Editor’s note: In conversations with BEEF readers who have been in the cattle business for years, one thing stands out — a concern for people who are entering the business. To address this, BEEF will feature a series of articles over the next year, written by veteran contributor Heather Smith Thomas, that look at various aspects of ranch management. While these articles will focus on basics, it may be that old-timers can pick up a tip or two as well. This is the second article in the series.
There are many ways to wean calves, but the goal is to wean them with the least stress possible — to keep calves healthy and growing and gaining weight — without any setbacks.
Since weaning can be a stress that makes calves more vulnerable to disease, you want calves to have peak immunity at that time in their lives. If at all possible, vaccinate calves beforehand. Work with your veterinarian to develop a herd health system that works for your ranch.
If you have the facilities, labor and time to vaccinate at least 10 days to two weeks before you wean, it pays big dividends, especially if the calves were vaccinated at branding age. Then the preweaning vaccination acts as a booster.
This can greatly reduce the risk for illness, especially if weaning can be accomplished with minimal stress.
Here’s a look at two weaning options that reduce calf stress.
This is perhaps the most common way to wean — whether it’s in adjacent pastures or even a corral, with the cows just through the fence. If calves must be in a corral, eating from feed bunks, it helps to put the pairs in a pasture ahead of time, where they can be bunk-fed, so calves learn to eat the feed while they are still on the dam.
That’s because calves eat with their moms and learn to eat what she eats. Fed this way for a few days, they know how to eat from bunks when weaned — and if their mothers are on the other side of the fence, they don’t stress over the weaning very long.
Fence-line weaning at pasture is even less stressful, especially if you have good-quality pasture for the calves. It might be one you grazed or put up hay on early in the season, and let regrow.
On green pasture, there’s no dust to cause respiratory irritation. Calves are accustomed to eating grass and don’t go off feed as much as when changed to hay and concentrates. If grass is drying out, it can be supplemented with good-quality hay.
When it’s time to wean, the cattle can be put in that pasture for a day, so they pair up and nurse, and the calves learn where water sources are. If you can sort off the cows on weaning day in a low-stress manner, the cattle don’t get very upset. There are many ways to do it, depending on your facilities.
If the calves still need a booster shot following a preweaning vaccination, some producers set up a portable corral at the fence, attract the cows and lead them through the gate with their feed vehicle, sorting the cows on through to the next pasture.
Calves are detained in the corral, put through the chute and given a booster shot. Then the calves are left in the good pasture, adjacent to their mothers but separated by an adequate fence. It can be net wire, poles or several strands of barbed-wire augmented by an electric wire — whatever they won’t go through. If the water tanks are in the fence line, the calves find the water.
If the pasture is good, this may be all the calves need for the next few weeks for feed. When first weaned, they’ll go find Mom at the fence and bawl at her a few minutes; then, they walk away and graze.
The calves are not stressed because they know Mom is there, and you haven’t changed their feed. In a few days, the cows can be taken somewhere else, and the calves aren’t worried about them anymore. They are not in a dusty corral and don’t have respiratory problems.
Many ranchers feel that using nose flaps is the least stressful way to wean. They do require running calves through a chute twice, however — once to put them on and again to take them off.
These plastic flaps are installed with the calves restrained in a chute, and then the calves are returned to their mothers. The flap hangs down over the calf’s nose and mouth, preventing it from getting a teat into its mouth to suckle, but it does not hinder eating grass or hay, or drinking water.
The calf cannot nurse but is not worried, because it’s still with his mother during weaning. The cow starts to dry up, and the calf adjusts to not having milk while still having Mom for security. A few days later, the cows and calves can be separated and the flaps removed. By that time, neither the cow nor the calf is worried about the separation.
You need to leave the flaps in for at least five days. That’s about the time it takes for calves to give up on trying to nurse, and the cows to not worry so much about their calves.
There are several types of nose flaps, and they can usually be washed after use and reused for many years.
The key to not losing them is to put them in and immediately let the calf go back to Mom, rather than standing around in the corral. If they bunch up in a tight mob, they may knock the nose flaps out. Most producers just leave the gates open, so the calves can go back to the cows in the pasture and find Mom.
