Low stress weaning a win-win for cows, calves, producers
September 29, 2014
Stress-free weaning may sound as impossible as a flying horse. For those who have used the methods, it's more of an old plug.
Stress-reducing methods that are tailored to a specific situation can lower the stress, and health-related issues, of not only the cows and calves, but the humans as well.
"It's a win-win deal. It's easier on the calves, easier on the cows and easier on us. I can't think of a downside to it," said northern Niobrara County, Wyoming cow-calf producer Andy Greer. Greer has used a low-stress fence line weaning method for more than a decade.
Greer and his wife Brenda operate a cow-calf operation with his parents. The family tried other weaning methods before settling on the current form of fence line weaning they feel works best for their operation.
"Before, it was very labor intensive. We would separate the cows and calves at a set of corrals a few miles from the house, bring the calves back to the house, shut them in another corral and feed them ground hay in bunks. It was harder work for us – the bunks were constantly empty, plus the calves weaned slower. We wanted something different," said Greer.
Greer heard about fence line weaning and felt he had a good setup for it, and he was right.
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"We have a little 20-acre pasture with a five-wire barbwire fence that we added a single electric wire to at nose height on the calf side. We pull the calves off the cows, turn the cows back out in the original pasture and put the calves in the smaller pasture. They have access to grass, hay feeders, a medicated liquid feed and fresh water. By day three the cows are usually gone and on day four we are typically able to turn the calves out into a bigger pasture on our creek that we reserve for weaning," Greer said.
South Dakota State University associate professor and beef cattle specialist Ken Olson said fence line weaning is one of the two most widely used and effective forms of low stress weaning, adding that typically the calves are turned back onto the pasture where they were prior to weaning because of familiarity they have with that location.
"We tried turning the calves back out in the larger pasture one year, and shutting the cows in the 20-acre pasture. It worked well as far as weaning went, but hauling feed and water to our cows versus our calves for four days was a full-time job. It was nice in theory but we switched back after one year so our cows could graze instead of eating up our winter hay supply," said Greer.
"The key stress reducing aspect in fence line weaning is the cows and calves can still see and interact with each other all the way up to but not including nursing. It's far less abrupt than total separation," said Olson.
One thing Olson hears from skeptics of fence line weaning is that there isn't a pasture fence in the world that will keep cows and calves separate. However, he said he has seen quite a few South Dakota ranchers successfully wean across fences ranging from a single electric wire to a woven wire.
"At first, we didn't have the electric wire on our fence, just the five barb wires, and there were always three or four calves that crawled out. That electric wire, placed nose high on the calf side, made all the difference," said Greer.
The only potential downside to fence line weaning Greer can think of would be an unexpected weather event.
"The 20-acre pasture we use is pretty flat with limited protection. We watch the weather and try to pick a good week, which typically isn't difficult in our area, but if a storm came through that would be kind of hard on the calves versus having them at the house behind windbreaks and buildings.
"Overall we are very happy with this method. We haven't doctored a single calf in several years, we check them twice a day, and are done weaning in four days," he said.
The second most widely known and used form of low stress weaning uses nose flaps, or blabs. For Oshkosh, Neb. ranch manager Tim Roberston, they have been his go-to weaning method for almost a decade.
"I'm a firm believer in how they take the stress of weaning off the calf – I think it's more stressful on our cows now than it is the calves when we do separate things," Robertson said.
Robertson, his wife Briana and one other person put the blabs in while preconditioning 650 calves in the pasture each fall.
"We set up portable corrals in the pasture as another means of reducing stress, then precondition and put the blabs in. Depending on where we are in our grazing rotation, they're left in for eight to 12 days. At that point we pull the calves off the cows, remove the blabs, and are set up to turn those calves right out on the after-growth of our hay meadows with a protein supplement. That's where they stay for 45 days or so until they're sent to the feedlot," Robertson said.
Olson said the blabs are effective in five to 10 days, but generally take a minimum of a week. In that time frame the calf still enjoys the companionship of its mom, but cannot nurse, so the cow dries up. In most cases, once blabs are removed cows and calves can be run together with only a small percent starting to suck again.
Before using blabs, calves were "just jerked right off the cow like it's traditionally done," said Robertson, who first used them at a different ranch in the north central mountains of Colorado. Using them in his current position was among the most important management adjustments he made.
"Once that calf is off the cow they're more interested in eating and drinking than looking for mom. I think that improves health significantly as well as performance in the calves," he said.
Olson said the nose flap was originally developed in Canada, and research conducted there shows a dramatic reduction in stress on calves when they are separated from their mothers, supporting the results Robertson sees.
While some consider the work associated with putting in and removing blabs as labor intensive, Robertson said for his operation it is an enjoyable aspect of fall work.
"We really enjoy working our cattle and improving our stockmanship, and for us it's easy. We see running them through as an opportunity to reduce current and future stress in another aspect of our operation," he said.
In Robertson's experience, roughly one percent lose their blab during the weaning process. He said a handful of calves will come back to the fence following separation, but they're rarely aggressive about going back, and that the vast majority are fully weaned at the time of separation.
"I am a firm believer in low stress weaning, and in every instance I have control of that management decision I will use blabs 100 percent of the time. I believe taking the stress away from calves provides them a jump-start from a health and performance standpoint going forward, and we clearly see that in just the 45 days we have them around after weaning. It is something that more than pays for us to do," he said.