Weaning may be the biggest stress that a calf endures in its life. When calves are abruptly separated from their mothers, they bawl, they don’t eat, and they pace their pens and fence lines, walking an average of 25 miles a day in one test. They also become more vulnerable to respiratory infections.
How do we reduce that stress? And what is causing the stress? Is it the loss of the milk or the loss of mother? Those are questions that Joseph Stookey and his colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan addressed in their research into two-stage weaning.
As he describes in this 5:32 video, they put in nose flaps on the calves that prevented them from nursing and found that taking away the milk didn’t bother the calves at all. Then, since they were already weaned, when they separated the calves from their mothers, that didn’t bother them either.
“Most mammals are programmed to know that one day milk is going to disappear. What they’re not programmed to understand is that milk and mother will disappear on the same day,” says Stookey. “With these nose flaps and the two-stage process, we’ve replicated what would happen in a natural weaning process.”
Phillip Greibel, researcher and cattle producer says that it has also reduced respiratory infections. His research indicated respiratory diseases are a complex of factors that include both pathogens and what is happening to the animal. Weaning stress was an important contributor to illness. But, with thanks to the two-stage weaning process, he hasn’t treated calf for a respiratory infection for seven or eight years. Rancher Alvin Barth adds that in his herd of 150, he used to treat 30 for respiratory infections every year. That number is down to zero since he started using the two-stage process. He says, “That says to me something is working. I would recommend it to anybody. I would never cold wean again.”
Two-Stage Weaning Process Steps
The process is simple. Sort cows from calves, insert the nose flap, and send the calves out to be with their mothers. After four or five days, bring them back in, remove the nose clips and you’re done.
For more detail, here’s an On Pasture article by John Marble. John demonstrates putting the nose flap in and taking it out, and you can see first hand how little stress the calves experience. He also writes about the fence line weaning portion of his process, and covers some background on post-weaning nutrition and feeding.
Should You Try This at Home?
As Stookey says, “You don’t have to trust me. You don’t have to trust the science. Just do your own experiment at home. Just wean some of your calves with two-stage and some of them traditionally. You’ll be able to see with your own eyes the difference between those two groups of calves. Half of your calves are going to be bawling and walking around, not eating. And the other half will be content, quiet and eating normally.”
Nose Flap Suppliers
The flaps used in this video come from QuietWean, a Canadian company. Their website includes purchasing options and a list of places where you can buy these nose flaps.
Googling “weaning nose flaps for sale” will bring up some additional options along with some pictures of spiked versions that look like medieval torture devices. I have not used these, and I probably wouldn’t, as I’m prone to injuring myself with sharp objects. I think that a flap that just keeps the calf from being able to grab a teat is perfect, and having him jab the cow in the process seems unnecessary and a little mean.
If you have other options, do share in the comments below.