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Some ranchers use nose flaps for low-stress weaning

The calf can’t nurse, but he’s still with mom and has her companionship during the weaning process.

Heather Smith Thomas

August 19, 2021

5 Min Read
A calf is content to stay with its mother.Heather Smith Thomas

Weaning is traumatic for calves and mama cows, but ranchers are discovering better ways to wean than putting calves in a corral and taking the cows away.

Weaning creates emotional stress for the calf, which is harder on him than suddenly being deprived of milk. A big calf doesn’t need milk anymore, but still feels dependent on mama, and insecure without her. If taken away from mom and put in a corral with a bunch of other calves, they all pace the fence and bawl, often running frantically back and forth. 

Glenn Benjamin, a Colorado rancher, has used nose flaps to wean his calves for more than 20 years.  These plastic flaps can be easily installed with calves restrained in a chute, then returned to their mothers.  The flap hangs down over nose and mouth, keeping the calf from getting a teat into his mouth, but doesn’t hinder eating grass or hay or drinking water.

The calf can’t nurse, but he’s still with mom and has her companionship during the weaning process.  The cow starts to dry up, and the calf adjusts to not having milk.  A few days later they can be completely separated (and the flaps removed), and are not stressed.

“I saw an ad for nose flaps in a magazine and decided to try them on about 150 calves.  We now use them on all our calves every year.  We leave flaps in for only 4 to 5 days--about the time it takes for calves to give up trying to nurse and the cows to not worry so much about their calves,” said Benjamin.

He reuses the flaps each year.  “We wash them, stick them in Clorox, rinse that off and save them for next year.  We have the soft plastic yellow ones, and rarely lose any,” he said.

Let hte calves back out

The key is to put them in and immediately let the calf go back to mama, rather than standing around in the corral.  “We open the gate and let the calves back out rather than bunching up.  When they bunch in a tight mob they may knock the flaps out.  We have the gates open so calves can run out and find mom,” he said.

“It’s funny to watch when they run up to her and try to start sucking.  They can’t suck on that side, so they run around to the other side, and they can’t suck there either, and the cow is wondering why the calf isn’t nursing!”

After 4 or 5 days he hauls the calves to another place, leaving cows in the pasture.  The calves go right to grazing in the new pasture and aren’t worried about their mothers.  “We wean calves from various pastures and haul to a central set of pens with a set of scales and weigh everything.  When weighing and sorting it is totally quiet!  Calves are gentler to handle, because they’re not upset.  With traditional weaning, the first day they are always nervous, running around.  With this method, they’re relaxed,” said Benjamin.

“We work them quietly, but they aren’t bawling or nervous.  When we take the calves off the cows and haul to this facility, I give another round of shots as we take the flaps out,” he explains. 

“I give their first shots about 3 weeks before I take the calves away from the cow.  About 5 days before I take them off the cow, we put in nose flaps.  That’s an extra trip down the chute, but pays off in less stress.  They haven’t been stressed at all when we take the flaps out and give another round of shots,” he said.

Flaps are inexpensive

The flaps are inexpensive and last a long time.  “We might lose 3%, but most of those don’t come out till the end, and we usually find in the trailer after we’ve hauled the calves to the pens where we take them out.  If you can get calves out of the corral quickly as you put the flaps in, so they aren’t beating around on each other that first day, they rarely lose any,” he said.

“Once you know how to put them in, it’s quick and easy.  I slide it into one nostril, give a little twist and pop it into the other side.  When you take it out you push it down a little to give a little room for twisting it out.  I can take one out in a couple seconds,” Benjamin said.

Mike Hittinger and his wife Melissa raise Speckle Park cattle near Clyde, Alberta and wean their 150 calves each year with nose flaps.  They background calves before selling them, and wean with the least stress possible.  “The nose flaps are a little extra work, but the only method I’ve found in which calves don’t lose weight during weaning,” he said.  Calves weaned with minimal stress stay healthier and keep gaining weight.

“If a rancher sells calves in the fall after weaning, this method keeps them in better shape, without shrink and lost gains,” he explains. Preconditioned calves—weaned for 30 to 60 days before being sold—are past any stress and do well, but you don’t want them to spend 45 days making up for lost gains. 

Just before weaning, Hittinger puts pairs in the pasture the calves will be in--so they know where the feed and water is.  “Then we put in nose flaps and vaccinate calves at the same time.  Usually a person would vaccinate 2 to 3 weeks prior to weaning, but this method works because the calves are not stressed; they’re staying with their mothers.  We don’t find any problems from being vaccinated at that time,” said Hittinger.

“If you vaccinate and stress them with traditional weaning (separating them from mama at the same time), some might get sick from the vaccination and stress.”  Also, a stressed calf won’t mount good immunity from vaccination because stress hinders the immune system.  With low-stress weaning, calves don’t have adverse effects. 

“We’ve been using nose flaps for about 14 years, and found the optimum time to leave those in is 4 or 5 days.  Then we pull out the nose flaps and separate cows from calves and put them in adjacent pastures so they still have fence-line contact,” he says.

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