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A Value Visionary: Rob Brown

Two-Step Weaning System For Beef Calves

twostep weaning method for beef cattle

The best method of weaning beef calves may be the two-step. The first step involves preventing the calves (still with the cows) from sucking, while still allowing them to drink and graze. The second step is actual separation of the calves from their dams.

In testing at the University of Saskatchewan, this two-step process reduced weaning stress on calves compared to traditional weaning methods. That was the surprise development in a recent weaning study at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Canada, designed to investigate the calf distress caused by traditional weaning methods.

Typically, weaning beef calves involves breaking up a cow/calf pair and moving each to a separate location. Both the cows and calves show dramatic behavior changes at this time.

Cows and calves spend lots of time and energy bawling and walking as they search for one another. As a result, they spend significantly less time eating and ruminating compared to before weaning.

Calves particularly show depressed performance following weaning. Many will get sick and need to be treated.

So last fall, we decided to find out whether calf distress at weaning was due to being denied milk or being denied the social and physical contact with their mothers.

To separate these two factors, we fitted half the calves with a device that prevented them from sucking their dams but still allowed them physical contact with their mothers. Calves could still eat and drink water while they wore the devices.

To our surprise, the calves prevented from nursing in the presence of their mothers behaved the same as the calf group still allowed to nurse. Both groups ate with the same frequency and walked the same amount, while vocalization and calling were essentially zero for both groups.

Once the anti-sucking devices were removed and all calves were separated from their dams, only the control calves (the traditionally weaned group) bawled and walked aimlessly. The calves that had been prevented from nursing for just a few days rarely called after being separated from their mothers.

In fact, the two-step calves vocalized 85% less, walked 80% less and spent 25% more time eating compared to calves weaned the traditional way.

The benefits are far more dramatic than those seen with fence-line weaning, which is in itself a big improvement over separating cow/calf pairs out of view of each other. In fence-line weaning, calves are physically separated from their mothers in adjoining pastures.

We believe that calves weaned by the two-step process are apparently less disturbed by the weaning process. This fall, we're using more than 600 cow/calf pairs to measure the effects of the two-step weaning technique compared to traditional weaning on the immunology, behavior and production response of the calves. The findings may have tremendous implications for the beef industry, especially if the immunological and production response of the calves is improved through such a simple management tool.

In other work leading up the two-step discovery, we explored other weaning protocols that we hoped would reduce post-weaning stress.

  • We replaced mother cows with “trainer cows” (cows marked for culling) with the intent of helping calves settle down, go on feed sooner and help stabilize their social environment after separation from their mothers.

    We found that newly weaned calves behaved the same whether or not they were kept with trainer cows. There was no benefit in the calves' performance, immune function or health if they were penned with trainer cows.

  • In another test, we split a group of cow/calf pairs in half. We then gave each group of cows the other group's calves following weaning.

    Both cows and calves, however, searched for their own partner with little or no obvious benefit from the presence of familiar adults. We're now certain that newly weaned calves are searching specifically for their mothers and gain little comfort from familiar or unfamiliar cows.

  • Many producers follow the axiom that ‘out of sight is out of mind.’ They feel the physiological and psychological stress of weaning is reduced and recovery is sped up if cows and calves can't see or hear each other. Our research, though, suggests that cows and calves don't follow the same axiom.

This research showed the amount of time calves spent walking and the number of times calves called was significantly reduced when calves and their mothers could see each other across the fence.

Research at the University of California-Davis shows that, in addition to reducing the distress response, calves weaned by fence-line contact gained about 30% more weight than traditionally weaned calves in the 10 weeks after they were separated from the cows. But you need to make sure you have strong fences.

fenceline weaning

Why The Two-Step Weaning Process Works On Beef Calves
A follow-up report on the a practice that weans calves while still on their mothers, which minimizes stress on both calves and cows. Read more.

Our fence-line weaning observations suggest that for cow/calf pairs, the mere sight of each other is enough to reduce some distress at weaning. This suggests that the fuss at weaning mostly has to do with breaking the bond between the cow and calf.

However, calves weaned by the two-step method made no fuss when they were denied milk or when they were denied contact with their mother. This suggests that traditional weaning methods of removing both milk and mother at the same time cause undue stress on calves.


Joseph M. Stookey, Ph.D., is a professor and Derek B. Haley is a doctoral candidate at the University of Saskatchewan's Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Canada. For more information, e-mail Stookey at [email protected] or Haley at [email protected], or call 306/966-7154.


