Weaning is one of the most stressful times in a calf’s life. Mark Alley, DVM, MBA, North Carolina State University, says the stress is believed to be the result of a combination of the severance of mother-young bond (Weary, 2008) and the loss of milk supply (Ungerfeld, 2009).

At the 2010 2nd International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare at Kansas State University, Joe Stookey, MSc, PhD, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Saskatoon, Canada, said potential stressors associated with traditional weaning include:

  • Managed weaning age is younger than the natural age at weaning
  • Calves are in a new social environment
  • There is an absence of adults
  • There is a mixing of unfamiliar animals
  • There is a formation of a new social hierarchy
  • There is a physical separation of mother and calf
  • There is a premature end of lactation

Alley, speaking at the 2012 84th Annual Western Veterinary Conference, said in one study conducted by Haley in the Journal of Animal Science (2005), calves weaned with the use of a “quiet wean” nose flap vocalized 96.6% less, spent 78.9% less walking and 23% more time eating after separation from the cow than did the control calves. “However, average daily gain did not differ.”

Stookey said the nose clips were also used in “two-stage weaning”  studies to determine if at weaning the calf was missing the milk or missing its mother. Plastic clips were placed in the calves’ noses that allowed them to eat grass, but not nurse, and calves were left with their mothers. Calves stayed closer to the cows for the first few days (within 10 meters of their dam), and there was an increase in grooming.

The second step was to then separate cows and calves. When separated, there no real response either. “They don’t complain when milk turns off or when mom disappears,” Stookey says. “They are already weaned. They spent four days getting weaned before separation.”

Another alternative to abrupt weaning is the use of fenceline weaning techniques to reduce stress, Alley said. Stookey said, “Cattle studies show fenceline weaning reduces calling. Traditionally weaned calves called 50% more than fenceline-weaned calves. Calves were calmer than if they were completely separated. It also reduced walking and increased lying time. Fenceline weaning is superior to pasture-separated and or feedlot weaning.”

However, noted Alley, a recent study from Brazil questioned whether fenceline or use of nose flaps actually decreased weaning stress or actually redistributes the stress to different time periods during and following weaning (Enriquez, DH, et al. 2010). “Unfortunately, this is an area where full understanding is not complete, but it should be an area discussed with the individual operations to determine what method is most beneficial for the animal and the farm.”

Read more on calf welfare and weaning here.