Turn your sound on, then click on the sound clip below to get a feel for what weaning used to be like for John.
Our little town has been shrinking over the past fifty years. The school, the gas station, the café, all gone. But the mom and pop grocery store is still open, and that’s the place where folks still gather to shoot the breeze, trade gossip and catch up on local events. I stop in nearly every day myself.
Years ago, there was one week of the year when I completely avoided our little neighborhood store: weaning time. When our cows and calves were flooding the valley with their chorus of bawling, the last thing I wanted to do was have to answer my neighbors’ questions (complaints, actually) about weaning. Truth be told, I hated weaning time just as much as they did: the noise, the attendant stress, the lost sleep, and the worries about how many calves would get sick or even die. It was a horrible time of year, and I certainly didn’t need people reminding me about it.
I don’t miss those days at all.
Welcome to Low-Stress Weaning
Some years ago, we began experimenting with different weaning methods, trying to reduce the stress associated with weaning. That includes the stress that the calves, the cows, and the humans suffer. I’m not sure we have the perfect system, but weaning is now a very quiet and low-stress affair at our little ranch. The neighbors don’t even know when we wean calves, and that makes me even happier.
We use a two-step weaning process that — aside from being nearly silent — keeps the calves healthy and on the gain. We typically have no morbidity or mortality, and in fact, no difficulties of any kind. Here’s how our system works.
Step One: Nose Flaps
A nose flap is a hard plastic device that is slipped onto the nostrils of each calf. Gravity causes the flap to hang down in front of the calf’s mouth, and this prevents him from being able to nurse. As the calf nuzzles the cow’s udder, the flap is pressed firmly against the calf’s mouth, making it impossible for him to get a hold of the teat. In short order, the calf will typically quit trying to nurse and begin grazing right next its mother. When the calf lowers its head to the ground, gravity pulls the flap away from his mouth, allowing him to graze un-impeded. The simplicity of this device is a thing of beauty: no moving parts.
Installing a nose flap is easy, much easier than it looks. The key to successfully placing a nose flap is that the plastic flap is actually fairly flexible. By holding the flap with both hands, you can easily apply some torque and flex the flap by twenty degrees or so. This allows you to press one knob of the flap into a nostril and push the flap toward the center (septum) of the calf’s nose. When you release the other end of the flap, the second knob simply pops into place in the other nostril. With a little practice, placing a nose flap on a calf should take no more than thirty seconds or so. (Note: I find it easiest to insert the second knob by coming up over the lower part of the nose, as the tissue is more pliable there.)
I have used nose flaps on calves from 300 to around 800 pounds. The smaller the calf, the easier it is to install the flap. On larger calves, you may need to slip on a halter and snub the calf down a bit, as the width of the septum makes installing the flap it a bit trickier. Our retention rate is nearly 100%, with any tag loss almost always occurring just as the animal is leaving the chute area. Once out in the field, the calves appear to forget about the flaps almost immediately.
I typically leave the nose flaps in place for four or five days. During this period, the cows usually act a bit agitated, likely because their udders are full. The calves might moon around a bit at first, but there is very little bawling. Of course, it is helpful to be placing the herd of relatively good pasture. It’s hard to complain when you have a mouth full of green grass. On day four or five, I bring the herd back in, run the claves through the chute and pop the flaps out. This is even easier than placing the flaps in.
This 4:30 video shows how to install and remove a flap as well as the lack of stress the calf experiences once he leaves the chute.
I can imagine there are folks who can hardly stand the thought of running calves through the squeeze chute for something like this. And not once but twice! Oh my, so much work! Honestly, if you have reasonably good animal handling skills and reasonably good facilities, these operations should take no more than a minute or so per calf. In other words, assuming you routinely handle your cattle, using nose flaps shouldn’t be much of a challenge.
Step Two: Fenceline Weaning
After the nose flaps are removed, we turn the calves out into a pasture directly next to the pasture where the main herd is grazing. So, mothers and babies are able to stand within a few feet of each other, but not actually touch. I like to use a 4-strand barbwire fence for this process, bolstered by a hot poly wire on each side. I typically set the cows’ wire at 32” and the calves’ at about 24”. I like to keep these cattle and fences in place for another 4 or 5 days.
The first time I tried this technique I placed a single poly wire on the calves’ side, thinking that the calves would be desperate to get back with their mothers. Turned out, the exact opposite was the case. In fact, during this entire process it has become clear that it is actually the cows that are always more trouble than the calves. They vocalize more, pace the fence more, and are generally more agitated than the calves. My approach has been to be very coy about stirring up the cows. I try to avoid allowing them to even see my truck, as this often results in them vocalizing and walking in my direction. Much better to park behind a shed and sneak out to visit the calves, check on water, place minerals, etc. Just leave the cows alone.
At the end of the fenceline weaning period, I bring the calves in and ship them off to greener pastures on some other property. In my experience, the calves never skip a beat. They stay slick-looking and happy, and I think they are likely on the gain during the entire process.
I recently had an opportunity to chat about weaning strategies with a close friend who happens to be a ruminant nutritionist. We were talking about stress, nutrition, disease, death, and all things “weaning”. He had some interesting comments to share.
It is critical to wean calves onto a high-quality feed source. In a perfect world, we would be weaning the calves onto feed much like they have been grazing, but of higher quality. For instance, if the calves have been on meadow grass, try to wean them onto fresh re-growth of meadow grass.
If you must supplement the calves with protein or energy (when feed quality is too low) try to use a supplement that is similar in nature to the feed they have been grazing on. In other words, try to change the diet as little as possible.
There is some interesting anatomical morphology that allows young calves to make best use of mother’s milk. At first, a calf is monograstric, and milk bypasses the rumen and heads straight to the abmosum. By the time calves are 300 pounds or so, young bovines are fully-functional ruminants that do not require milk in their diet. For large calves, milk is simply a protein/energy/fat supplement.
While removing milk from the diet does cause some small changes in rumen bio-populations, this is an insignificant stress on the calf. By far the bigger stress is the psychological/emotional change of being abruptly removed from contact with the mother.
When I mentioned that in my experience the mother cows actually appeared to suffer much more stress, more vocalizing, more pacing than the calves did, he replied, “Well, of course. Think back to when you were 15 and you began not really caring when or if you came home at night. The separation didn’t bother you very much, but your mother would stay up half the night worrying.” Gosh, that makes pretty good sense. Cows and people aren’t really that different after all, it seems.
I hope you and the neighbors have a quiet, peaceful weaning season. Your calves will be healthier, happier and heavier, and that means more money in your pocket.
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