Other weaning resources from BEEF:

10 Ways To Have A Stress-Free Weaning Day

What's The Best Time To Castrate Calves? Vets Agree The Earlier The Better

Plan Now To Wean Early

Low-Stress Weaning Helps Boost Calf Immunity

Ranch Management: Quick Tips For Easier Calf Weaning

A Value Visionary

Guarding the graveyard shift at a ranch fire, trying to stay awake, R.A. “Rob” Brown Jr. of Throckmorton, TX, brainstormed an idea with his son Donnell. Ultimately, that idea could change the way most all fed cattle are valued. For some, it already has.

“We were wondering what we could do to help our customers, who pay a premium for good bulls, get paid for that,” explains Brown. He speaks with the matter-of-fact confidence that surely defined the previous two generations of his family who also called this ranch home.

Brown's ultimate solution was gathering together some ranching friends to form Ranchers Renaissance. It's a novel producer cooperative begun several years ago that launched its branded beef program this year.

What's unique is that the cooperative works hand-in-glove with Excel as its packing partner and retail behemoth Kroger as a retail partner. Together, they deliver customers what they want and then share the added value that comes from added market share.

Plenty of cattle folks dream about getting paid for the value they add to cattle. Brown and his cohorts developed a system that does it on a scale that makes them a mainstream player rather than a niche.

Riding The Edge

“If there's a better way, find it. If there's a better mousetrap, let's build it. That's just the way I'm geared,” says Brown.

In the case of Ranchers Renaissance, he knew there was a better way.

For starters, until you can spread prices wide enough with a broad enough range of economic demand for different kinds of cattle, Brown says you'll always wind up with averages or another version of them. Until they can share in the actual consumer pie grown richer in value, Brown says producers who have what consumers want will get paid less than they should, and those who generate what consumers don't want will be rewarded more than they deserve.

Plus, Brown recognized a basic principle that has eluded some other alliance newcomers. That is: If the basic idea doesn't make sense to the cowboys tending cattle, and if they don't buy into the concept behind the system and the management requirements they're ultimately responsible for, it won't fly.

Brown understands that because, as comfortable as he is in the boardroom, he's most at ease atop a horse, with cattle in sight and leather in his hands.

“We had to come up with some way to have a packer-processor involved. We also needed enough commercial operations that agreed with the philosophy of breeding cattle that would produce carcasses with more consistent salable meat of good eating quality, with tenderness being the key,” says Brown.

He began by inviting representatives of large commercial ranches, feedlots and Excel to brainstorm about the possibilities. He focused on larger operations to assemble the volume that could attract packer and retail interest and enough critical mass for the cooperating producers to know it had a chance.

By the time the meeting broke up, they had the commitment and the basic premise. It bloomed into a first-of-its kind, vertically coordinated, pasture-to-consumer system.

“We felt Excel would rather have a known source of cattle that would have repeatability,” Brown says.

And, if they had that, they felt they could sell the program to the retailer, who would pay for guaranteed quality and tenderness, he adds. It was that simple.

They were right. Ranchers Renaissance harvested more than 100,000 head last year as one of three primary suppliers for “Cattleman's Collection.” It's the exclusive beef brand processed by Excel and marketed to Kroger.

John Butler, CEO of Ranchers Renaissance, reports that, based on consumer acceptance in Kroger's 125 Colorado stores, Ranchers Renaissance is positioned for exponential growth.

Producers involved in this vertically coordinated system that goes directly to the consumer are sharing in the added value, not just the value of the cattle they provide, Butler says. This is done through a pricing system structured to share risk and reward between all the partners, rather than settling for what the packer will give the feedlot based on what retailers will give him.

Brown believes this and emerging systems aimed at consumers via inter-segmental control draw a bead on key industry puzzles.

“Our biggest challenge is gaining back market share. There are three things that will do that: consistency, quality and convenience,” Brown says. “Our pork and poultry competition have kind of peaked. We still have all kinds of slack to pull out of our beef system with consistency and convenience, so it's also the biggest opportunity.”

The key to making it work, Brown says, is that it has to work for everybody — producers, feeders, the packer, the retailer and consumers.

The logistics of such a value-sharing, mainstream system are daunting. However, Brown says that “with the right kind of people, it's doable… There has to be some give and take; there has to be some trust, and you have to be paid for your contribution.”

One obstacle, Brown says, is the philosophy of independence that cattlemen traditionally have had. In a system like this, “one must see the bigger picture, give and take some and realize you're in the beef business rather than the cattle business,” he adds.

Brown is convinced that thriving in the new beef industry will require a willingness to hit targets that others pin on the wall.

“As a commercial producer, I think you will have to have cattle of quality that fit within a system,” he says. “Then, whether you own them all the way or sell them off the cow, you'll have more opportunity. And, the more alliances that are successful, the more opportunity there will be.”

