Weaning can be a difficult time for calves. Challenged by separation from the cow, an abrupt dietary transition and often a move to a new environment, they become especially vulnerable to illness, including bovine respiratory disease (BRD). However, a growing number of producers are exploring alternative methods to take some of the stress out of the period we often refer to as the “bawling calf” stage.
Fence-line weaning, keeping calves in their familiar environment while separating the cows behind a fence to prevent nursing, is gaining popularity because it achieves the desired diet transition without the stress of immediate separation. Adaptable for most operations, fence-line weaning works best in relatively low-dust environments with wide stretches of fence for the cow and calf to interact and eat as close as possible to the fence. Another option, outfitting calves with a nose flap or barbed ring, allows direct contact while still stopping nursing.
These strategies won’t fit all operations, but each helps to relieve stress by removing separation anxiety from the equation and keeping calves in their familiar environment as long as possible. Even in a traditional weaning system, keeping calves in their accustomed environment goes a long way in helping them cope with the transition. Alternative weaning methods have the added benefit of reduced space and facility requirements because cows don’t have to be removed from sight or hearing range.
Of course, standard pre-weaning practices still apply. Reduced stress weaning helps reinforce the effectiveness of vaccinations, parasite control and other health measures, but it is not a replacement. After weaning, a waiting period of three to five weeks is still recommended before comingling animals. This allows health protocols time to take full effect. The gentler the transition, the greater the chance weaning calves can continue to gain weight, grow stronger and better meet potential health challenges in the future.
How do you handle weaning on your operation? Feeder and dairy operators, is weaning method something you think about in your calf buying decisions?