Weaning can be one of the most stressful times in a calf’s life. Calves may consume less feed and water, resulting in poor nutrition. Stress can also depress the immune system, increasing the risk of illness or death. Any opportunity to reduce stress helps improve calf health and performance, both during and after weaning.
A typical weaning involving the abrupt removal of the calf from the cow will create a very stressful situation. Any weaning process that makes separation more gradual will reduce stress and potentially improve calf health and performance. Examples of low-stress weaning methods include fence and two-step weaning.
Weaning at fence
Fence-weaning methods are most often used in a pasture to reduce stress on calves. Research in Utah indicated that calves weaned at fence vocalized less, spent more time eating and had greater weight gains than calves that were abruptly separated from their mothers. The increased weight gain was maintained for a period of 10 weeks after weaning.
Research in Michigan has supported increased performance for the first 14 days and decreased serum haptoglobin levels by day five. However, this performance did not continue throughout the study and there were no sustained performance differences based on weaning method. Haptoglobin is an indicator of stress and is often present in the blood following a stressful event. Thus, a lower serum haptoglobin in weaned calves indicates that they were less stressed after weaning.
An additional study in Michigan evaluated calf behavior and found that two-step fence and weaning methods appear to be less stressful to calves than hard weaning methods.
For weaning at fence to be effective, follow these steps:
- Place the pairs in the pastures where the calves will stay after weaning so that they become familiar with the fences and the water.
- At weaning, place cows in adjacent pasture so calves can see, hear and smell them, but not nurse them.
Modifications to fencing may be required to ensure cows and calves remain separated. Fencing can be:
A simple five strand barbed wire fence or a barbed wire fence with a single staggered electrical wire to ensure calves cannot climb through and suckle.
It may be helpful to place a cull cow or yearling with the calves to reduce the amount of walking they do on the fences. After a few days the cows and calves will move away from the fence and not be so worried about being weaned.
weaning in 2 stages
Two-stage weaning is another option to reduce stress on calves. The two-step process uses plastic nose tags that prevent calves from suckling when they are on the same pasture as their mothers. Calves are still able to eat forage and drink water.
The two steps in this process are:
- Place plastic nose tags on all calves for four to seven days. Make sure the tags are placed correctly.
- After this period, remove the plastic nose tag and move the cows to a distant location.
Research from Canada shows that calves with nose tags do not bawl or walk any more than calves without nose tags. They also spend the same amount of time eating each day for the duration of the nasal tags. When the mothers leave, the bawling or walking of the calves does not increase compared to the first stage or before the insertion of the nasal tags.
Meanwhile, contemporaries who were weaned abruptly in Canadian studies displayed dramatic increases in bawling and walking during the weaning process.
As noted above, research from Michigan found that two-stage weaning was less stressful than cold turkey. Whether this reduction in stress leads to long-term improvement in health and performance seems unknown and requires further research.
Less stressful weaning is not only an improvement for calves, but can also be less stressful for cattlemen by having calmer cattle.
Source: South Dakota State University Extension