Most ranchers try to wean calves with the least stress possible – to keep them healthy and get them gaining again as soon as possible.
Andy Gray, who runs 500 cows near Douglas, WY, tried a new weaning method last year, using nose flaps on the calves. These plastic flaps are easily installed with the calves in a chute, and then the calves are returned to their mothers. The flap hangs down the mouth, preventing the calf from getting a teat into its mouth, but does not hinder eating grass or hay or drinking water.
The calf cannot nurse, but still has its mother for comfort and companionship during weaning. The cow starts to dry up, and the calf adjusts to not having milk. A few days later cows and calves can be separated and the flaps removed, without stress.
Gray tried this with 100 calves last year and felt it was a great way to wean. “We left the flaps in for a week to 10 days, then took them out and hauled the calves away.”
“They weren’t stressed and it was also less stressful for me. They weren’t bawling or trying to get through fences. We just ran them in, put the calves through the chute to install the flaps, then turned them all back out in our summer pasture. We didn’t pay any attention to them while they were being weaned!” Gray said.
“When we rounded them up later and took the flaps out, none of them were bawling. It was the simplest, easiest way we’ve ever weaned calves.” The calves were put on irrigated pasture and went right to grazing.
“The flaps are re-usable and this is a nice advantage. The best thing about this method is having the calf stay with its mother. Compared with traditional weaning methods – keeping them in a corral and breathing dust – I prefer to leave them out on the pasture,” he said.
Mark and Della Ehlke started using nose flaps three years ago on their registered Hereford and Angus cows near Townsend, MT. “The flaps go in easily and it’s just one more small step when they’re in the chute,” Ehlke said.
“We timed it with their pre-weaning shots, and left the flaps in for about 10 days to 2 weeks – which is a little longer than the manufacturer recommends, but it works fine. We took the flaps out when we separated pairs, hauling the calves to our preconditioning corrals and taking the flaps out when we let the calves out of the trailers,” he explained.
“These calves wean much easier and go right to feed when they come off the cow. There’s no bawling or pacing the pen. And the cows went right back to grazing after we sorted off the calves and hauled them away. In the past we had to hold the cows in corrals until they got past wanting to look for their calves,” Ehlke said.
He first read about the nose flaps in a Canadian publication, and then a couple ranchers in the Gallatin Valley started using them. “They told us how much they liked the results, so we thought we’d give it a try.”
One of those ranchers was Chuck Kohlbeck at Storey Herefords near Bozeman, MT, – a registered operation with 125 cows. They’ve used the nose flaps for about seven years. “When I first saw them advertised I thought it was a great idea. It reminded me of the ‘can’t suck’ devices people used on diary cattle to keep them from nursing each other. We tried the flaps on about 25 calves,” Kohlbeck said. The next year he used them on all the calves.
He puts the flaps in when giving vaccinations and getting their weaning weights, and takes the flaps out two weeks later when the calves get their booster shots and are taken away from the cows.
“We’d observed fenceline weaning, but this works a lot better. And when we take the calves to the feed pens afterward, they go right to the bunk and eat; they’re not worried about mama or milk. This year, with it hot and dusty, it really paid off. The calves aren’t stressed or milling around the corral kicking up dust. We weaned them September 14th, and haven’t had any sick ones,” Kohlbeck said.
“When we take the flaps out we put them in a big bucket, wash and sanitize them, then put them away in a sealed plastic bag until the next year. My wife writes the year, and number of tags, on the bag, and when we grab that box we know how many are in it, so we know whether or not we’ll need more for the next time,” he said.
Calves weaned this way just keep gaining and don’t lose weight. It really pays off when preconditioning calves to sell, or weaning replacement heifers. “If you are shipping calves, it would be worth putting flaps in, even for a few days. The calves are basically weaned when they hit the feedlot,” Kohlbeck said.
You can send the calves any time after you take out the flaps – even the same day. “If you know you’re going to ship in two weeks and want to give shots before you ship, you can run the calves in, give those shots and put the flaps in. Then when you ship you just pull the flaps out and put the calves on the truck. You don’t have to sit there with 500 cows bawling their heads off after you ship, and the calves won’t hit the feedlot or auction yard bawling. If you can put the flaps in for that last couple weeks, the feedlot guy will love you a lot more!”
Glenn Benjamin, a Colorado rancher at Simla (45 miles east of Castle Rock) has been using nose flaps for about eight years – on 300 calves each year. “We just keep using the same ones over again, and rarely lose any,” he said.
The key to not losing them is to immediately let the calves back out to mama rather than having them bunch up in the corral as you let them out of the chute. “It’s when they bunch up in a tight mob that they start knocking the nose flaps out. Otherwise, we rarely lose more than 2 or 3 percent and most of those don’t come out until the end. We usually find the lost flaps in the trailers after we’ve separated the calves from the cows again and hauled the calves to the feed pens where we’ll be taking the flaps out,” he said.
“We haul the calves from various pastures to central corrals to weigh and sort, and even though they’ve only had the flaps in for four or five days those calves are weaned and quiet. They aren’t running around bawling and they are gentle to handle just because they are not upset,” Benjamin added.
Editor's Note: You can order nose flaps through your local vet or feed/supply store or by searching online for a supplier.