Weaning is a stressful time for any animal. Weaning beef calves involves two major stressors: removal of the cow (dam) and removal of a source of nutrition (milk). Producers should strive to reduce the stress associated with weaning as much as possible to promote optimal performance post-weaning. High-stress events, like weaning, depress the immune system, which can have major implications for the calf’s success later in life. Even if calves are sold after weaning, good post-weaning performance reflects well on the cow-calf producer and the industry as a whole.
Preparation is an important component of a successful, low-stress weaning program. Before starting the weaning process, be sure you know which weaning method you plan to implement. Weaning can be completed as a one-step or two-step process. One-step weaning, or traditional weaning, involves abrupt separation of cows from calves. In contrast, two-step weaning involves gradual separation of cows and calves either via a fenceline or the use of nose-flaps. The premise of two-step weaning is to reduce the overall stress of the weaning process by separating the two major stressors: removal of the dam and removal of access to milk. Each weaning method has its advantages and drawbacks, but the method of choice largely depends upon your goals and management capabilities.
The one-step, traditional weaning method is the simplest and least management intensive option. Calves and cows are completely separated (no physical, visual, or auditory contact) on a specific date and managed accordingly thereafter. This is the most common weaning method utilized by cow-calf producers, though two-step weaning is gaining in popularity.
Two-step weaning methods require a bit more planning and management as compared with traditional weaning because calves will need to be handled at least twice and producers need to ensure they have adequate facilities to support the process. Fenceline weaning is accomplished by separating calves from their dams by a single fence about a week before complete separation. This method removes the calf’s ability to nurse, but still allows limited physical, visual, and auditory contact between the pair for a period of time before complete separation. Nose-flap weaning utilizes a special, temporary plastic device on the calf’s nose to prevent nursing for about a week before complete separation. With this approach, nursing is prevented, but calves are otherwise allowed full contact with their dams until complete separation. Two major drawbacks to the use of nose-flap weaning are 1) the cost of the nose-flaps themselves; and 2) the amount of time it takes the calf to adapt to eating or grazing after the nose-flap is installed, which can have implications for growth.
Research examining advantages and disadvantages of one-step vs. two-step weaning methods is sparse and results have been variable. A recent study from Virginia showed that two-step weaned calves (fenceline or nose-flap) exhibited reduced walking and increased eating behaviors during the first week after complete separation when compared with one-step, traditionally weaned calves. However, results from that study as well as those reported by others do not consistently indicate an advantage in daily gains during the post-weaning period with the use of two-step weaning practices. Regardless of which method you choose, it is important to make sure you observe calves closely during and after the weaning process for signs of illness or dehydration.
In addition to selecting a weaning method, you should also consider a few additional items before beginning the weaning process:
Timing. Shipment, intermingling with new animals, and introduction to new facilities are major stressors that can negatively impact calf performance. Combining these events with the added stress of weaning is a recipe for disaster and can increase risk for illness and major setbacks upon arrival to the feedyard or stocker. It is recommended that calves be weaned at least 30 to 45 days before sale or shipment to promote health and performance. Not only is this ideal in terms of animal welfare, but good performance of calves after sale reflects positively on the cow-calf producer.
Vaccinations. Many producers elect to administer respiratory and clostridia vaccinations 4-8 weeks before initiating the weaning process. This gives the calves some time to develop immunity to these pathogens under low stress conditions before weaning. Vaccination at weaning or receiving is also practiced, but keep in mind that stress reduces vaccine efficacy. Work with your veterinarian to develop a vaccination schedule that fits the management of your farm.
Acclimation. Calves should be acclimated to the pasture or facility that they will encounter during and after weaning. Introduce calves to any new water or feeding systems before initiating the weaning process to reduce stress and promote feed and water intake. A relatively simple way to accomplish this is to introduce cow-calf pairs to the field/facility where calves will be managed after weaning a few days beforehand. When complete separation is desired, cows, not calves, should be moved to a different field/facility. This gives the calves a few days to adjust to their new environment before weaning is initiated.
Facilities. Be sure to plan ahead and designate which facilities or fields will be used throughout the weaning process. Facilities should be checked beforehand to ensure repairs to feeders, waterers, and fences or gates are not needed. If fenceline weaning is the method of choice, ensure that the shared fenceline is adequate to keep calves and cows separated. If nose-flap weaning is the method of choice, make sure you have enough nose flaps (and a few spares) so that there is one for every calf.
Weather. Weather is often overlooked as part of the weaning protocol. Consider delaying weaning for a few days if a major weather event, such as a heat wave (several days >90°F), tropical storm, or snowstorm, is expected to minimize the stress load on the calves.