Over 45 years on the farm, Ted Lacey has learned small changes in his beef operation can significantly affect the bottom line. After learning how fenceline weaning reduces stress in a herd, the Trent, South Dakota, cattleman adopted the practice, using hotwire and permanent fencing to separate cows and calves.
"It worked better than abrupt weaning. But, we still had calves walking the fenceline and bawling for several days. Every night, one or two calves managed to slip through, often grounding the electric fence," he says.
Lacey knew he either had to separate those calves that made it back to their dams and start the fenceline weaning process again, or abruptly pull them, causing stress. He was looking for answers. In 2016, he found one when he spied a nose tag in an employee's pickup. He learned how to use the device and, after just one year of nose-tag weaning, says he'll never return to previous weaning methods.
"For years, I weaned in mid-September, bringing calves from the pasture to a dry lot," Lacey says. "Calves bawled and walked the fence as long as 10 days after separation. They burned up a lot of energy and weren't eating much during all that. Fenceline weaning was better, but with nose-tag weaning, I don't have calves or cows bawling, and nobody's trying to get through fences."
Lacey was discovering what Joseph Stookey reported more than two decades ago. The professor at the University of Saskatchewan's department of large animal clinical sciences took part in a study to determine how abrupt weaning affected behavior and growth rate of calves compared to a two-step method.
In the two-step method, milk is first taken away from calves by preventing them from suckling with the use of nose tags. Then, they are physically separated from dams. The time between the two steps varies with operation, but in most cases, calves can easily be moved away from dams within a few days of breaking the nursing bond.
In Stookey's study, calves' weights and behaviors were recorded before and after separation. Results showed following separation, calves weaned in two stages vocalized 96.6% less, paced 78.9% less, spent 23% more time eating and 24.1% more time resting. Two-stage calves had lower average daily gain (ADG) while wearing the nose tags but greater ADG during the seven days postseparation when compared to the abruptly weaned group. Two-stage calves also had greater growth rates.
Keeping 10% More
"I had no complaining from either cows or calves," Lacey adds. "My calves are generally 450 to 500 pounds at weaning. I estimate I'm keeping about 10% more flesh on them by avoiding high stress during weaning. With 100 head, that averages about 5,000 pounds more beef at the packing plant."
On average, tags like the ones Lacey used cost about $2 each. And, they are reusable. After removing them in 2016, Lacey sterilized, disinfected and stored them for reuse in 2017. He expects to use the nose tags multiple times, making their cost minimal.
Lacey's estimate of an extra 50-plus pounds on each calf with nose-tag weaning may not reflect everyone's experience. Researchers, for example, have seen mixed results.
At South Dakota State University, Extension cow/calf field specialist Adele Harty says "no studies have demonstrated that calves retain more weight or have significantly higher performance after low-stress weaning."
Texas A&M researchers, however, found lower cortisol levels in calves weaned using low-stress methods such as nose tags. Ron Randel and Tom Welsh did a study in 2013 looking at relationships between animal temperament and stress in beef cattle. Among their findings was evidence that cortisol stimulates production of glucose and the breakdown of muscle protein.
Harty admits, "Most study data show lower cortisol levels with lower-stress weaning. However, many factors play into weaning, and beef producers may see improved weight maintenance one year, but that may not happen every year."
She says when it comes to maintaining body condition, just as important as weaning method is quality feed and ample, fresh water. Stress can lead to reduced feed and water intake, resulting in poor nutrition. Weaning stress can also depress the immune system.
"Any opportunity to contribute to improved health and performance of calves, both during and after the weaning period, contributes to improved health and calf performance," Harty notes.
Several steps can help make weaning time easier for calf and dam. Here are a few to consider:
• Introduce calves to new feeds prior to weaning, and complete vaccinations or other stressful procedures three to four weeks prior to weaning. Nursing calves are better able to withstand the stress that comes with these types of changes.
• Creep-feed and/or hay prepares calves for transfer to a drylot where they need to eat from a feedbunk. The practice also reduces the stress of suddenly losing the dam's milk and can enhance calf performance.
• Any weaning process selected should fit an operation's facilities and labor resources.
• If abrupt weaning is an operator's only option, select optimum weather conditions to eliminate extra stressors. Leave a few older cows with calves a few days to help them settle and find their way around a new environment.
• Fenceline weaning is a lower-stress, one-step method. It requires adequate pasture or pen space to separate cows and calves. University of South Dakota Extension cow/calf specialist Adele Harty recommends giving calves time to become familiar with fencelines and placement of water prior to moving them or their dams to a separate space. And, be sure fences are solid enough to keep cows pairs separated. It will take several days for fenceline-weaned cows and calves to lose interest in nursing.
• Two-stage weaning, using a nose tag, requires more handling, which should be done in a low-stress manner. Because of the extra handling nose tags require (once in the chute to insert them, once to remove them), the method probably won't fit every beef operation. Some calves will find a way to nurse even while wearing the tags; in other cases, they can become dislodged. And, leaving them in more than a week may cause sores in the nose, so prompt removal is a must.
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