This year marked the second consecutive year in which a low-stress approach to weaning has been used on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball.
Traditionally, cows and calves have been physically separated at weaning time, often with the cows returning to pasture and the calves leaving for market on a truck.
Numerous studies have shown that abrupt separation and relocation is a high-stress evolution for both cow and calf, leading to reduced feed intake in both and a sharply higher rate of illness in the calves, particularly Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD), routinely called pneumonia or “shipping fever.”
The impact of these stressors hit the producer square in the pocketbook. Cows which are abruptly separated from their calves and subsequently “go off feed” for a few days are shortened on nutrition at a critical stage in the gestation of the new calf growing inside them. This can result in smaller, less vigorous calves at birth or even loss of the calf through spontaneous abortion or stillbirth. Troubled pregnancies can also mean reduced conception rates in subsequent years. Also, a cow going into winter requires a solid body condition, and missing a few days of grazing can melt flesh away quickly.
Calves which sicken after weaning don’t do as well at the market, costing the cow-calf producer the premium he’s worked so hard for. Calves which succumb to BRD either make the producer no money or gain him a reputation for producing “iffy” calves – those which require doctoring at the feed lot and seldom catch up with their peers in adding flesh or grading well.
Reducing the stress of weaning – for both cow and calf – makes a lot of sense. Many studies conducted over the years have shown that reducing weaning stress correlates very well with healthier, faster gaining calves, and healthier, better conditioned cows that tolerate winter better, produce more vigorous calves, and have higher breed-back rates.
The cattle industry has been somewhat slow in adopting low-stress weaning, and probably for a number of reasons. Firstly, the “old” or “usual” way has always worked. Secondly, the expenses and physical work are borne solely by the cow-calf operator. And thirdly, while many cow-calf operators like the idea of low-stress weaning, the additional supplies, attention to fencing, and the time spent planning and executing the plan often seem like a few too many extra tasks to producers who are already task saturated.
There is more than one way to reduce weaning stress. Two of the most popular are fenceline weaning and two-stage weaning.
In fenceline weaning, the cows and calves are separated by a fence. They can still see, hear and smell each other and spend time in close proximity. Depending on the design of the fence, cows and calves can even make physical contact through the fence. The fence has to be exceptionally strong and tight to prevent nursing, though, and both cows and calves can work their way through surprisingly tight fences. Most often, fenceline weaning merely reduces nursing, rather than eliminating it. In many ways, reducing nursing is almost as useful as eliminating it, and given time, complete weaning will eventually happen. So for a producer who can spend 30-60 days weaning calves, and who is willing to spend the time and effort to re-separate pairs who get through the fence, this is a great option.
Few cow-calf producers can spend that much time on weaning, however. The calves have to go to market, to a feedlot, into a backgrounding program, or out on autumn/winter grass. Cows need to stop lactating, which takes significant energy, and devote that energy to maintaining condition and growing next year’s calf.
|A big heifer waits in the chute Saturday just prior to receiving her anti-nursing device during annual weaning on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.|
This is where two-stage weaning has an advantage.
|A steer calf with a newly attached anti-nursing device just after being turned back in with the cow herd.|
In the first stage, a plastic anti-nursing device (AND) is placed in the nose of each calf. The devices are small plastic tags which fit into the calves nostrils and hang down over their upper lip like a moustache. This can be done while the calves are in the chute to be weighed, vaccinated, and otherwise “worked.” The calves are then turned back with the cows. As the calf tries to nurse, the AND pushes the teat away from the mouth, making suckling nearly impossible. The device does allow the calf to graze and water normally, however. The cows and calves still have close contact and can nuzzle, reducing stress for both. As the first stage progresses, the cows and calves spend less and less time in close proximity, drifting farther and farther apart as they graze and water, until they are separated for good.
|After a number of frustrating attempts to nurse, this calf finally gave up on milk and turned to grazing.|
During the second stage, after the AND’s have been in place for four to seven days, they are removed and the calves separated from the cows. Depending on the situation, the calves can remain near the cows for a few days along a tight fence or can be moved immediately to market, feedlot, pasture, or backgrounding pen.
|A steer calf happily grazes late-season grass one day after his anti-nursing device was affixed.|
Two-stage weaning is nothing new, and cattlemen were affixing metallic AND’s to calves more than a century ago. The plastic tags are nothing more than a modern iteration of a good idea.
In practice, the process seems to work quite well. On the EJE Ranch last year, the backgrounding calves gained as well or better than they had in the past, adjusted to the feed bunk in record time, and had no illness. Likewise, the replacement heifers did quite well on fall/winter forage and hay.
The cows also did exceptionally well, carrying good condition through the winter and producing, healthy, vigorous calves in the spring. Those calves summered exceptionally well in 2011 and represented a top-ten calf crop for the ranch.
Removing the AND’s does represent an additional sorting step and an additional trip through the chute for the calves. Placement of the devices, which cost about fifty cents each, is quick and easy.
All in all, two-stage weaning seems to be a good option for the EJE.