Studies have shown that when cows and calves are fenceline weaned, (cows and calves on opposite sides of the fence – and can see each other), they are less distressed compared with remote weaning.
According to Clyde Lane, Jr., Professor, Animal Science, University of Tennessee, familiarizing the calves with their weaning area prior to the separation will also help to eliminate some of the stress. This pre-weaning action allows the calves to become familiar with the location of the feed and water.
Lane’s research showed that fenceline weaned calves spent less time vocalizing (bawling) and less time walking the pen than those separated in a far off pasture. These weaned calves also spent more time resting or eating than those calves separated and placed in drylot.
Studies suggest that fence line weaning can take as little as five days to accomplish.
While producers, over time, have come to accept the more traditional separation of cows and calves as ‘natural’, Joe Stookey, researcher and Professor of Animal Behavior at the University of Saskatchewan, suggests that it is very far from the natural process and causes undue stress.
“The age that we artificially impose weaning is probably not, in itself, a stressor,” suggests Stookey. “The level of calling between cows and calves at weaning has a lot to do with the particular year’s variation in forage, milk supply, pregnancy status, and how close the calves were to the natural weaning period.”
Note: Studies have shown that the natural weaning period can be anywhere from 8.8 months in female calves to 11.3 months in bull calves. However, there are many factors that play into the timing of a natural cow/calf separation.
Derek Haley, Assistant professor, Animal Behavior & Welfare, University of Guelph, worked closely with Stookey at the U of S studying the effects on cattle of various weaning procedures.
“I did behavior observations of fenceline weaning for 10-12 hours a day and at the end of the day my ears were ringing because the cattle on both sides of the fence were still quite distressed. But by systematically recording calf movement, feeding habits and bawling behavior, we established that fenceline weaning did indeed reduce some of the stress associated with weaning.”
“When we studied the effect of the two-stage weaning which is when ‘nose flaps’ are used to prevent the calf from sucking for a few days before moving the calves to the fenceline weaning, the reduction in stress for both cow and calf was even more dramatic.”
By comparing calves weaned the traditional way (remote separation), Haley found that calves that underwent two-stage weaning vocalized 85 percent less, walked 80 percent less, and spent 25 percent more time eating.
While these weaning procedures are becoming more accepted in reducing the stress on livestock, there is still the burning question as to whether this stress reduction translates into healthier calves down the road?
“There are producers that use the fenceline weaning or the two-stage weaning on their calves that are certain that their animals are healthier as a result,” says Haley. “But as a scientist, I think it’s more important to document evidence about that.”
“Joe and I are hoping to get funding to follow these low-stress-weaned calves through the feeding and finishing period to identify whether they are indeed healthier.”
Haley makes a good point when he says if these calves are found to be healthier, they obviously require fewer drugs throughout their life. This too answers the consumers call for not only animal welfare changes, but less medication.
“We have the drugs to deal with calf hood sickness and the industry has come to accept medication costs as part of the production costs. But most people also recognize that consumers are now wary of mass medication and it’s become part of the public conversation and may not be tolerated long term,” says Haley.
Oddly enough, before there is a mass change to low-stress-weaning methods, here has to be some advance work done in the industry.
“I’ve heard that buyers may actually prefer calves that are bawling a bit and appear to be green and fresh off their mothers. If they see calves that are quieter and more content, they may think there is something wrong with them. Just the opposite of the effect we’re hoping to achieve,” says Haley. There are already a number of different animal welfare certification and labelling programs that will certify a livestock operation as using low stress handling as part of their management practices. Some branded beef programs use this as part of their ‘marketing story’. The Biggs from TK Ranch at Hanna, for instance, include low stress handling management as part of their consumer messaging to differentiate their beef product in the marketplace.