The calves run to Mom but can’t suck, so they run around to the other side and can’t suck there either, and the cow is wondering why the calf isn’t nursing. They are both a little frustrated, but not very upset because they are still together.
After a few days, the flaps can be removed and the cows or calves taken somewhere else. They are not worried and go right to grazing. The calves don’t need milk anymore by that age. They may walk around the pasture for a day looking for the cow, but they don’t bawl or try to crawl through a fence. The calves are gentler to handle, because they are relaxed and not upset.
Vaccinations can be given when calves are in the chute for the flaps to be put in, or when they are taken out. Stress can interfere with the immune system and reduce effectiveness of vaccinations given at weaning time. With nose flap weaning, however, there’s no stress — so vaccines can be given at the same time.
On weaning day, allow cow-calf pairs to finish morning grazing. Then, slowly bring them to the sorting corral. Leave them awhile to mother up and nurse one last time, so the calves are content and there isn’t any bawling.
Quietly sort the cows out one gate into one pasture and calves out the other gate into another. Most cows are ready to file out when you open their gate, knowing they are going to fresh pasture.
If you are patient, the herd will sort itself, especially if the two gates are close together. Calves are easy to hold back and let out the other gate to the pasture they came from.
This allows natural movements of the animals to sort themselves. When cattle are put into a corral, their tendency is to turn around and come back out that gate. If you have another pen adjacent to the gate, you can sort calves into the other pen as the cows go out.
It’s even handier if you can drop the bottom rails off, so calves can go through the fence into the adjacent pen.
It only takes one person to direct traffic, letting the cows out. The calves scoot under the rails into the other pen. If the adjacent pen extends parallel with the gate or alley the cows are going out, the calves keep traveling alongside Mom, but are now in that adjacent pen with a fence between them. They all keep moving past the gate.
The cows don’t try to go under the rails, being too tall to fit comfortably. The calves, being more timid, hang back a little — not wanting to come that close to the person standing there — and choose to go under the pole.
If there is no pressure on them, the cows go past you and out the gate, and you can stop the calf. It will go under the fence to try to follow Mom.
Both the cow and calf keep walking past you, with no mobbing up at the gate.
If there’s just a gate for sorting, you soon have cows trying to come back in for their calves, and calves trying to go out the gate to catch up with Mom. This creates a bottleneck, making it more difficult to sort the rest of the herd.
With the movable rails, you can sort a lot of cattle, separating calves from cows in just a few minutes. The adjustable rails can be raised or lowered, depending on the height of the calves.
The bottom pole should be high enough so calves can go under without it touching their backs. If it’s a little low, they are more reluctant to move through that opening.
Corral weaning tips
Instead of putting feed in bunks in weaning corrals, some ranchers place big hay bales along the fence line. This way, calves find something to eat as they circle the corral and pace the fence, wanting to get back to their mothers.
If you have the feed in a bunk, they walk past it. If bales are scattered next to the fence — so every time they walk by a bale, they’ll grab a bite. Thus, they eat a little as they keep circling.
The big bales serve two purposes: to help slow the calves down so they aren’t running back and forth along the fence, and entice them to eat more.
If weaning in a corral, it helps to creep-feed ahead of time, out on the pasture, for the last three weeks — or have feed the calves are accustomed to eating before you separate them from their mothers. Even if the cows eat some, this pays off because the calves learn to eat it, too.
It also helps to spend some time with those calves in the corral when you wean them. This gets them accustomed to seeing people and is also distracting. Calves are curious about a person, and you become the surrogate for Mom.
Rather than focusing on Mom across the fence or worrying about where she is, they start looking to you for comfort. This calms calves down a lot quicker than if you just put out feed for them.
It doesn’t take much effort for someone to spend a little time every day walking through them quietly. They are looking for guidance.
When you give them something to focus on, you can stop the walking and bawling; the calves stop pacing the fence and respond to you —which takes a lot of stress away from them.
Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.