Indeed, one of the best ways to reduce stress at weaning is to use low-stress handling/stockmanship to quiet the calves after they are separated from their mothers, says Ron Gill, associate department head, Extension, at Texas A&M University. “Even if you get them sorted and separated quietly, without much hassle, those calves still walk the fence and bawl. Someone needs to get in with them and quietly change their focus. This is part of a process we call acclimation, to get them settled into their new situation smoothly.”
If you can get the fence-walking, bawling calves to stop and focus on you, this helps. “If you do this periodically during the first day or two, the calves realize they can stop and rest. They start looking to you for reassurance and guidance, just as they looked to their mothers,” Gill says.
“You are their surrogate. You can take charge of that group and let them know you can settle them down and that you are the one providing their feed. As a distraction, you reduce a lot of their stress,” he explains.
“We used to have a preconditioning operation, and found we could reduce sickness and mortality rates (by acclimating calves). Those problems dropped to almost nothing after we implemented good handling practices.”
Most people separate pairs and then just leave them in the pen or pasture and don’t do anything with them until they quit bawling, Gill says. If you relieve their stress the first day or two, they stop bawling quicker.
“It also helps to get calves accustomed ahead of time to how you’ll be handling them in the working facility. If they’ve never seen a person on foot, get them used to that. A lot of operations that do everything horseback have problems in a corral because those calves don’t learn to make the transition from someone horseback to someone on foot.” This can be very stressful for calves; they may run wildly and crash into fences.
“If cattle are always handled horseback, have people get off their horses occasionally. Just lead your horse as you go through the calves. This gets them used to seeing someone on foot so that when they go to a marketing facility or see the truck driver, they don’t freak out,” he says.
Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.