For cow-calf producers planning how to manage their calves through the stressful weaning period, deciding factors include available labor, facilities, weather, marketing goals and others, in addition to efforts to minimize stress, protect calf health and ensure performance. Recognition that abrupt separation of calves from their dams, some ranchers and veterinarians have tested and adopted alternative systems, or worked on management and animal-care practices intended to minimize any negative impacts of abrupt weaning.
Anecdotal accounts of results of these methods abound, but actual trial data comparing weaning systems remain in short supply. Researchers at Oklahoma State University have run two years of trials designed to compare relationships between these systems and calf health and performance. OSU veterinarian Jared Taylor, DVM, PhD, discussed their trial and the results during the recent Academy of Veterinary Consultants conference in Denver.
Weaning stresses, Taylor says, include cessation of nutritional support, loss of comforting behavior, upheaval of social structures and loss of the loss of psychological support between the calf and dam.
To reduce those stresses, ranchers have tested various strategies for abrupt weaning, fenceline weaning, nose flaps to interfere with suckling and temporary separations to help prepare calves from life away from mom.
In the two years of trials, with around 300 calves in each trial, Taylor and his team compared four weaning methods:
- Simple abrupt removal from the dam.
- Fenceline weaning in which calves shared a fence line with the dam for seven days after separation.
- Use of nose flaps that preclude suckling for five days prior to separation.
- Temporary separation in which calves were isolated from their dams for 24 hours at 14 days prior to weaning and again at seven days prior to weaning.
The researchers also divided each treatment group into two shipment groups. For the abruptly weaned group, half shipped immediately upon weaning and half stayed on the ranch for seven days. For the other three groups, half stayed on the ranch for seven days and the other half stayed for 28 days after weaning.
The team collected weights and calculated average daily gains (ADG) at several stages beginning 21 days prior to weaning through 28 days after weaning in the first year and 42 days the second year.
Results varied somewhat between the two years, but showed some trends. .
In the first trial, the abruptly weaned and shipped calves had poorest overall gain, while the fenceline-weaned calves had the best gains through the trial period. Calves in the 24-hour temporary separation group posted gains close to those in the fenceline group. Among the abruptly weaned calves, those held for seven days gained better than those shipped immediately, and in the other groups, those held for 28 days outgained those shipped seven days after weaning.
In the second trial, in 2017, calves in the temporary separation groups performed slightly better than fenceline-weaned calves, which did slightly better than abruptly weaned calves, while the nose-flap calves showed the poorest performance. Generally, calves that remained on the ranch for 28 days post-weaning performed better than those shipped earlier. Surprisingly, in this trial, abruptly weaned calves performed about as well as those weaned using the “low stress” systems.
Based on the two years of trials, Taylor concludes:
- Fenceline weaning probably is the best option, if a ranch has the facilities and labor resources to manage the system.
- Temporary separation prior to weaning might offer benefits, again depending on an operation’s ability to manage the logistics and handle calves appropriately.
- Abrupt weaning might not be as negative as generally believe, particularly if weaned calves can be held on the ranch for seven days or more.
- In this trial, calves weaned using the nose flaps performed below than those in the other treatments. Taylor acknowledges though, that some producers have seen good results with the devices.
Ultimately, the “best” weaning system depends on what fits within each ranch’s unique production environment. Variations in facilities, manpower, feed resources, animal-handling skill and marketing priorities mean no single weaning practice works on every ranch.