Low-Stress Weaning Done Right

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 calves are in panic mode before we even have them in the corral. ( Sara Brown )

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 postweaning, 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 calves and the short-term effect on health and performance can be significant. For example, the stress of abrupt weaning increases fatal secondary bacterial respiratory infections and average daily gains can be seriously compromised. 

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Conventional Weaning

The conventional belief is weaning is a difficult, traumatic experience, and 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.

handling A
Prior to weaning, pour the cattle back and forth several times to prepare them for the weaning. 

Low-stress Weaning

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 postweaning sickness or weight loss. They are also more than likely happy to be rid of their 6- to 8-month-old 500-lb. to 600-lb. calves. And that’s the way it should be when we do it. The problem is, we get the animals out of a normal frame of mind and end up causing 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 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.

Fence-line Weaning

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. With this approach the emotional trauma of complete separation is mitigated.

A three-year study compared the behavior and postweaning performance of calves that were: not weaned (the control group), fence-line weaned and abruptly weaned. The fence-line-weaned calves exhibited similar behavior to the non-weaned calves and they spent more time eating than the calves that were abruptly weaned. They also gained 50% more weight during the first two weeks after weaning.

handling B
One or more handlers can keep a slow, steady stream of pairs walking to the gate. Photo: Whit Hibbard

Ingredients For Success

1. 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 fence-line weaning will likely be difficult at best.

2.  Pasture Management

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.

handling C
On weaning day, a sorter at the gate is charged with separating cows and calves. Photo: Whit Hibbard

3. Cattle Management

Prior to weaning, pour the cattle back and forth several times to prepare them for the weaning (Figure A).

If your cattle are accustomed to walking calmly past a handler at a gate you might only have to do this exercise once. However, if they are not, you might have to repeat this several times over successive days until they understand the process.

On weaning day:

  • Gather cattle loosely near the gate.
  • The sorter opens the gate and draws the cattle to him (See photo A).
  • One or more handlers can keep a slow, steady stream of pairs walking to the gate (See Photo B).
  • The sorter makes the split at the gate (Photo C).
  • If you make a mistake (e.g., a calf gets through the gate) resist the temptation to fix it because that will unnecessarily stir everything up; rather, wait a few days postweaning and go straighten it out.

Going through these preparatory steps is important. If you don’t follow protocol, you are inviting a wreck. For instance, one rancher fence-line weaned across a page wire electric fence, and the cows tore down a couple hundred feet of the fencing because he didn’t go through these steps. If done properly, however, cattle have been weaned across a single-strand electric fence.

Postweaning

If protocol is followed, weaning should be a non-event for the cattle as illustrated in Photos D and E. Photo D was taken down the fence line (the sorting gate is in the foreground) later on weaning day. As depicted, all the cows and calves are out grazing and nothing is hanging on the fence. Photo E was taken the next day. Some cows and calves have returned to the fence but nothing is balled up on the fence, and there was no bawling. 

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