Fall has come to the Midwest, and with it, the leaves change, farmers are harvesting corn and soybeans, and the holidays are around the corner. For beef producers around the United States, fall also means separating spring-born calves from their mothers. For calves, cows, and producers alike, weaning is a stressful time – especially if weaning coincides with castration or dehorning, which many beef specialists advise against. Too much stress on the calves can result in stress on the producer (not to mention anyone with a bedroom window a little too close to the pen).
Of course, being separated from mom will inevitably result in stress, and weaning is considered one of the most stressful times of a calf's life. "Cattle get upset by novel situations," notes Larry Hollis, Kansas State University professor of animal science. "Whenever you take calves away from mom and they don't know where their mother is, where feed is, water is, that is a huge stress on that calf."
Minimizing stress for producers and cattle
However, there are some options to minimize stress for both calves and producers, resulting in healthier calves. Some producers even use the Farmers Almanac and wean according to the phases of the moon, believing weaning in certain phases results in easier weaning and lower stress. However, a research-supported option is fenceline weaning, which involves using a fence to separate calves from their mothers, which are moved to an adjacent pasture. A strong fence is required to prevent calves from crossing and from nursing, but still allows contact. After a week, calves are usually completely weaned.
Hollis says it's less stressful being in a familiar pasture. "You leave the calves in the pasture that they grew up in, so they're totally familiar with everything," he says. "It's one less new situation that they have to adjust to. They know where the feed is, where the water is, where the shade is and where they can get away from flies."
Hollis notes a three-year research study comparing fenceline weaned calves, calves weaned to a separate pasture, and calves weaned to a drylot, using unweaned calves as a control group. After two weeks, the control group gained 44 pounds, the fenceline weaned caves gained 47, the calves weaned to another pasture gained 29, and the calves weaned to a drylot gained 20. "Fenceline weaning is comparable to unweaned calves, and over twice as good compared to the calves weaned into a drylot," Hollis says.