True To Form

Study the Ranchers Renaissance saga, and you realize this is just one more innovative first crafted by Brown and built upon the desire to serve customers more effectively.

Here's a short list:

  • Back in the 1950s as a student at Texas Tech, he angered neighboring ranchers by hosting outsiders to hunt quail for a fee. Now, hunting leases are a major income driver for ranches in the area.

  • Brown and a pal started a mesquite wood business they let go by the wayside. Now, it's an industry unto itself.

  • He was one of the first in America to use and breed Simmental cattle, and he helped found the Simbrah breed.

  • Brown conceived the notion for the Best of Remuda Quarter Horse Sale featuring horses only from American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Best of the Remuda Award winners.

  • As a seedstock breeder, he was one of the first to offer bulls of more than one breed.

  • He developed the Hotlander composite (Angus, Simmental, Brahman and Senepol) that's picking up steam and taking South America by storm.

Brown's family was the first to have registered Hereford cattle in this part of Texas. Rob and his dad, R.A. Sr., were among the first to wholeheartedly embrace crossbreeding in their commercial herd.

“It's just been our goal to be the best we can be at whatever we do, but it's always based on the needs of the commercial industry,” says Brown.

Today, the R.A. Brown Ranch, begun in 1895, is a sprawling, vertically integrated family operation that includes extensive seedstock, commercial cow/calf, stocker and cattle feeding enterprises. It's also one of the premier Quarter Horse programs in the U.S.

“We're extremely vertically integrated,” emphasizes Brown, “from the commercial cow/calf operation we use to prove up our Hotlander composite and breed AI in order to get performance and carcass data on our young bulls, to the feedyard and stocker operation.”

In part, the integration is the result of building an operation that could support five families rather than one.

“It's been our philosophy raising our kids that if they wanted to come back and be involved, we'd give them the opportunity to do it. They'd have to earn it, however,” Brown says.

Rather than give them a piece of ground or a herd of cows, the children's opportunity was to partner with their parents, expanding and integrating the enterprise to generate enough income to accommodate them.

Rob and Peggy, his wife of 44 years, have four children. Betsy, Donnell and their spouses and children are part of the home operation. While still partners in the home ranch, eldest son Rob A. and his family own and operate their own ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Marianne and her family work in a Nebraska Sandhills ranching operation.

“The key to the whole thing is my family. It's a team effort,” emphasizes Brown.

He says Peggy's strengths are his weaknesses and, thankfully, his children all enjoy focusing on different aspects of the ranch, giving the ranch expertise in many areas.

Brown continues to find similar complementary advantages in working with a lengthy list of formal and informal business partners.

No one has all of the answers, he says. Working together, though, he believes you can find them as long as you're willing to get involved.

“I feel like part of your obligation to the industry you're involved in is to give something back,” explains Brown.

That in mind, his list of volunteer activities runs longer than a well rope. He's served on the board of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for 22 years, and the board of the AQHA even longer, serving as president in 1995. He's currently the Governor-appointed chairman of the Texas Animal Health Commission.

All this carries even more weight when you realize Brown suffers from dyslexia. The condition, which limits his reading to the rate of just a few letters at one time, wasn't diagnosed until he was in college.

“I was blessed with a good memory, however,” Brown says. “In school, if I heard it, I had it.”

But, 15 years ago, he learned of some doctors' success in treating dyslexia with different colored eyeglass lenses. The larger medical community was skeptical, but Brown tried it and it worked. Later, it was learned the beneficial effect comes from the way a particular color for a particular person filters the light received by the retina.

“I could care less about why it works as long as it does,” says Brown. He's sported a pair of yellow-tinted glasses ever since. He mentions it only to educate fellow dyslexics about the treatment's potential.

This do-what-works attitude is a Rob Brown staple. It might make no sense and no physiological difference to yank the spots off a Simmental bull, for instance, but Rob says if it's important to the customer, then it had better be important to him.

“Cowboy common sense is still a big key to the whole deal and what works for the people you're working with,” he says.

Wonderful fall has arrived

Fall has arrived in South Florida. You can't tell it by the turning of the leaves since everything stays green here all year around. You tell by the lower humidity and cooler temperatures — a welcome change from hot summer temperatures and 100% humidity.

We calve in the fall, beginning in September and continuing through January. Despite the spring and summer drought, our cows maintained well this year and are producing very healthy calves. I'm anxious to see our final calf numbers in January.

Fall calving is beneficial for us because our cows are in their best condition of the year. This, along with abundant fall grass, fewer insects and cooler temperatures, make a winning combination.

