With fall right around the corner, it is time to look at weaning this year’s calf crop. This is always a time of stress for cows, calves, and the farmer. So looking at ways that we can reduce stress for all can play an important part in profitability and health of the herd. The main factors in developing a low stress system are to look for ways to limit the number of stress sources put on the cattle at one time. The main stressors at weaning come from changes that are physical, social, environmental, and nutritional. Knowing where each of these stressors can come from allows us to make changes and limit the amount of stress at any one time and make the transition less stressful. These changes may vary from farm to farm. Here are a few methods to consider when deciding how to start minimizing stress at weaning time.
The first consideration is fence line weaning. In this system cows and calves are separated only by a fence. This may be done on pasture or in dry lot. If we look at fence line weaning on pasture, this allows us to wean calves on the same forages as they were currently on and start the transition to other feed stuffs as the process moves forward. This reduces the nutritional stress on the calves. The biggest areas of stress reduction are seen in the social and environmental aspects. In this system, since the calves and cows have visual and scent contact, calves spend more time eating/grazing and lying down than conventionally weaned calves. These calves also spend less time walking and vocalizing than calves weaned in a more traditional method. One of the possible draw backs to this system is fencing. Solid fences become a key in this system and it is the separation tool.
A second method for low stress weaning is a two-step method. In this system, calves have an anti-sucking device inserted into their nose for set amount of time prior to actual separation. The second step is then separation from the cows. This method allows for calves to keep their social structure while the nutritional stress to different feed is achieved. Once the transition from mom occurs, the calves are then separated, making the social and environmental change easier on the calves. Good results have been seen in this system when the anti-sucking device is used for 3-7 days. There is evidence that when the device is left in beyond this time frame, it can cause nose lesions and reduce feed intake and create additional stress.
In some cases abruptly moving the calves from cows is our only option based on space, facilities etc. So other things we can do to minimize stress at this point is precondition our calves to hay prior to putting them in the feed lot and do some of our vaccinations prior to weaning. Placing feeders and waterers at the fence edges versus in the center of the lot will increase the odds of the calves finding feed as they pace the fences.
Looking at the impacts of weaning stress on weight gain, the Tennessee Beef Cattle Improvement Initiative did Comparison of Weaning Methods Demonstration on a farm in Lawrence County in 2005. They compared fence line weaning, a two-step weaning, total separation no dehorning, and total separation with dehorning. In their demonstration the low stress systems had a weight gain range of 170-183 pounds gained at 58 days versus the total separation methods at a range of 122-143 pound at 58 days.
As with any agricultural system, there are many ways to achieve your goals. Identifying the source of stress on calves and cows, and implementing a change in management may make it easier for cattle and us.