Fenceline Weaning: Low-Stress Weaning Method
Plus: What to Feed a Calf After Weaning
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Fenceline weaning is perhaps one of the less-stressful methods of separating cows from their calves. Weaning time has traditionally been traumatic for calves and mama cows and also the people weaning the calves. In the past 30 years, however, many stockmen have found less stressful ways to wean than sticking the calves in a corral and taking the cows away.
Weaning is physically and emotionally stressful for a calf, and the emotional trauma is just as hard on him (maybe harder!) as suddenly being deprived of milk. A big calf doesn’t need milk anymore, but he still feels dependent on mama, and insecure without her. When taken away from mom and put into a weaning pen, calves pace the fence and bawl, running frantically back and forth. If corrals are dry, this kicks up dust that irritates the respiratory tract and opens the way for infections. The calf is very susceptible to respiratory problems at this time because stress hinders the proper functioning of the immune system. Fenceline weaning in a grassy pasture is much better than in a corral.
Green pasture is a more natural environment than a corral, and there’s no dust to irritate the respiratory system. Calves do better on good green grass than when suddenly taken off milk and fed hay for cattle (and maybe expected to eat grain — which is a foreign type of food). They are accustomed to eating grass. They don’t go off feed as much as when they have to eat something new and different. If the grass is drying out, pasture can be supplemented with a little good-quality alfalfa hay.
About 30 years ago, some ranchers started experimenting with fenceline weaning, putting cows and calves in pastures next to one another. If calves and cows can be adjacent for a few days during the weaning process, they are not as stressed. Even though they cannot nurse, and may bawl, the calves have the security of their mothers, nose to nose at the fence. By the third day, the pairs are not so desperate to get back together.
Fenceline weaning works well if fencing is secure enough to keep the animals from going through it. A pole fence, or netting that’s tall enough that the cows can’t reach over to mash it down, or several strands of electric wire, will generally work. Just about any fence, fortified with an electric wire, will keep calves on their own side. Even if cattle are not accustomed to a hot wire, if you put the wire on the calves’ side of the fence, they won’t go through it. Situate the hot wire about one foot away from the fence (and at a height the calves can readily check it out) so they encounter it first — and then they won’t press the fence again.
Successful fenceline weaning on pasture helps if you move the pairs into the pasture a day or two ahead of weaning so the calves will become familiar with that pasture. Then when you separate the pairs you can keep the calves in a familiar place and take the cows to an adjacent pasture.
The cattle pasture where you’ll leave the calves should have good grass. It might be new lush regrowth in a hayfield that was harvested earlier in the summer or a pasture that was grazed early and allowed to regrow so the grass is green and high in protein. Make sure you have a pasture that’s high quality for calves. Plan ahead and manage that pasture so it has the highest quality and the best forage it can possibly have at that particular time. You want it at the right stage of growth to be abundant and highly palatable and nutritious.
If you put the pairs in that pasture a day or two ahead of when you take the cows away, the calves will locate the water sources and perimeter fences while still with their mothers, and learn the boundaries. The primary water source should be near the fence and close to the adjacent pasture where their mothers will be after the separation. The dividing fence should be safe, without corners where the cows or calves might bunch up.
On weaning day, let the pairs keep grazing awhile in the morning so they will be relatively full and content. Mid-day you can quietly bring them to wherever you plan to sort. You might leave them there awhile to mother up and nurse one more time. Then when you come back to sort the cows off, they are relaxed and just loafing around, and not upset.
It’s ideal if your sorting corral is situated next to the adjacent pastures and you can quietly sort the cows out one gate into their pasture and let the calves out another gate into theirs. Most cows will be ready to head out to their new pasture when you open their gate because they know they are going to fresh grass. If you take your time, the herd will sort without any effort on your part. Calves are easy to hold back because they are a little timider, and the cows will walk on past you to their gate. After the first cows have left the corral you can let a few calves out the other gate, then let out a few more cows, and so on.
If they trust you, cattle handling is much easier and it’s easy to sort them. If you haven’t sorted the calves off the cows this way before, you can give them a little practice when you are moving the herd a day or two before — into the pasture where you want to wean. Have someone stand in the gate and take a little extra time to just let the cattle trickle by, and stop them a bit. Then they are prepared to sort easily the next time when you are separating them for weaning.
Cattle are smart, and readily learn what you want them to do. Every time you put them through a gate, it pays to have someone stand there so they have to walk past a person. That way they learn to calmly walk through. They aren’t being chased or harassed. Training them to quietly walk past you to go out a gate makes it easy to count them, check them closely for sickness or lameness, etc. It pays to have them easy to handle.
The easiest and least stressful way to sort cows from calves if you have them all together in a big pen is to let them quietly walk back out through an alley in which you’ve taken off the bottom fence pole or plank. The calves can pass right under the fence into the adjoining pen, trying to follow their mothers. They can walk a distance with her along their side of the fence. They sort themselves, with no stress at all.
After the calves are in their pasture and the cows are in the adjacent pasture, they may go to the fence to see where mom or baby is, but if grass is good, they spend most of their time grazing. Since the calves went back to the same pasture they came from, they usually aren’t bothered very much and it may take a couple of hours before they think they need to look for mom. Eventually, the cows and calves search for one another, but when they meet at the fence, they are not very upset. When they aren’t grazing, they may lie down next to each other on opposite sides of the fence.
Some stockmen leave one or two older animals (usually dry cows or a yearling) with the calves to provide reassurance and to be a role model. This can give the more insecure calves an adult to bond with. The pairs on opposite sides of the fence periodically go graze and then come back to the fence to check on one another. After about three days, fewer cows come back to the fence. They know where their calves are but are less concerned about them and their milk is drying up.
The calves begin to realize they don’t need their mamas anymore. By the fourth or fifth day, you can move the cows somewhere else if you need to take them to a different pasture. By that time, they are usually eager to go to new pasture and are not worried about their calves anymore, and the calves are fully weaned.
Will you be trying fenceline weaning with your calves? If so, we would love to hear your experience in the comments below.
Originally published in Countryside March/April 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.