By Aerica Bjurstrom
Summer time is usually a low-stress time of year for your beef herd. Calves are on the ground and growing, pastures are lush, and cow/calf herd maintenance is relatively low. Summer is also a good time to evaluate your fall management strategies, especially weaning.
Weaning is a stressful time for both cows and calves. Calves experience disruption in their routine, environment, and diet. In addition, stress reduces immune system function and increases susceptibility to pathogens from other calves. It can take calves up to 30 days to recover from weaning stress. Abrupt weaning predisposes calves to poor health and lingering effects will reduce his ability to grow and preform in the feedlot.
There are different approaches to weaning in a low-stress system. The conventional system separates cows and calves from each other while still having visual, vocal, and olfactory contact with each other. Depending on the type of fence, physical contact may also be possible. This system however, tests even the very best fences. As a beef producer, you know that a determined cow will go where she wants to no matter what you have set up to stop her. While a sturdy fence will deter most cows and calves from rejoining each other in the pasture, another option is adding a second fence line between the two pens. By installing a second fence between the cows and calves, animals will be able to be close enough to each other to still interact, but not actually touch each other. If you do choose to install a second fence line, be sure to space it about 10 feet or more from the other fence. As said before, a determined cow or calf will jump a fence if it wants to. In this case if an animal does jump the fence, the additional space between lines will reduce the chances of the cow or calf getting hung up or injured. The additional fence line also serves as a backup fence. There's nothing like separating cows and calves for a whole day only to find the entire herd back together the next day because one unruly cow broke the fence down.
Another gradual way to wean calves is with a plastic nose flap. The nose flap is installed in the calf's nose a few weeks before his official weaning day. The flap prevents the calf from nursing, but allows him to drink water and eat solid food as usual. Both the cow and the calf will adjust to not nursing, while still having physical contact. This two-step system requires calves to be handled through a chute system pre-weaning, but overall stress on weaning day is reduced. Nose flaps have proven to reduce bawling and pacing while increasing eating time at weaning. The nose flap is removed once calves are weaned and can be done during other weaning handling chores such as vaccination and tagging.
Another good weaning practice is to move the cow/calf pairs into the weaning pasture a few days before weaning day. Calves will learn from their dams where food and water is located and will adapt quicker to their environment after they have been separated from the cow.
Having a good weaning strategy means money in your pocket. Properly weaned calves transition to the feedlot better than abruptly weaned calves. Feedlot pre-conditioned calves perform better in the long run and are worth $3 to $6 more per hundredweight at the sale barn. Whether you feed out your own calves, or send them to auction, give them a good start by implementing a low-stress weaning strategy on your farm this year.
Bjurstrom is the Kewaunee County Extension agriculture agent.