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Wean beef calves with less stress

Most spring-calving herds will be weaning calves within the next 60 days. That usually means about three nights of poor sleep for human and beast while cows and calves bawl in protest.

In a Texas study, Stephen F. Austin State University researchers reported there are “behavioral and physiological responses [to abrupt separation weaning] indicative of distress that are unfavorable to beef production and animal welfare.” In other words, the cows are upset, the calves are upset the operator can’t sleep and it’s not good for anyone!

Key Points

• When cows and calves are upset, it’s not good for you, either.

• Calves weaned across the fence from mama performed better.

• A substantial fence is needed. An older “calf leader” is helpful.

In this study, four methods were compared in a crossbred beef herd. Four days before weaning, one calf group was fitted with antisuckling devices (2-stage system) while remaining with their mothers.

At weaning, devices were removed. Then half of those calves were moved to a remote location (two-stage abrupt weaning). The other half were placed in a pasture adjacent to their dams (two-stage fence-line weaning).

Calves not fitted with an antisuckling device before weaning were similarly split into two groups.

Half were moved to a remote location (traditional abrupt weaning). The other half were placed in a pasture adjacent to the dams (traditional fence-line weaning).

And the results were ...

Fence-line weaned calves had a highly significant increase in 28-day post-weaning average daily gain, compared to those abruptly weaned. Cow weights weren’t affected by weaning strategy.

Now, here’s where the practical becomes really important in making fence-line weaning work well. Remember three things:

• You must have a “substantial fence” between the cows and calves. Their urge to get back together is understandably very strong!

• Most cattle producers find it advantageous to move the cows to an adjacent pasture, not the calves. Leave calves in the pasture they’ll be in for at least a week before weaning. That gives them time to figure out the fence boundaries and water location before their mamas leave.

• It’s helpful to put a yearling or cow without a calf with the weaned calves. Having an older “leader” in the bunch seems to have a calming effect.

Calves experience less stress and better performance if they can see, hear, and smell their mamas during the weaning process. You just might sleep a little better, too!

Harpster is a Penn State animal scientist and a cow-calf producer.


BAWL BABY? Fence-line weaning saves anguish on everyone’s part: cow, calf and cattle producer, according to a study at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas.

This article published in the October, 2010 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.