Wean smart, reduce livestock stress

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By JEFF MOORE

It has been said many times that the most economical way to raise cattle is in a forage system. So you built fences, reseeded, fertilized, clipped and rotated cattle.

Having worked hard to improve your pastures to be more productive and profitable you clearly see the value of high quality forage for a beef cow calf operation. So all spring and summer you have tried to keep adequate, nutritious forage in front of the cows so they can raise big calves that really push the scales down at weaning.

Through rotational grazing we moved these cows and calves to insure that they always had the best forage in front of them. The calves grew and became adjusted to this system, knowing where to find feed and water.

So now it’s weaning time and we run the cows and calves into the coral and separate the cows from the calves. Amongst the bawling cows and calves we process the calves giving them all the vaccinations, dewormer, and collect weights the calves then heard the calves into a barn lot and move the cows back out in the pasture.

Imagine being this calf and your whole life up to now is changed.

Stressful situation

Mommy is not anywhere to be found. You can hear her far off but you can’t get to her. The lush pastures you had lived in up until now are gone and you walk the fence in a dirt lot and are expected to eat baled grass and grain from a bunk.

I am sure this is a very stressful situation for a calf. As a beef cattle producer I understand that the desire is to get these calves to grow and be ready to either sell or move on to a finishing program. But we are causing a lot of stress on calves that could lead to them getting sick or at the very least lead to poor weight gains.

The best solution in my mind to control this stress is to keep the calves in an area they are familiar with and close enough to the cows that they can see each other.

Fence-line weaning has been proven to cause less stress on calves, cows, and owners, for that matter.

In fence-line weaning, calves and cows are worked as usual and calves are returned to the pasture the herd was brought out of while the cows either are moved to the next field or even a sacrifice area separated by only a fence.

This way the cows and calves can see each other making them more at ease. Since the calves were already in this field they know where to go to get water and will still have forage to eat. When deciding to use fence line weaning it is important to select fields with good fencing and fields that won’t be tracked up to bad.

Good condition

Fencing should be in good shape to separate the cows and calves. Electrified high tensile or woven wire with electric ran on both sides of it work well for fence line weaning. It is important that the cows and calves be able to see each other and even touch noses but must not be able to get together.

Also, choose fields that are not going to be tracked up too bad by cows and calves walking the fence. So avoid low wet areas and slopes that could cause erosion. If calves have never been exposed to grain before this system works well to get them started eating it.

With the cows and calves on opposite side of the fence the calves will stay in that area so it is a good idea to have the feed bunks placed perpendicular to the fence so that as the calves walk the fence they will have to walk around them an find the grain. Since they had already been familiar with the field calves will have no problem finding the water source.

For the first few days cows and calves will stand near the fence and bawl as with any type of weaning system. After a few days the cows and calves will start to wonder away from the fence at this point it should be OK to go ahead and move the cows on to another pasture.

Calves will feel less stressed being in a familiar situation and where they can see their dam. So calves won’t have as much of a set back from weaning and will be off to a good start on their own. Anything we do on the farm should try to reduce livestock stress and weaning is a prime example.

(Jeff Moore is an Ohio State University Extension, Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator in Gallia County. Questions and comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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