Weaning is a stressful time for calves. This stress can contribute to reduced feed consumption, which means poor nutrition. It also can depress the immune system, leading to greater risk for sickness and death, explained Adele Harty, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist.
"Any chance to reduce the stress of weaning has the opportunity to contribute to improved health and performance of calves, both during and after weaning," Harty said.
Typical weaning involving the abrupt removal of the calf from the cow will create a highly stressful situation. Harty said that any weaning process that makes the separation more gradual will reduce the stress and therefore potentially improve health and performance of the calf.
Examples of low-stress weaning include fenceline and two-step weaning:
Fenceline Weaning: Fenceline weaning methods, Harty explained, are most frequently used in weaning on pasture situations as a means to decrease stress on the calves, potentially resulting in increased performance and immunity compared to abruptly weaned counterparts.
"Research in Utah indicated that fenceline-weaned calves vocalized less, spent more time eating, and had greater weight gains compared to calves that were abruptly and completely separated from their dams," she said.
The increased weight gain was maintained through a 10-week timeframe post-weaning. Additional research in Michigan supported the increased performance for the first 14 days and lower serum haptoglobin levels at day 5, however this performance did not continue through 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 stress, explained Ken Olson, Professor & SDSU Extension Beef Specialist. "Thus, lower serum haptoglobin in fenceline-weaned calves indicated they were less stressed after weaning," Olson said.
He pointed out that the Michigan study, which evaluated calf behavior, reported that the fenceline and two-step weaning methods appeared to be less stressful on calves compared to abrupt weaning methods.
For fenceline weaning to be effective, Harty and Olson outline the steps that need to be taken.
1. Place cow-calf pairs in the pasture the calves will be in following weaning so they become familiar with the fences and water sources.
2. Upon weaning, place the cows in the pasture adjacent to the calves so they cannot nurse however they can still see, hear and smell each other. This may require some modifications to fences to ensure cows and calves remain separated. There are multiple options for fencing, which could be as simple or complex as desired.
Examples include: a. five-strand barbed wire fence; b. five-strand electric if they have not been acclimated to electric fence before weaning; c. barbed wire fence with a single offset electric wire to ensure calves cannot reach through and nurse; d. other options can work, but the key is to maintain separation.
3. It may be valuable to place a cull cow or yearling with the calves to keep them from constantly bawling and walking the fences.
4. After a few days the cows and calves will move farther from the fences and not be as concerned about having been weaned.
Two-step weaning: Two-step weaning is another option for decreasing stress on the calves. The two-step process utilizes plastic nose tags (quietwean.com) that prevent calves from nursing while they are in the same pasture as their dams. "The calves are still able to eat forage and drink water," Olson said.
The two steps to this process include:
1. Place plastic nose tags in all calves for four to seven days. It is important to ensure they are placed correctly to minimize losses through them falling off or the calves figuring out how to nurse with them on.
2. After the four-to-seven-day period, remove the plastic nose tag and move the cows to a remote 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 as much time eating each day during the time the nose tags are on.
When stage 2 starts (separation from dams), there is no increase in bawling or walking compared to stage 1 or prior to inserting the nose tags. Meanwhile, contemporaries' that were abruptly weaned in the Canadian studies displayed dramatic increases in bawling and walking during the weaning process.
"Research in Michigan indicated the two-step was less stressful than the abrupt weaning method. Whether this reduced stress leads to long-term improvement in health and performance appears to be unknown and requires additional research," Olson said.
Despite this, Olson added that any reduction in stress during weaning might be worth the effort to use less stressful weaning procedures.
"Less stressful weaning is not only an improvement for the calves, but may also be more peaceful for cattle producers as well because of quieter cattle during weaning," he said.