click image to zoomWeaning nose clips, such as this one from QuietWean, allow calves to graze but not nurse, meaning calves can remain in the same pastures with their dams through the weaning period. On the Hibbard family ranch in Montana, they calve their herd in June, and by the time they are ready to wean calves in the late fall, snow sometimes has drifted over the fences. That condition, however, is the only factor that will prevent them from using fenceline weaning, a practice Whit Hibbard believes provides dramatic benefits in health, performance and animal welfare.
For Glenn Benjamin, who runs Bijou Creek Livestock in eastern Colorado, a different system – weaning nose clips – serves the same purpose of reducing stress during this critical period. Several companies such as QuietWean and EasyWean market these clips, which allow calves to graze, but not nurse, meaning calves can remain in the same pastures with their dams through the weaning period.
Each of these methods, says University of Nebraska Extension veterinarian David Smith, allows ranchers to wean calves in stages, in contrast to conventional weaning methods that abruptly isolate calves from their dams, either in confinement pens or on trucks on their way to their next homes.
Choice of weaning options, however, depends on an individual operation’s facilities and marketing plans, Smith says. For some ranchers, selling calves off the cows, essentially weaning them during transit, remains a viable option. They avoid the expense, management challenges and potential risk or weaning calves on the ranch. Meanwhile, many feedyards and backgrounding operations have the facilities, experience and skills to successfully manage freshly weaned calves.
Many other ranchers, however, participate in value-added marketing programs that require and reward specific health and weaning protocols. These programs typically offer the highest premiums for calves that remain on the ranch for at least 30 to 45 days after weaning. For producers marketing calves through these programs, management practices that minimize stress through the weaning program offer multiple benefits by protecting calf health and potentially boosting calf weights at sale time.
Smith reminds producers that weaning typically takes place during a time when calves are at high risk for disease, as their maternal antibodies have declined but their active immune systems have not fully developed. This, he says, helps explain why early weaned calves often present fewer health problems in feedyards than those weaned at a more conventional age – they retain their maternal antibodies through the stressful transition.