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Low-stress weaning for calves

A less stressful weaning process makes for healthier calves

Weaning time has traditionally been traumatic for calves, mama cows and ranchers, but it doesn’t need to be.

“There are better ways to wean calves, says Bart Lardner, a beef and forage research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan.

“Abrupt weaning is the most stressful, for both the cow and calf. The question has been posed by several researchers — who is more stressed, the cow or the calf? We did a small study several years ago, looking at this,” he says.

“The study was twofold. We were doing some extensive grazing as well as testing weaning strategies with fenceline weaning. We separated the cows and calves, with a fence between them, where they could still be nose-to-nose with each other. We had some trainer cows (older dry cows) with the calves, to show them how to eat; we had them on millet swaths. There was very little vocalization from the calves during this weaning process; they went out to graze and got full, and came back to lie down by the fence near mom. The cows on the other side of the fence were bawling their heads off. We surmised that maybe the cow misses the calf more than the calf misses the cow —at least until her full udder quits hurting,” says Lardner.

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“For the calf, we replaced the milk with a good diet, and the calf still had mama through the fence,” he says. It is harder on the calf if mama is clear gone and he has to adjust to her absence and new feed all at once.

“The stress of abrupt weaning, where you truck the cows or calves to opposite ends of the ranch, is tough on them; they try to break out and come back to each other. Our study was interesting and showed that we need to think through this and reduce stress, because you want those calves to come off the milk diet and go onto a forage diet gaining weight,” says Lardner.

Lardner did some of the early work on two-stage weaning with Joe Stookey, using nose flaps (Quiet Wean), and says that works very well. Neither the cow nor calf is stressed because they stay together. The cow wonders why the calf isn’t nursing, and he wonders why he can’t, but they have each other for company, and there is very little bawling.

“In our experience, about five to 10 per cent of them lose the flaps (popping them out if they rub on something) and a few get smart and learn how to twist their head and use the side of the tongue to grab a teat, but most of the calves can’t nurse and are weaned by the time you take the nose flaps out a week later. Then you can separate them with no problems. The data shows less vocalization, less walking, etc., than with other weaning methods. We are seeing more producers using nose flaps for weaning,” says Lardner.

“We want to wean with the least stress possible, because calves can be exposed to so much — especially if they are put on a truck and moved to a sale barn. If those calves are stressed they are more at risk for bovine respiratory disease complex, especially if commingled with other calves.” They are much less likely to get sick if they have gone through a non-stressful weaning process.

Late weaning

Art McElroy winters his calves with their mothers on his farm in Saskatchewan. “I fought Mother Nature most of my life, whether it was winter calving, fertilizing, and battling every weed and bug with herbicides and pesticides. I never succeeded. Working with Mother Nature is a lot more fun than working against her. Now we calve in June/July, and this changed our thinking about how we wean and market calves, develop heifers, etc.,” he says.

He usually doesn’t wean until April or May. Calves stay on their mothers all winter, which saves feed and labour. “This is better than grain feeding to develop their rumens and enables them to become good foragers. They learn a lot from their mothers, as well,” says McElroy.

“I am not really very original in what I do with my cattle. I’ve read articles written by Walt Davis, Chip Hines, Burke Teichert and Kit Pharo over the years. My philosophy has been a long, slow evolution. The cow business is very low margin and our traditional way of raising cattle has built some tremendous expenses into growing a calf,” he says.

“Reading articles by innovative thinkers helped me understand where my costs are. One of the ways we try to reduce cost is by leaving the calves on the cows. We now realize there is no cheaper place to develop a heifer than on her mother,” says McElroy.

“We try to winter graze as much as possible, which reduces the cost of raising that heifer and she is also out there learning from her mother. This is also the healthiest place to keep her for the winter.” This can also reduce other costs — not having to treat sick calves or have death loss from disease. The healthy heifer will do better for the rest of her life, compared to one that was compromised by illness.

“Normally I don’t wean until late April. The calves go back out where the cows were — half a mile from home, either grazing or bale grazing — and the cows stay in the yard. The calves just head back to the grazing, and may hike back and forth a bit, but it’s very low-stress weaning,” says McElroy.

By that age they don’t need milk anymore and the cows are not milking much. “At that time of their life I don’t know how much milk those calves are actually getting, and by that age they are more independent than a younger calf. They have learned about grazing from mom. After about a day-and-a-half I move the cows clear away and the emotional tie is not as strong. The stress of weaning is mainly breaking that tie,” he says.

