Low-Stress Weaning Strategies Keep Calves Healthier

Published on Tue, 08/24/2021 - 11:36am

Low-Stress Weaning Strategies Keep Calves Healthier.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 There are many ways to wean calves, but some are less stressful than others.  The goal is to wean with less stress--to keep calves healthy and keep them growing/gaining without setbacks.  Weaning can be the most stressful time in a calf’s life if we don’t take extra care to ease them through this transition.  Many calves go through added stresses at this time if they are being vaccinated, transported, comingled with other calves (at a sale barn, growing lot, stocker pasture or feedlot), and having to adjust to a new environment.

Stress, especially if compounded, often results in illness or lower weight gain, and this means less money for whoever owns the calf at that point in its life.  Studies done at Oregon State University demonstrated that these lower gains have an impact on the finished carcass.  Calves that keep gaining during the receiving period do better all the way through; for each 1/10 pound of gain during the receiving period (above that of the lower-gaining stressed calves) the researchers saw about a 20-pound increase in hot carcass weight at the end of the finishing period.  Lower stress at weaning not only increases carcass value, but saves money in costs of treatment for sick calves.

A study at Ohio State University showed that with fence-line weaning (as opposed to abrupt corral weaning) only about 15% of the calves had to be treated for BRD, and that number was doubled for calves that had to be hauled in a truck or transported at weaning.  About 45% of calves that were put into a feedlot/drylot for weaning needed treatment.

Dr. Ron Gill (Texas A&M) says weaning strategies vary greatly from ranch to ranch depending on facilities and age of calves being weaned.  “Traditional weaning age is about 5 to 8 months of age, sometimes older.  Low-stress methods include fence-line weaning and two-stage weaning with nose flaps,” he says.  

The nose flap doesn’t hinder eating or drinking, but makes it difficult for the calf to suckle.  After the nose flaps are installed, calves are turned back out with the cows, and go through the first phase of weaning (unable to suckle, so the cow’s milk dries up) while still with their dam.  This minimizes stress; the calf still has mama for companionship and security, and the cow isn’t worried about her calf because he is still with her.  After about 5 to 7 days the flaps are removed and the pairs can be separated, and they aren’t upset because weaning has already been accomplished.

Katy Lippolis, Animal and Rangeland Sciences, Oregon State University, did her Masters work at Colorado State University, looking at low-stress weaning using nose flaps.  “I evaluated weaning with nose flaps and how this affected cow performance, calf performance and carcass quality,” she says.  Most producers who try nose flaps say it’s the least stressful way they’ve ever weaned calves.

Even when they are still with their mothers, there may be groups of calves wandering off from the herd and doing their own thing—like a group of teenage kids; the bond with mom is being broken.  When you actually separate the cows from the calves and take out the nose flaps (about a week after putting them in) the calves are essentially weaned and don’t care very much where mom is.

“When we’re sorting them again (after they’ve had the nose flaps for a few days), putting calves one way and cows another, the calves just walk off and graze or lie down and chew their cud, completely at ease and relaxed.  The cows might turn around once and then just walk away. Once you break that nursing bond (which provided comfort as well as milk), the calf is ready to go,” she says.

“Anything you can do to reduce stress is beneficial,” says Gill.  “The important thing with any weaning method is to not do anything else to the cattle on the day you wean.  This is difficult for some operations if they won’t have another opportunity to get the cattle in, so they process the calves or cows when they separate and soft off calves.  Whether you move cows through the gate and leave the calves, or separate them in a pen and let the cows back out, or send the cows one way and calves another, you want to do it as quiet as possible,” he explains.

The situations where he’s seen fence-line weaning not work is when people process cattle and get them stirred up and stressed, then turn them out with the calves on one side of a fence and the cows on the other.  “The calves and calves are in panic mode already and may go through or over a fence to try to get back together,” Gill says.

With fence-line weaning, plan ahead with adequate grazing for the calves on high-quality pasture.  “Otherwise you need to provide the necessary nutrition—whether it’s good hay, silage, or a grain mix—during this period of transition,” he says.

This decision is never static; these factors are never exactly the same from year to year.  It depends on cattle markets, weather, cost of feed etc.  “From a stewardship standpoint, I feel every rancher should wean calves at home in a familiar environment.  Yet, I realize that from an economic standpoint this may not always be the best approach.  If we can get them weaned at home (even at a break-even, financially) it’s better for the cattle and for the industry.”  Those calves are not as vulnerable to illness and will do better for the next owner.

