Reducing Stress on Calves at Weaning
Weaning can be one of the most stressful periods of a calves’ life. In some situations, not only is the calf removed from it’s dam, the calf is also moved to a new location and offered a different ration. Research studies from several Land Grant Colleges show that calves weaned using low stress methods have less sickness, less death loss and gain weight more rapidly during the weeks immediately after weaning.
There are multiple ways to wean. Some are abrupt (hard weaning), while others are more gradual (soft weaning). Hard weaning methods immediately separate calves from their mothers until they stop bawling, these would include putting unweaned calves in a pen or drylot or in the most extreme case taking them directly to a livestock market
Soft weaning methods prevent nursing, but still allow the calf to have contact with the cow. Nose clips and fenceline weaning are the two most common soft weaning techniques and in some cases both may be used on the same set of calves. Plastic nose clips, attached to the calf’s nose, have a flap that prevents the calf from getting the cow’s teat in its mouth; some also “stick” the cow so that she moves away when the calf tries to suckle. With fenceline weaning, cows are moved into an adjacent pasture and calves are left in their “home” pasture, allowing them to go nose-to-nose and do everything except nurse.
Both of these soft weaning methods reduce walking and vocalization of newly weaned calves when compared to hard weaning. Measurements of postweaning gain indicate that fenceline weaned calves outgain traditionally weaned calves for as long as ten weeks after weaning whereas improvement in gain in 2-stage weaned calves was only apparent in the first 2 to 3 weeks after being removed from dams.
When you look at the various weaning methods, soft weaning methods clearly create less stress for the calf and should be employed whenever feasible and appropriate for the operation. Specifically, research has revealed that fenceline weaning comes closest to replicating the performance of the pre-weaned calves in terms of how much time they spend resting and eating, as well as how much they gain at 2 weeks and at 10 weeks.
If implementing fenceline weaning the first step is to have a calf proof fence to keep calves from nursing from their mothers on the other side. It is also very helpful to expose the calves to the ration they are going to be consuming prior to the weaining process. If possible move the cows and calves into the area you plan to leave the calves in for a few days prior to weaning so the calf will be acclimated to their surroundings. Use your creativity when coming up with methods you can use, corrals next to a pasture or sub dividing with electric fences are some methods that will work. More suggestions on fenceline weaning can be found in a bulletin by Wright and Pruitt at https://igrow.org/up/resources/02-2050-2012.pdf
If using anti-suckling devices, they should be put on the calves three to seven days prior to weaning. If they are allowed to remain on the calf longer, some calves may learn to flip the device up so they can still nurse. Devices can be re-used but be sure to disinfect between uses.
Regardless of method used, the advantages of soft weaning methods are clear. Calves are less stressed, have better gains and are have less sickness than those weaned in other ways. I know of several producers in our area who have implemented soft weaning methods and none have gone back to hard weaning.
To ensure that newly weaned calves can respond to the disease challenge they will face also make sure that calves have been trained to eat feed and follow a vaccination protocol prior to weaning.
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(K – State Beef Tips Newsletter, Dr. Sandy Johnson)Contact:Keith MartinLivestock AgentWildcat Extension Districtrkmartin@ksu.edu(620) 784-5337