Low-Stress Method for Weaning Calves and Other Livestock

Considering the mental makeup of livestock and what is actually going on at the time of weaning, we offer three methods for weaning calves, goats and other livestock in less stressful circumstances.

Horses

Weaning season on the farm doesn’t have to be noisy and chaotic. This year, make it as low-stress as it’s ever been.

Photo by iStockphoto.com/marcelmooij

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Weaning is, in most cases, the most stressful event in the life of a young animal. Change in diet and nutrition, change in environment, and change in peer group all combine to stress a newly weaned youngster. Coupled with the loss of security and social stability from their mother, weaning can send many animals into a spiral of stress that can result in loss of condition at best, and at worst, make the young animal vulnerable to sickness and disease. With a little careful planning, much of the stress of weaning can be eliminated, or greatly reduced.

Physiology of lactation

After giving birth, one of the most important tasks a mammalian mother undertakes is to produce milk for her baby. The first milk produced is colostrum, which is rich in the protein and energy the newborn desperately needs. In a few days, this milk changes into the “normal” milk with which we are familiar.

New babies grow rapidly. To meet the need for nutrition and support such rapid growth, milk production rises rapidly in the weeks following birth. At about 60 days, the mother approaches peak lactation. Then gradually, over several months, production tapers off.

Most ruminants are able to digest some solid food after about 30 days, when the rumen has had a chance to populate itself with the necessary bacteria for fermentation of solid food stuffs. In spring-born animals, the tapering off of mother’s milk production coincides with the baby’s ability to make use of forage, and with increased availability of forage in the summer.

Milk begins to provide less and less of the baby’s nutritional needs, but the need for support and the security mother provides doesn’t go away. Very strong psychological and behavioral bonds develop between a mother and her offspring. Even if the young animal isn’t staying in close proximity to its mother all the time, she still provides a psychological safe zone for her baby long after her responsibility for nutritional support has begun to wane. Ultimately, milk production will dwindle down to next to nothing, and the baby will be pretty much on its own nutritionally.

So why bother to wean at all if eventually the dam will dry up, or stop lactating, anyway? If the dam continues to nurse a baby, even if the baby is not getting a lot of its nutrition from her, the nursing can have an adverse effect on the dam’s body condition.

Loss of condition can inhibit her ability to rebreed for the next season. If she is already bred, reduced condition can hamper her next lactation, and the growth of her next calf.

As a result, most producers, no matter what species, choose to wean their animals at a time that corresponds to the natural lactation curve. Weaning too early can compromise the baby’s growth and psychological development. Early weaning can also cause major discomfort for the dam if she is still producing at the high end of the lactation curve. If she has tapered off on her production, she is not likely to experience major discomfort.

Producers also try to time the cycle of birth to weaning with the natural cycles of forage growth. Babies born in the spring get the advantage of the lush growth of spring grass, coinciding with peak milk production, and weaning in the fall can give weaned animals a chance to take advantage of fall pasture.

Physiology of stress at weaning

Even if weaning takes advantage of the natural cycles of lactation and forage production, it is still often the most stressful thing to happen in that baby’s life.

Historically, weaning was done with little thought to the stress created for both baby and mother. It was typically seen as just something to get through. Babies were taken away abruptly, often resulting in a lot of pacing the fence line and calling out for mama, to no avail.

Calves were often rounded up and trucked away, often sold at the same time. This forced them to adapt to an entirely new social structure and feed system, as well as putting them at risk for stress-related problems. Foals were completely removed from their mothers, resulting in babies running the fence line, and dams pacing their new enclosures restlessly, often working themselves into a sweaty lather.

In confinement hog operations, piglets are weaned as early as 10 days to two weeks. At that age, the piglets have had little chance for their digestive tract to adapt to solid, dry food. The stress of this method can also result in piglets trying to suck on other pigs’ navels, or chewing on tails to relieve the instinct to suckle.

Most of the research done on post-weaning stress is on calves, but it isn’t too difficult to apply the same principles to other species. Stress in any form can have a negative effect on an animal. Animals that are traditionally weaned will spend more time pacing and calling out for their mother, and less time eating. Dust created from pacing can irritate delicate respiratory membranes, making it easier for infection to take hold.

Enter a technique called “low-stress weaning.” Low-stress weaning is simply that, a method of weaning that seeks to minimize the stress on both the baby and the mother. Guided partly by the desire to reduce impact on the bottom line, and partly by desire for a better way of doing things and better quality of life for animals, low-stress weaning is a technique that a lot of producers have turned to in recent years.

Low-stress weaning

There are three main methods of low-stress weaning. All three strive to minimize the stress on the baby animal – and on the mother as well – and take advantage of the animal’s natural preference to remain in a stable social group.

Gradual

In gradual weaning, the baby stays in the herd with its peers and their mothers, and then, one at a time, the dams are taken away. Usually the oldest youngster’s mother is removed first. Subsequently each mother is removed, the one with the next oldest baby to the youngest, until the babies are left in their own paddock as a group. As they are eating solid food, they don’t miss mama very much from a nutritional standpoint, and since they have all their familiar companions around, their social circle remains intact.