While many of you in other parts of the country experience wet winters, our winter and early spring can be very dry. This limits our grass quality, and these seasons aren't always favorable for our calving.

Thankfully, we received a lot of tropical moisture in late September. We had to pump water out to keep the pastures from flooding, but we were careful to keep all that we could in reserve. This water could be very valuable by early winter if the weather pattern is similar to the last several years.

We start vaccinating cows the end of October. We vaccinate for leptospirosis, vibriosis and trichomoniasis with a combination vaccine. Any cow that has a bad bag, is crippled, blind, too old or hasn't calved in the past two years will be culled.

The cows and bulls will both be wormed and checked for soundness. The bulls will be semen tested. We feel all these practices help maintain a healthier more productive herd that expresses itself in higher calf numbers.

During this time our cow crew is more important than ever. Having enough riders to completely gather pastures without leaving any cattle behind is critical to the success of our herd health management program. If any sick or impaired animals are left behind, then the vaccination and breeding programs are defective.

Billy, Charlie, Jason, Art, Chris and Duane are the men that work alongside us to make this operation successful. They are passionate about their jobs and are some of the best cowboys in the business. I'm proud they're a part of our operation.

Knowledgeable, experienced employees, an effective herd health management program and good weather are critical in the ranching business. I'm confident two out of three of these are working favorably in our operation. With a little luck, the fall weather will be favorable, too.

Mary Anne Cruse, brother Wes, their parents and grandparents operate Ru-Mar Inc., a large, South Florida commercial cow/calf operation. Write her at [email protected].

Tree saw attachment

Tree Saw

The Bad Boy tree saw is an easily installed front-load attachment that converts skid-steer loaders and tractors into tree-cutting and removal machines. The 8-ft. saw arm brings down trees of any size, cutting flush to the ground. The high-carbon steel saw teeth are designed for ease of cutting without binding and are activated by the forward- and-reverse action of the power unit.
(Circle Reply Card No. 101)

Mixer Models

Knight Mfg. adds a 950-cu.-ft. model to its commercial SDL series TMR mixers. It offers a proven reel and auger mixing design, three-year warranted reel bearings and friction-welded shafts, and heavy flighting and hopper bottoms.

Knight also has added three larger vertical mixer models to their Verti-Maxx mixer line. The new models have 738, 858 and 1,009-cu.-ft. capacities. The twin auger design provides superior mix quality, faster large-bale processing and lower loading heights.
(Circle Reply Card No. 102)

Longer Grazing Grass

Hy-energy brand tetraploid annual ryegrass from Hytest Seeds offers a high-yielding, highly palatable forage that provides a two- to three-week longer grazing period than other diploid and tetraploid types. The larger leaf mass with excellent rust resistance and good heat and cold tolerance characteristics is suited for rotational and continuous grazing, as well as for hay and haylage production.
(Circle Reply Card No. 103)

BRD Treatment

AgriLabs' BoviSpec Sterile Solution provides the equivalent of 100 mg. of spectinomycin/ml. for the treatment of bovine pneumonia associated with Pasteurella haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida and Haemophilus somnus. Administered subcutaneously, BoviSpec is available in 500-ml. bottles.
(Circle Reply Card No. 104)

Attachment Combination

When attached to the utility fork, the Bobcat farm grapple provides additional holding ability for transporting hard-to-handle farm materials. Hydraulically controlled, it comes with four bolt-in replaceable teeth and extra tooth mount locations to add up to four teeth. The utility fork features replaceable teeth with a square taper tooth design to make dropping material easier.
(Circle Reply Card No. 105)

ATV Power

Polaris calls its Sportsman 700 Twin “the most powerful, smoothest riding ATV on the planet.” Powered by a 683-cc., even-firing, parallel twin engine that can produce 20% more horsepower and 25% more torque than its predecessor, it features an industry leading 1,500-lb. towing capacity.
(Circle Reply Card No. 106)

All-Terrain Vehicles

The Polaris 2×4 and 4×4 are built tough enough to help in a wide variety of capacities. They can tow up to 1,500 lbs. or help farmers and ranchers haul weed killers, insecticides or feed.
(Circle Reply Card No. 107)

Poly Stock Tanks

Hutchison Western's poly stock tank line contains ultraviolet inhibitors and impact modifiers to eliminate deterioration and fading and to resist aging. The slightly flexible design allows for temperature extremes (no ice lockups), and is roto-molded in one piece to eliminate the possibility of leakage. Available in five sizes and three colors.
(Circle Reply Card No. 108)

Subcutaneous Approval

Naxcel Sterile powder is now approved for subcutaneous administration in beef cattle when treating bovine respiratory disease and foot rot. From Pharmacia Animal Health.
(Circle Reply Card No. 109)

A Miracle Fat?

