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.

| January/February 2016

  • 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
  • Eight Suffolk lambs running through a field.
    Photo by Fotolia/pelooyen
  • A herd of Hereford cattle with several mothers and calves in tow. Lush green pastures reduce the stress of weaning season.
    Photo by iStockphoto.com/emholk
  • A Tamworth pig and her new piglet. Tamworths are an intelligent pig breed agreeable in disposition. And sows are prolific.
    Photo by iStockphoto.com/craigwalsh

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.



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