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Stordahl column: Low stress weaning

Weaning is one of the most stressful events in a calf's life. Practices that minimize stress during this time can yield improved calf health and weight gain. When calves are weaned they have two main stressors that can affect them: first, separation from their mother, and secondly, moving to a new environment.

When evaluating potential weaning methods, producers should evaluate their facilities and resources. Then, producers should decide which protocol within the resource parameters is most likely to cost-effectively minimize stress on the cows and calves, yet best prepare the calves for the next stage of production.

Research comparing methods for weaning cattle is limited; however a few studies do shed some light on the subject. California researchers conducted a three-year study to compare weaning calves but allowing fenceline contact with their dams to non-weaned calves or calves weaned and completely separated from their dams. Results of this study indicate that fenceline-weaned calves show less behavioral stress than calves abruptly separated from their dams, and gain 33 pounds more weight through 10 weeks post-weaning.

Allowing fenceline contact between calves and their dams for several days after weaning can lessen stress and minimize post-weaning performance decline. However, it may not always be possible to fenceline wean calves. In situations where fenceline weaning is impossible or impractical, producers should make every effort to minimize stress. Tips for minimizing weaning stress are listed.

Tips to minimize weaning stress

Provide calves access to the weaning area (pen, trap, or pasture) a few weeks prior to weaning so calves do not have to undergo the stress of environment change at weaning.

Provide shelter from wind and sun.

Allow fenceline contact between calf and dam for three to seven days following weaning. Fences should be sturdy and allow nose to nose contact without nursing.

If fenceline contact is not practical, move cows far enough that they cannot hear the calves bawling.

Move the cows to a new location when cows and calves are separated at weaning. Do not move the calves.

If weaning in a drylot or corral, place feed bunks, hay, or water troughs along the fence to minimize perimeter walking.

Do not castrate, dehorn, or brand calves at weaning. These practices should be completed at least 3 weeks before weaning and preferably prior to 3 months of age.

For more information on this issue, contact me at the Polk County office in McIntosh or at the Clearwater County office on Wednesdays. Our toll free number is 800-450-2465. If email is your thing, contact me at Source: North Dakota State University Extension Service.