will be after separation. Don’t have corners in the dividing fence where animals would bunch up.

“On weaning day, we allow the pairs to finish their morning grazing. Mid to late morning we slowly bring them to our sorting corral and leave them their awhile to let them mother up and nurse one last time. When we come back, there isn’t any bawling and the cattle will be loafing. Then we quietly sort the cows out one gate into their pasture and the calves out the gate into theirs. Most cows will be ready to file out when you open their gate, knowing they are going to a fresh pasture. If you are patient, the herd will essentially sort itself. Calves are easy to hold back. After the first cows have left the corral, you can let a few calves out the other gate. The sorting is soon finished, with no stress,” Pharo said.

“We like to leave two or three older animals (usually dry cows) with the calves to provide reassurance and leadership. Since the calves are returning to the same pasture they came from, they usually aren’t bothered and it may take a couple of hours before the cows and calves go searching for one another. As soon as they meet at the fence, their anxiety disappears. Often you’ll a cow and her calf lying on opposite sides of the fence, both chewing their cud,” he said. They go graze, and come back periodically to check on one another. After three days, fewer cows come back to the fence. They know where their calves are, but are less concerned about them. Likewise, the calves begin to realize they don’t need their mothers anymore. We always wait at least four days before we move the cows clear away. By this time they are usually so eager to go to fresh pasture that all we have to do is open the gates ahead of them. Very few want to turn back for their calves. If the cows are not ready, leave them another day or two,” Pharo said.

One of Pharo’s bull customers started using this method of weaning a few years ago, and one year he weighed the steer calves at weaning and again 10 days later. “Those steers gained 1.5 lbs. per day while being weaning on native grass pasture across the fence from their mothers. He suggests you avoid riding or driving through the calves for the first few days of weaning. Whenever the cows see you out with their calves, they all come running up to the fence.”

To avoid this disruption and stress, observe the weaning process with binoculars. You don’t need to go out there; the calves don’t need feed, don’t need to be doctored, and don’t need you.

In a study of fenceline weaning in California, the calves gained 31 percent more weight (after 10 weeks) than the average calf weaned away from its mother. IN a Nebraska feedlot, another study showed that fenceline weaned calves had 29 percent better daily gains and 35 percent lower cost of grain than groups of calves weaned in the traditional way.


Nose Flaps

A few years ago, an innovative anti-sucking device was created to make weaning easier for calves. This low-stress method involves use of “nose flaps”, sometimes called nose paddles. These plastic flaps can be quickly and easily installed in seconds, with calves restrained in a chute, and then the calves are returned to their mothers. The flap hangs down over the nose and mouth, preventing the calf from getting a teat in its mouth to nurse, but does not hinder eating grass/hay or drinking water. The calf can’t nurse, but he’s not emotionally upset because he’s still with his mother. He has her companionship and protection during the weaning process. The cow starts to dry up her milk, and the calf adjusts to not having milk. About five days later the cows and calves can be completely separated from one another (and the flaps removed), and they are not stressed.

Studies at the University of Saskatchewan and the Montana State University in 2005 showed that this two-step weaning process resulted in much less stress on calves than traditional weaning methods. Dr. Joseph Stookey (Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan) was one of the people who invented this device. He said that when the study compared the two methods, there was a huge difference between the two groups in how they handled weaning. The two-step weaning works very well because of the way cattle are biologically programmed. “Mammals are equipped to know that one day the milk will be shut off, but they are not prepared for mom and milk to disappear at the same time,” Stookey said.

Cattle are herd animals, and calves look to adults for security. If a calf can stay with its mother and social group through weaning, he is not stressed. “Producers who are unsure about those nose flaps should try a few and compare. There’s always the occasional smart calf who can figure it out and cheat – finding a way to still get a teat in his mouth – but the vast majority don’t figure it out. You only need to leave the flaps on the nose for three to five days. Then when you separate the pair, it’s unbelievable how at ease they are. They go about their business without worrying where mama is or baby is,” he said. “People used to say that weaning stress was due to calves not knowing how to eat from a bunk, or whatever, but it’s all about missing mom. Taking the cow away creates tremendous emotional trauma for calves. This stress is huge for calves, more than many other species, for some reason.”

