Fall is almost here. That means it’s weaning time for many beef producers. Some dread it, many hate it- but it doesn’t have to be that way. The secret to easier weaning appears to be minimizing stress any way that you can. Some weaning methods are naturally less stressful than others. Sometimes a few simple tweaks can make things go more smoothly. If you’ve been weaning one way for years and its a stressful and dreaded event for your operation, it might be time to consider a new way. Below is a run-through of different weaning methods and tips to make the transition less stressful, courtesy of Drovers and Beef Magazine.
If calves are left on their mothers, typically they’ll naturally wean between 6 and 8 months of age. They’ll be very little if any stress, sickness or weight loss. At that point, calves are ready to leave their mothers, and the cows are usually ready to be rid of their 500-600 pound calves. Many beef producers do it this way, and it appears to be a simple, natural method- if your operation allows it. For various reasons though, natural weaning isn’t always possible. Producers need alternatives.
If that’s the case, you want to make sure that you’re doing everything possible to minimize the stress on the cows and calves. If calves are stressed they can get sick, dehydrated, depressed and can lose weight. Not good for the bottom line.
Minimizing stress starts with trustful handling. If you’re asking your cattle to perform a behavior that’s not normal and natural, the cows and calves need to be handled well. If they have positive interactions and ultimately trust their handlers, when cows are separated from their calves, they shouldn’t balk. Don’t send them into panic mode before they even get into the corral. Bring them in calmly and do everything possible to make weaning uneventful for them.
Below are different weaning methods, with advantages and disadvantages for each:
Pasture weaning can be low stress for cows and calves if done right. Calves are left in familiar surroundings and cows are moved away. Fenceline weaning is a pasture weaning method that has proven effective for some operations. Fenceline weaning allows cows and calves to see and sense each other, but has a fenced division, so they’re not allowed to nurse. Calves walk less, vocalize less, and continue to gain more weight than calves that are more abruptly separated from their mothers. Pasture weaned calves have larger average daily gains than feedlot weaned calves for the first three weeks.
The secret to making pasture or fenceline weaning work is to calmly separate the pairs. Hopefully the two never lose sight of each other. If they do, they can easily see each other across the fence line. You will need to train your animals to stay calm when walking past a handler at a gate- so do that several times prior to weaning. Walk the cattle between pastures through the gate for practice. By weaning day, the cows and calves should be used to passing through the gate, and separating them will be easier.
The disadvantage of pasture weaning is the extra infastructure necessary. You’ll need a very secure and strong fence and the extra space to keep cows and calves separated.
Nose tags are a weaning trend gaining momentum. When producers are ready to wean, a tag or flap is placed on the noses of calves. This allows them to stay with their mothers, to graze and drink water- but prevents them from nursing. The tags are left on for 4 to 5 days and then removed. Voila! They’re weaned.
Some research has found this method leads to significantly less vocalization from both cows and calves. Calves weaned with nose tags also tend to eat more and walk around much less. The disadvantages of nose tags are in the handling. Calves have to be handled twice- once to put the tag on, and once to take it off. This can be labor intensive for producers and also stressful on the calves.
Traditional or drylot is the most commonly used weaning method, because it’s arguably the most economical. Calves are separated from their mothers and moved to drylots. This method allows producers to easily monitor their calves and treat them as needed. It also provides them with the flexibility to move the calves to market at any time.
The downsides of drylot weaning are the extra space required to keep the calves and cows separated, and risk of illness. Calves will be stressed- and there can be problems with bawling, depression, dehydration and illness. However, with a good diet these risks can be somewhat mitigated.
Load ’em up. Truck weaning involves removing calves from their mothers, loading them onto a truck, and sending them to a feedlot or auction barn. It’s easy for producers, because it’s essentially just passing on the calves to another party, and not really going through much of the weaning process at all.
The main disadvantage of this system is that’s it’s obviously very stressful for the calves. With truck weaning calves are mixed with other groups, and this can lead to more illness and lower prices.
Whatever weaning process you choose for your operation, do what you can to minimize stress. Doing so will help prevent illness, dehydration, depression and bawling. Making the transition easier for cows and calves will ultimately make things easier on you.
Additionally, check out our another Ag Nook article on weaning: When to Wean: Fall or Spring?
Image courtesy of Alberta Farmer Express