Low-Stress Calf Weaning
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Calf weaning time is stressful for cattle. During the past several decades, many people have found better ways to wean than putting calves in a corral and taking the cows away. A big calf doesn’t need milk anymore, but still feels dependent on mama and insecure without her. If confined in a pen, calves pace the fence and bawl, often running frantically back and forth. If corrals are dry, this churns up dust that can irritate the lungs and open the way for respiratory infections. The calf is doubly susceptible to respiratory problems because stress hinders the immune system. There are better ways to wean calves, including fenceline weaning with the calf right next to their mother on pasture, and two-stage weaning using nose flaps — with the calves staying with their mothers during the weaning process.
A calf that can stay on good pasture while weaning generally does better than a calf in corral, partly because pasture is a more natural environment, less dusty, and they don’t have to learn how to eat a new feed at the same time they are undergoing stress from weaning. With cows and calves in separate but adjacent pastures for a few days, the calves still have their mothers (right next to them through the fence) but they can’t nurse. They spend time at the fence, but the calves have green pasture when they feel hungry. By the third or fourth day, after the pairs are not so eager to get back together again, you can move the cows farther away. Calves weaned on pasture never quit gaining weight and also have less stress and health problems.
On our ranch, we started fenceline weaning 35 years ago — separating the cow and calf but putting them in adjacent pens or pastures so they could still go to the fence and be next to each other. It was easier on them than the “cold turkey” weaning we did earlier, leaving calves in a corral and taking their mothers to a far pasture, but they still bawled and were upset.
Nine years ago, we tried using “nose flaps” on the calves and leaving the pairs together until the cows started drying up. We’d heard great reports about this method from ranchers who use it, and I’d talked to Joe Stookey — the man who invented this innovative device at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, about 20 years ago. The “nose flaps” are now marketed as Quiet Wean.
With our herd, we found that this two-stage weaning (letting the calf be with mom for a few days but unable to nurse, then separating them) was the least stressful way to wean. Calves are always stressed when abruptly separated from their mothers, and stress can lead to immune suppression and vulnerability to disease, especially if the stress of weaning is coupled with bad weather and/or a long transport when newly weaned calves are sold and moved somewhere else.
In nature, without human intervention, calves are weaned by their mothers kicking them off before the next calf is born. She may do this several months or several weeks before her next calf; her milk production is diminishing by the time her current calf is nine or 10 months old and she generally just weans him. The big calf follows along and stays with the cow, never losing the comfort and security of her presence. He may still try to nurse for a few days, but the cow won’t let him, and he resigns himself to weaned status.
When I talked to Joe Stookey about the nose flaps he invented for weaning, he said this all came about because of one of his students’ questions. The student had asked what the calf misses most — the milk or the mother — and their class decided to find out. “When we did the study and took away the milk by creating this anti-sucking device, none of the calves were upset,” Stookey told me. “Then when we took away the mother a few days later they didn’t miss her either, and we realized we’d weaned the calves! We weaned them in the presence of the mother and that was a big difference,” he said.
These plastic flaps can be easily installed in seconds, with the calf restrained in a chute or head catch of some kind, or a stanchion. The flaps are somewhat flexible and you just give a little twist to get them situated in the nostrils or bend them a little so the gap between the two sides is a little wider so you can slip the nose flap into the nostrils. Then the calves are returned to their mothers. The flap hangs down over the nose and mouth, preventing the calf from getting a teat in his mouth to nurse, but won’t hinder eating grass or hay or drinking water.
The calf can’t nurse, but he’s not upset because he’s still with mom. He feels a bit frustrated, wondering why he can’t get a teat in his mouth and may stand there and try, but he’s not frantic. He still feels secure; he has his mom’s companionship and protection during weaning. The cow starts to dry up, and the calf adjusts to not having milk. About five to seven days later, cows and calves can be completely separated and the flaps are removed (with a bit of a twist to get them out of the nose), and the calves are not stressed. The flaps can be washed, saved, and re-used many times.
We install flaps in our calves when we vaccinate. It’s humorous to watch them when they go back to mom afterward; they try to nurse, and bunt the udder in frustration — and get kicked. Mom can’t figure out why baby isn’t nursing, but neither of them is stressed. They keep track of each other and spend time together, but there’s no frantic pacing/bawling like other weaning methods. The cows are more upset than the calves, bawling a bit because their udders are tight, but the calves don’t bawl.
By the time we take out the nose flaps a week later, the cows are drying up and the cows don’t care so much when we separate them from their calves, and the calves are essentially weaned. We put the calves in a new pasture and take the cows to our upper place to spend the rest of the fall grazing on mountain pasture, and everybody is happy.
We’ve weaned our calves that way for nine years, putting nose flaps in a few days before or at preg-checking time. We give their vaccinations at the same time because they are not stressed — and stress is the reason people usually have to vaccinate a couple of weeks before or a couple of weeks after weaning, to not interfere with the calf’s ability to mount good immunity. We haven’t had any calves get sick during weaning with this stress-free method. For several years, we’ve had miserable wet weather (including snowstorms) during the days they were being weaned, but since the calves were still with mom it didn’t seem to bother them.
And since they are not stressed, they never stop grazing and just keep gaining weight. We save our best pastures in the fall for weaning and for the calves right after weaning, and they don’t need any grain. Our replacement heifers just stay on good pasture until it snows under, and we can sell the other calves any time. With no-stress weaning, they are as calm and plump as if they’d been weaned for a month.
Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.