CLA is a unique fatty acid from ruminant animal sources that, in animal studies, exhibits powerful anti-carcinogenic and other beneficial health effects at relatively low dietary levels. Research findings from animal studies need to be replicated in humans.

News about conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) has stirred a lot of interest in the cattle industry. Scientific interest in the fatty acid began in 1988 when Michael Pariza, a University of Wisconsin food science researcher, discovered CLA had cancer-fighting properties in rats fed fried hamburger.

While a host of commercial CLA nutritional supplements is available, dietary beef and dairy products represent the primary “natural” sources of CLA.

The cattle industry would dearly love to cash in on the health benefits associated with CLA. But, the jury is still out on just how this compound benefits humans.

First - The Pros

“Animal studies have shown CLA is a powerful anti-carcinogen that can be administered safely through diet to achieve cancer protection,” says Mary Young, executive director for nutrition strategy and research at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. “CLA in milk fat may be a protective factor against breast cancer and coronary heart disease.”

Pariza's initial work on CLA as an anti-carcinogen has been extended to many other areas of human health. The purported benefits include anti-atherogenic and anti-diabetic properties, enhanced immune response and positive effects on energy partitioning, fat deposition and muscle growth.

Estimates from USDA's “Survey of Food Intake of Individuals” suggest that 36% of total CLA intake comes from beef and 52% from dairy products. Pork, seafood, most poultry products and vegetable oils are not notable sources of CLA.

Most research to date has been with animals and found that as little as 0.5% CLA in the diet has reduced tumor burden by more than 50%. But, can a reasonable diet containing beef provide beneficial levels of CLA for humans, considering that the minimal effective dose response is still unknown?

“At present, the answer would be ‘probably,’” says Young. “But, more studies in humans are needed to determine effective levels of CLA.”

A study published in the December 2000 Journal of Nutrition showed CLA reduces fat and preserves muscle tissue. An average reduction of 6 lbs. of body fat was found in the group that took CLA compared to a placebo group. The study found that about 3.4 g. of CLA/day is the level needed to obtain beneficial effects on body fat. CLA is generally found at a level of 4-7 mg. of CLA/g. of fat.

Pariza reported in August 2000 to the American Chemical Society that: “CLA doesn't make a big fat cell get little. It keeps a little fat cell from getting big.”

In a Purdue University study, CLA was found to improve insulin levels in two-thirds of diabetic patients, and it moderately reduced the blood glucose level and triglyceride levels.

Some Of The Cons

J.C. Stanley, MD, of Great Britain's Lincoln Edge Nutrition is a CLA critic. He says he can find only one scientific study describing a human health benefit of CLA — that it can lower blood glucose levels. He says more studies are needed to establish a reliable value of CLA content of foods.

Stanley, other nutritionists and physicians question if the benefits shown in laboratory animals will extend to humans. “Similar sounding claims were made for dietary fiber in the 1970s,” he says.

An Agricultural Research Service (ARS) interpretive summary concludes that it's not known if CLA in human diets will benefit immune response. Work by ARS research chemist Darshan Kelley at the Western Human Nutrition Research Center, Davis, CA, shows CLA does not appear to have any beneficial or adverse affects on human immune status.

In other studies, ARS's Nancy Keim and Marta Van Loan found CLA didn't reduce volunteers' body fat or help them build muscle. In addition, CLA didn't lower blood-fat levels or improve any of the other health indicators the research team examined.

Kelley says the results might have been different if volunteers had consumed more CLA over a longer period of time. Also, a different mixture of CLA components might have led to a different outcome.

All Fats Are Not Equal

Americans have been warned about too much fat in the diet. But, Kent Erickson, researcher at the University of California-Davis, says not all fats are created equal.

Each type of fat has a slightly different characteristic or function in the human body, he says. “The real question is: As Americans, do we consume too much fat or do we consume the right kind of fats in our diet?” Erickson asks.

While Erickson's research shows incredibly promising results, he admits most work to date has focused on animals. He also thinks humans probably can't get the protective benefits of CLA from food alone.

Cattle Diets And CLA

Animal management can alter the amounts of CLA found in the fat components of meat and milk. Wisconsin research shows that dairy cows grazing grass had five times more CLA in their milk than those fed silage or hay.

Researchers were able to boost CLA content of milk from confined cows by adding extracted whole soybean and linseed oils to a corn-alfalfa diet. Other work in the U.S. and Canada has shown that adding plant oils such as safflower, sunflower and canola to cattle rations can increase the level of CLA in beef and dairy fat.