“There are times, however, it may be best to just send those calves to town, right off the cow, if somebody else can manage them better.  I’ve seen some people who tried to keep calves at home and didn’t have the facilities, time or labor to do it right.  Those calves would have been better off shipped to someone who had the time and resources to manage them correctly.  Even though the stress level might have been higher hauling them away, right off the cows, there might not be as many get sick.  That’s the whole objective, to keep these cattle from getting sick at home, and keeping them from getting sick after they leave home,” says Gill.

If you have to wean calves in a corral rather than on pasture, get them used to eating the new feed before you wean them, so it’s not an abrupt change.  “Teach them to eat whatever you’ll be feeding them after weaning, and do this while they are still on the cow,” Gill says.

Calves will try the new feed more readily when they are not being stressed, and will sample new feed if they see mama eating it.  “This is learned behavior.  Here in Texas many producers use cottonseed meal pellets/cubes as a supplement during weaning.  We might feed some in the summer on pasture, just to get calves used to eating it with their mothers.  Then they’ll eat it from day one, when you wean.”  Otherwise they won’t eat a new feed very well after you take them off the cows and may actually lose weight for a while.

“If they aren’t eating during this time, it stresses their immune system.  Usually if calves will eat, and maintain or gain weight through the first 7 to 10 days after taking them off the cows, they won’t get sick.  It’s when they won’t eat and won’t drink that they get into trouble.  You want to remove as many stresses as possible; then the only stress you have to worry about is the separation itself,” says Gill.  The goal is to make that separation as smooth as possible.

“We have to find a good way to do that, since we generally can’t practice natural weaning (the cow eventually weaning the calf herself by not letting him nurse).”  Cows wean their calves at some point before they get ready to have the next calf.  Some cows wean the calves when they’re about 8 to 11 months old.  This natural weaning is not stressful for the calf because he can still follow mama around and be with her.  Even if she goes over the next hill grazing and doesn’t come back to him, he still has his familiar group to hang out with, even if he doesn’t know where she is.

Some cows kick their calves off sooner than others.  If a producer calves early in the year and cattle are out on pastures that get dry in late summer and the cows are past peak lactation, milk production drops off.  Some of those cows wean their calves.  “There are always some that are already over that transition by the time we actually wean the group.  Those calves were never stressed—similar to using the nose flaps--because they were still with their mothers.”

Stockmanship To Reduce Stress
One of the best ways to reduce stress at weaning is to use low-stress handling to quiet the calves when they are separated from their mothers—if they are weaned in a corral and their mothers are taken clear away rather than just through the fence.  “Even if you get them sorted and separated quietly and put them in a pen or pasture without a lot of hassle, those calves will still walk the fence and bawl.  Someone needs to get in there with them and quietly change their focus.  This is part of the process we call acclimation, to get them settled into their new situation smoothly,” says Gill.

“There’s usually one or two instigators of the fence-walking and bawling, so if you can get those calves to stop walking/bawling and focus on you as a distraction, this helps.  If you do this periodically during the first day or two, calves start to realize that they can stop and relax and rest.  They start looking to the person for reassurance and guidance, just as they always looked to their mothers.  You are the surrogate. You need to take charge of that group and let them know you can settle them down and you are the one providing their feed.  Being a distraction for them, you reduce a lot of their stress,” he explains.

“We used to have a preconditioning operation and found we could dramatically reduce sickness, morbidity rates and mortality rates after we implemented good handling practices.  This aspect of weaning is more valuable than most people realize,” he says.  If you relieve the stress during the first day or two, they stop bawling a lot quicker.  

One problem with fence-line weaning if you use a feed truck to go out there or take any feed to the calves is that the cows will start bawling when they hear the truck, and they want to come to the feed.  If the cows start bawling, this sets the calves off again.  “I recommend a different way to go out there to feed the calves or interact with them.  Go out on foot or on an ATV, or some other way that won’t attract the cows and start them bawling—or it just compounds the calves’ restlessness,” he says.

If a person has to wean in corrals and can’t do fence-line weaning, it’s just you interacting with the calves; the cows aren’t distracting them across the fence.  That’s where stockmanship is very important and can make a big difference for those calves.