A lot of producers look forward to weaning with nothing but dread because it’s so often a bad experience for them, their cows, and sometimes their facilities. Many producers can tell stories about their corrals being torn down by the cows post-weaning, and not being able to sleep for three or four nights after weaning due to bawling cows and calves.
Also, weaning can be an extremely high-stress experience for the calves and the short-term effect on health and performance can be significant. For example, it is known that the stress of abrupt weaning increases fatal secondary bacterial respiratory infections and average daily gains can be seriously compromised.
The conventional belief is that weaning is a difficult, traumatic experience, and that the cows and calves are going to want to get back together. Therefore, we need to do it in a sturdy corral. And here’s the irony: If we believe that’s the way it’s going to be it probably will; it all starts with our mindset.
But it needn’t be that way.
Weaning can be done low stress, but it takes a different mindset. The low-stress belief is that weaning is only traumatic and stressful because we make it so. If left alone, cows will wean their calves naturally and with no fuss and no post-weaning sickness or weight loss, and they are more than likely happy to be rid of their six to eight month old 500-600 pound calves. And that’s the way it should be when we do it. The problem is that we get the animals out of a normal frame of mind and cause all the problems we normally experience with weaning. The cows concern is us, not necessarily the weaning. If the cattle are always handled well, they learn to trust their handlers and they know that their calves aren’t in danger.
So, low-stress weaning–regardless of how we do it–begins with how we gather and bring in the cattle. If we don’t do it properly, the cows and their calves are unmothered and in panic mode before we even have them in the corral. But if we bring them in calmly and mothered up, the actual weaning process is rather uneventful.
A particular form of low-stress weaning involves weaning through a gate between two pastures. The idea is to calmly separate pairs at the gate so they never lose sight of each other or, if they do, they can quickly find each other across the fence. In this way the emotional trauma of complete separation is mitigated.
A three-year study compared the behavior and post-weaning performance of calves that were (a) not weaned (the control group), (b) fenceline weaned, and (c) abruptly weaned. The fenceline-weaned calves exhibited similar behavior to non-weaned calves and they spent more time eating than did calves abruptly weaned. They also gained 50% more weight during the first two weeks after weaning.
Ingredients for Success
Prepare Your Cattle
In general, everything we do with our cattle that we’ve been talking about in this stockmanship series will train more manageable animals that will help in the weaning process. Of particular importance is training your cattle to calmly walk past a handler at a gate. If you don’t do this then fenceline weaning will likely be difficult at best.
You need two pastures, each with enough forage to last at least seven days. Keep the cattle in the pasture where the calves will stay for several days prior to weaning so they get used to their new home.
Prior to weaning, move the cattle back and forth between the two pastures several times to prepare them for the weaning.
If your cattle are used to walking calmly past a handler at a gate you might have to do this only once. If they are not, you might have to do this several times over successive days until they learn the drill
On Weaning Day
Gather the cattle loosely near the gate. The sorter opens the gate and draws the cattle to him.
One or more handlers can keep a slow, steady stream of pairs walking to the gate:
The sorter makes the split at the gate:
If you make a mistake (a calf gets through the gate) resist the temptation to fix it because that will unnecessarily stir everything up; rather, wait a few days post-weaning and go straighten it out.
Going through all these preparatory steps is very important. If you don’t, you are inviting a wreck. For instance, one rancher fenceline weaned across a page wire electrified fence and the cows tore down a couple hundred feet because he didn’t go through these steps. If done properly, however, cattle have been weaned across a single-strand electric fence.
Done this way, weaning should essentially be a non-event for the cattle. The photo below was taken down the fenceline (the sorting gate is in the foreground) later on weaning day. As depicted, all of the cows and calves are out grazing and nothing is hanging on the fence.
The picture below was taken the next day. Cows and calves have returned to the fence but nothing is balled up on the fence and there was no bawling.
We’d love to hear what works or doesn’t work for you. Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.