Weaning is among the most stressful periods in a beef production system for calves because they are subjected to stressors including removal from their mothers, new diets, processing (vaccination, dehorning, castration etc.) and possibly new environments.
Stress can result in behavioral or physiological distress, including increased vocalization and suppressed immune responses. While weaning is always stressful on calves, producers can use different methods to reduce its impacts.
Fence-line weaning takes advantage of environmental familiarity and proximity to calves’ mothers. Cows and calves are kept in the same pasture, but are separated by a fence that prevents nursing, while allowing the calves and cows to see and hear each other.
Advantages: Studies report that fence-line weaning reduces calf stress and improves weight gain when compared to abrupt weaning strategies. As a result, calves spent more time eating, less time laying down and gained 50 percent more weight than calves that were abruptly weaned. Calves were shown to retain more weight 10 weeks after weaning (30 pounds) when compared to calves that were abruptly weaned and had less stress factors that could be detected with bloodwork.
Disadvantages: Producers must have good fences to keep the calves and cows apart. This may require building or maintaining a pasture fence, which means increased inputs and labor. Second, if a calf gets through the fence, it must be caught and returned to the weaning pasture, resulting in increased stress for the calf and requiring immediate fence repair to complete the weaning process.
Two-step weaning, also called “quiet weaning,” is a strategy in which a calf stops nursing and then is separated from the cow. A plastic flap is inserted into the calf’s nose for a short time before separation from the cow. The nose flap prevents the calf from nursing on the cow but does not inhibit grazing or drinking water. The calf remains in the same pasture with its mother and is slowly acclimated to a new diet without the stress of separation from its mother.
Advantages: This method allows calves to remain in a familiar environment and near their mothers. Nose flaps can be reused and their placement and removal can coincide with a preweaning vaccination program so as not to increase the number of times a calf is handled. Studies report significantly less vocalization and time laying down, and more time eating and resting after complete separation from cows when compared to calves that were abruptly weaned. However, average daily gain was not significantly different from abruptly weaned calves.
Disadvantages: Benefits of this method have been documented, but there are drawbacks. First, animals must be handled multiple times to place and remove the nose flaps, which may lead to undue stress if not coordinated with other procedures that require handling the calves. Second, producers must buy and then replace some broken or lost nose flaps each year. Finally, if the nose flap comes off during weaning, that calf must be handled to replace it or separated from the cow in order to be weaned, causing increased stress.
Summary: Both methods have been documented to be effective and to increase short-term performance in calves, but they may not be applicable to all producers. The effectiveness and utility of each method is specific to each producer, their resources and how they intend to market calves after weaning.
Matt Garcia and Clark Israelsen, USU Extension faculty, contributed to this column.