On the Hibbard family ranch in Montana, they calve their herd in June, and by the time they are ready to wean calves in the late fall, snow sometimes has drifted over the fences. That condition, however, is the only factor that will prevent them from using fenceline weaning, a practice Whit Hibbard believes provides dramatic benefits in health, performance and animal welfare.
For Glenn Benjamin, who runs Bijou Creek Livestock in eastern Colorado, a different system – weaning nose clips – serves the same purpose of reducing stress during this critical period. Several companies such as QuietWean and EasyWean market these clips, which allow calves to graze, but not nurse, meaning calves can remain in the same pastures with their dams through the weaning period.
Each of these methods, says University of Nebraska Extension veterinarian David Smith, allows ranchers to wean calves in stages, in contrast to conventional weaning methods that abruptly isolate calves from their dams, either in confinement pens or on trucks on their way to their next homes.
Choice of weaning options, however, depends on an individual operation's facilities and marketing plans, Smith says. For some ranchers, selling calves off the cows, essentially weaning them during transit, remains a viable option. They avoid the expense, management challenges and potential risk or weaning calves on the ranch. Meanwhile, many feedyards and backgrounding operations have the facilities, experience and skills to successfully manage freshly weaned calves.
Many other ranchers, however, participate in value-added marketing programs that require and reward specific health and weaning protocols. These programs typically offer the highest premiums for calves that remain on the ranch for at least 30 to 45 days after weaning. For producers marketing calves through these programs, management practices that minimize stress through the weaning program offer multiple benefits by protecting calf health and potentially boosting calf weights at sale time.
Smith reminds producers that weaning typically takes place during a time when calves are at high risk for disease, as their maternal antibodies have declined but their active immune systems have not fully developed. This, he says, helps explain why early weaned calves often present fewer health problems in feedyards than those weaned at a more conventional age – they retain their maternal antibodies through the stressful transition.
Preconditioning vaccines, administered properly, effectively boost immunity through weaning and shipping, but their efficacy depends on good management, including good nutrition and stress reduction, Smith says.
On the fencline
When conditions allow it, Hibbard greatly prefers fenceline weaning, saying the results are astounding compared with conventional weaning. There is almost no bawling or pacing against the fence among cows or calves, he says, resulting in improvements in health and performance. "Fenceline weaning takes the stress and separation anxiety out of weaning which has clear implications for future weaning behavior," he says. "Anyone who has experienced the difficulty of bringing cows into the corral to be weaned conventionally will know how troublesome it can be. It's reasonable to assume that these calves start learning right then that weaning is a bad thing, which only becomes magnified as they mature and have calves themselves that are then conventionally weaned. It's a vicious downward spiral. Fenceline weaning circumvents that whole process. When done well, it's basically a non-event for both cows and calves."
Soon after separating the cows and cows, Hibbard says that they try to follow Bud Williams" advice to "work" the calves using low-stress handling methods to control their movement, like teaching them to speed up, slow down, turn and stop, and accept pressure. It's also important to take them to water, to fresh feed, and to make sure that they are getting enough exercise.
Research tends to support the idea that fenceline weani ng reduces stress and improves performance. In a University of California study for example, researchers compared performance of calves weaned across a fence from their dams with that of calves totally separated from their dams. During the first two days following weaning, the fenceline calves and cows spent approximately 60 percent and 40 percent of their time, respectively, within 10 feet of the fence. Over the first three days, fenceline calves bawled and walked less, and ate more and rested more. The researchers managed all the calves together starting seven days after weaning. After two weeks, fenceline calves had gained 23 pounds more than separated calves. After 10 weeks, fenceline calves had gained 110 pounds, or 1.57 pounds per day, compared to 84 pounds, or 1.20 pounds per day for conventionally weaned calves.
Facilities generally create the greatest challenges to adopting fenceline weaning, Smith says. Producers need the availability of adjacent pastures, separated by a good, sturdy fence, with water sources and adequate forage supplies in both pastures to make it work.
Smith believes weaning nose clips offer a good alternative to fenceline weaning, and says they might provide an even less stressful experience since the calves are not physically separated from their dams. Use of the clips necessitates gathering calves and running them through a chute to install and remove the devices, but for ranchers who precondition calves anyway, the added labor can be minimal.
At Bijou Creek Ranch, Benjamin administers the first round of preconditioning vaccines two to three weeks prior to weaning, then gathers the calves for installing the clips. Four days later he removes the clips while giving the calves their booster shots, so the system requires just one additional trip through the chute.
He leaves the nose-tagged calves with their dams for four days, then gathers and weighs them, removes the tags and moves the calves to their own pasture, where they settle in without complaint. Based on product recommendations, some producers leave the clips in for up to 10 days, but Benjamin says a four-day period is adequate to wean a calf with minimal irritation to its nose.
Benjamin also notes he uses a portable coral for preconditioning and weaning out in the pasture. After installing the clips, calves remain on the same pasture they have shared with their dams. This system, he believes, helps minimize stress and the incidence of lost nose clips compared with confinement during weaning.
Upon installation, Benjamin says the calves tend to spend a bit more time pacing, but settle quickly with little bawling. Initially, calves will try to nurse, and finding they cannot, will run to the other side of the cow to try again, but they soon give up and return to grazing. They don't need milk at this stage, he notes, and just need to get over their psychological attachment to nursing.
Benjamin notes very few health problems in his calves during and after weaning, and believes his efforts to minimize stress help ensure the efficacy of his vaccination program.
Prepare for separation
Some producers who wean calves on the ranch will, of course, continue to use a conventional system for various reasons. They can in these cases, Smith says, minimize problems with some preparation. He suggests introducing calves to water troughs, feed bunks or supplements fed on the ground prior to weaning if possible. Their dams will help teach them how to find their feed and water, and that experience will help reduce their anxiety and prevent a large drop in intake at separation. Also, he says, take time ahead of weaning to prepare facilities for treating sick calves.
After separating calves from their dams, make sure they can find and access their feed and water sources.
With the value of calves likely reaching record-high levels this fall, a small reduction in sickness or death loss during weaning, and a boost in calf sale weights, should be well worth the effort.