In nature, calves get weaned by their mothers kicking them off before the next calf is born, but the big calf still follows and stays with the cow, never losing the comfort and security of her presence. He may still try to nurse for a few days, but the cow won’t let him, and he resigns himself to weaned status.

“The research when we tried the nose flaps was dramatic. One of our students had asked a simple question: what does the calf miss most – the milk or the mother? When we did the study and took away the milk, none of the calves were upset or complained. Then when we took away the mother a few days later, they didn’t miss her either, and we realized that we’d already weaned the calves! We weaned them in the presence of the mother and that was the big difference. Looking at this academic question resulted in an amazing revelation about the whole weaning process,” Stookey said. “This may be some of the most significant work we’ve ever done, in terms of the practical aspect. I encourage producers to try it, to see it with their own eyes.

“Even though it’s a bit of work to sort the calves from the cows and put the nose flaps in and put them all back together, and then separate them again four days later, there are easy ways to do it. Dylan Biggs, a producer here who utilizes low-stress ways of handling cattle, worked with us on this project. We weaned 300 of his calves this way. One of the things he showed us was a good way to sort cows from calves. He puts all the pairs together in a big pen and then lets them stream back out through an alley in which he’s taken off the bottom fence plank. The calves can pass right under the fence into the adjoining pen, trying to follow the mothers. They sort themselves. When you can do that, sorting cows from calves is quick and easy,” he said.

“Biggs sorts his 300 pair by himself, with a dog behind them. The cattle want to come back out of the pen anyway, so there’s no pressure on them. He just stands at the gate and directs traffic, with cows going one way and calves the other way.” Working/sorting cattle can be very easy, with no stress, especially if you can let them think it’s their idea.


Tips for corral weaning

If calves must be weaned in a corral, sprinkle it with water ahead of time to settle the dust, it it’s dry. Use a small pen, to cut down on frantic pacing and running. Dust control is important, along with ways to keep calves from running themselves to exhaustion. Put big bales of straw or hay in the pen as obstacles to slow down the calves. If they have to walk around the bales, they don’t travel as much. Confine the calves in small areas, in small bunches, if possible. This cuts down on dust and stress. Smaller groups are always les stressed than cattle in large groups, and calves do less running and pacing.

If the water supply is a tank rather than a ditch or stream, let it run over. This helps them find the water if they are not accustomed to drinking from a tank. It also keeps the water cleaner. According to Dr. Pat Hatfield (veterinarian and rancher at Brothers, OR), a calf with a runny nose leaves mucus in the water when he drinks. The snot floats on the water and can infect other calves. But if you let water continuously run over the tank (ditching the flow out of the pen so it doesn’t create mud and risk for foot rot, or coccidiosis if calves try to drink from it), this infective material is flushed away.

Feed small amounts of hay several times a day instead of just one or two large feedings. Calves will eat more and waste less. They don’t like feed that’s been slobbered on or walked on. They waste hay if you feed on the ground, because they will be walking and pacing; it’s better to have feed bunks to keep hay off the ground and cleaner. Take time to turn the feed over in the bunks between feedings, so there’s always fresh hay on the top. Your actions will also stimulate the calves’ curiosity and they’ll come see what you are doing, and eat again. Since they spend a lot of time pacing around in the corral, and very little time eating, the more often you can get them to eat, the better.

Feed your best quality hay – fine and palatable, not coarse or stemmy. Calves are fussy eaters, and during this time of stress they are not eating enough, so you want very mouthful to be nutritious. If calves are not used to eating hay, put a babysitter cow with them in the corral. A gentle cow will not only show them where the feed is and encourage them to eat by following her example – she will also help them feel less frantic and alone, since they still look to adults for security.

This article about low-stress weaning by Heather Smith Thomas was published in the August 2011 issue of the Gulf Coast Cattleman magazine. Reprint  permission fee has been duly paid to the author of this article.

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