“To separate them at weaning, all I do is put them in a corral, open a gate and let the cows go back out past me. With our stockmanship, they are all trained to walk past me. So I can let the cows go out, and stop the calves, and I can do this by myself. I put the cows in a nearby pen, and then the calves go back out to where they grazed with their mothers. It’s a very quiet process compared to having a bunch of bawling cows and calves in your yard in the fall,” says McElroy.

“It’s an easy transition. Health issues are minimal; I don’t remember if I’ve ever treated a calf. They don’t bawl, they don’t wander around in the dust, not eating or drinking. The stress is so much less,” he explains.

Step-by-step weaning

Mike Hittinger and his wife Melissa, a veterinarian, raise Speckle Park cattle near Clyde, Alta. “We run 150 pairs and typically background our calves, and wean them with the least stress possible. We use nose flaps, and it’s a little extra work, but it’s the only method I’ve seen in which calves don’t lose weight during the weaning process,” he says. Calves weaned with minimal stress stay healthier and keep gaining.

“If a person were to sell calves in the fall after weaning, this method would have them in much better shape, and you wouldn’t lose so much money on shrink and lost gains,” he explains. Preconditioned calves — weaned for 30 to 60 days before being sold — are past any stress and do well. You don’t have to spend 45 days making up for lost gains during weaning.

Hittinger takes the nose flaps out after four days. Any longer and the calves start pulling them out.
photo: Supplied

“When we wean, the first thing we do is put pairs in the pasture the calves will be in. Then they are familiar with it and know where the feed and water is. Then we put in nose flaps and give fall vaccinations at the same time. Ideally, a person would vaccinate two to three weeks prior to weaning, but this method works because the calves are not stressed; they are staying with their mothers. Because we are doing low-stress weaning, they don’t have any problems from being vaccinated at that time,” says Hittinger.

“If you were to give them vaccines and stress them with the traditional weaning (separating them from the cows at the same time), you’d run the risk of having some of them get sick from vaccination.” Also, a stressed calf won’t be able to mount good immunity from vaccination because stress hinders the immune system.

“With no stress, the calves don’t have adverse effects. We’ve been using the nose flaps for about 11 years, and we’ve learned that the optimum time to leave those in is four days. Then we pull out the nose flaps and separate cows from calves, putting them in adjacent pastures so they still have fence-line contact,” he says. They’ve been with mom, but haven’t been able to nurse for four days; the cows are drying up and the calves have adjusted to not having milk, while still having mom for comfort and security. Thus the next step, being through the fence from each other, is easy.

After a few days of being in adjacent pastures, the cows are removed completely and taken to a different place. “We came up with the four days because it seems that after that length of time calves tend to lose more of them (nose flaps); they start figuring out how to pull those nose flaps out. If we leave them in for five or six days, enough calves have pulled them out that it makes it more of a problem when we separate them from the cows; there’s more of a ruckus.” Four days is long enough to do the job and you can get away with separating them, without losing very many nose flaps.

“If you leave them in too long and a calf loses his nose flap after five days or so, he goes right back to sucking the cow. Four days seems to be enough time for the weaning process without losing nose flaps, and then the pairs are across the fence from each other.” If any of them are still a little insecure, they still have mom nearby.

“When we put pairs in the pasture where the calves will remain, they are eating feed with mom — the feed they will have after weaning. They learn to eat it with mom and know that it’s okay. We are changing just one element at a time, allowing them to gradually adjust over a span of two weeks, rather than changing everything at once,” he says. It’s a lot easier on them.

“The year our first daughter was born it was weaning time, and we got lazy that year and thought we’d just fenceline wean. We’d been using nose flaps before that, and when we skipped that part it wasn’t easier! I had to fix more fence that year from calves and cows crawling through, and I realized that the time I spent fixing fence we could have easily put in the nose flaps!” says Hittinger.

“It’s not complicated; it just takes two trips through the chute, but it’s worth it. The other thing I’d like to try — that Joe Stookey, a professor emeritus at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, talks about — is a half-gate for more easily sorting calves from the cows,” he says. With this method one person can sort them; the cows go one way and calves are halted and go under a half-gate into the adjacent pen.

“That would make it even easier, because the hardest part of putting the flaps in or taking them out is sorting the pairs, to put the calves down the chute. Right now our alleys aren’t set up to facilitate this easy way of sorting, but if they were it would make this whole process a lot easier,” he says.

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