This type of weaning is more common with horses, where mares are generally halter broken, and can be taken away one at a time and placed in stalls or separate paddocks. It may or may not be practical with large groups – or herds of cattle, sheep or goats –

where the mothers may not be as socialized with humans, or as trained. Foals weaned in this gradual manner are less likely to panic and blast through fences, or blindly run into objects. They can take comfort in their peer group, and since the mares are removed one at a time, the whole group doesn’t get as worked up as if the mares were all removed at once.

Fence-line

Another type of low-stress weaning is fence-line weaning. Much as the name implies, this method separates mother and offspring in adjacent pastures, where they can still see and smell each other, but the baby can’t nurse. This method serves the same purpose of keeping the peer group of offspring together and gives the mother and baby time to get used to the psychological ramifications of being separated in a more gradual manner.

The dams are separated into an adjacent pasture from the babies, where they can go off to graze as they wish. As a general rule, both sets will hang around the fence for a couple of days, and then spend less and less time hanging around as they move off to graze or find water. This system even works well in pastured pork systems, where electrified poultry netting can be used as a barrier between sow and piglets.

The caveat for this type of weaning? For any type, really? Your fences had better be safe, strong and tight. A baby animal will find and exploit any weakness to get back to mama. Goats are notorious for being able to find a gap you hadn’t realized was there, and if you have a hot-wire fence, you should make sure that the fence is functioning at a level that will garner respect from both sides.

One of the best fences for this particular weaning method is woven wire, or cattle panel. This allows sniffing and “chatting,” but the baby can’t even begin to get its head through to try to nurse. Corral and maybe even some cattle panels won’t work for smaller goat breeds though, as kids can squeeze through an opening you wouldn’t imagine they could fit through. The joke around our house is that fencing goats is like trying to fence water.

Mechanical

Another option available to cattle producers is plastic nose flaps that can be used to prevent the calf from suckling while it is still with the cow. The plastic flap has two tabs that fit into the calf’s nostrils, and the flap covers the nose, preventing the calf from nursing but not from grazing or drinking water.

The disadvantages of this method include catching the calf up both for insertion and removal, and the benefit is negated if the calf looses the flap before it is fully weaned.

For small producers with only a handful of animals, and no good way to fence-line separate cows and calves, this might be an option to consider. The nose flaps are available from most of the online livestock catalogs. As of yet, there are none available for other species.

Benefits of low-stress weaning

There are many advantages to low-stress weaning systems. Animals that are not stressed are less likely to get sick. They are more likely to continue to gain weight after weaning. And, if you have ever had a pen of newly, traditionally weaned calves or lambs near your house, you can appreciate the difference in the noise level.

The cons? It does require a bit more preparation and planning. Gradual and mechanical methods of low-stress weaning will require more organization and hands-on contact with the animals – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but requires time and effort.

Planning for weaning success

What can you do to make low-stress weaning work for your animals and for you?

Thirty days prior to weaning, make sure the youngster is up-to-date on vaccinations. Most calves, piglets and lambs that will not be retained as breeding stock are banded or castrated at birth. If your intention is to castrate, it’s best not to combine this with the weaning process. Either do it some time prior to weaning, or far enough after that the animal has recovered from weaning sufficiently. Vaccinations should be updated or performed 30 days prior to weaning, in order for them to work and provide the most benefit and support to the newly weaned animal.

A few days prior to weaning, put the mothers and babies in the pen or pasture in which you intend to leave the babies. This will allow them to find where the water and food is, and they won’t need to worry about searching it out after mom is gone. If this is not possible, put food and water in a couple of places so the weaned youngsters are able to find it easily.

Make sure you provide the youngsters with high-quality food, whether in the form of excellent hay, alfalfa or a grain ration. If you plan to add grain to the weanlings’ diet, and the mother and baby weren’t on grain before, give the baby a small portion for a few days to get its digestive system used to the change. If the baby has had an opportunity to share with its mother’s grain diet, it should already be used to it and no transition is necessary.

If at all possible, choose a time when the weather doesn’t add additional stress such as the heat of summer or cold, wet winter weather. The environment can serve as a major stressor for a young animal in general, and adding weaning on top of it can create a major setback.

Higher quality of life

While some studies show that traditionally weaned animals will eventually catch up to their low-stress weaned counterparts, the potential to reduce illness in the herd is worth considering. Still other studies show the benefits gained in using low-stress weaning techniques will follow the animal throughout the course of its life.

Weaning remains probably the most stressful time in an animal’s life. With a little prior planning, and a little extra effort on the farmer’s part, that stress can be minimized. The result is a healthier, more content animal, which should be the goal for all livestock producers.


By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper, and by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. Over several decades, she has learned to manage all sorts of livestock, and prefers to feed forage whenever possible.