Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The way we wean....

I like to keep my calves with their dams a minimum of 4 months. I cant remember why the number 4 was the minimum, but I am sure I read it somewhere that calves should stay with their mothers at least that long before being weaned. I amazes me how early a calf will be seen imitating its mother by nibbling grass, eating hay and drinking out of the water tubs (our tubs are quite low to the ground).
We like to "fence-line wean", which is something I learned about after our first year of bawling calves and bellowing distraught mother cows frantically looking for their "lost" calves. We separated the calves from the mothers and made sure neither could see the other. What we got was about 3 days (and nights) of almost continual calling back and forth between the cows and their calves. It got to be nerve racking, and I vowed there must be another way than to stress everyone (calves, cows, myself, my family, my neighbors,..) out every fall.
With fence-line weaning, the calves are separated from the their mothers by a fence, preferably a sturdy woven wire or board fence. They can see each other, just not get to one another. They will pace some, sniff each other, but the mothers are noticeably calmer knowing that their "babies" are not "lost", just physically "unavailable" for the time. Of course there will be calling back and forth, the cows udder will get full with no calf to nurse, and the baby may want a drink and momma, but we have found that if the calves have plenty of high quality hay and fresh water, they don't seem to really miss the milk. And as long as momma can walk up to the fence, see, smell and hear her calf, that is usually all she needs to satisfy herself, knowing her calf is safe and not missing. Usually there are several calves weaned at once, so they keep each other company as well. If you are weaning just one calf, perhaps you can put her in with an agreeable heifer to keep company with. As long as they are not alone or isolated, they will be fine. Remember cattle are herd animals and hate being separated and alone. Just watch that keep your weaning calf doesn't attempt to make the compainon animal or calf it new "momma" by attempting to nurse. I haven't had this happen, but its just good to keep an eye out for.
I would have to say this way of weaning has reduced the stress level of everyone involved by at least half, and seems to accomplish weaning in about 3 days. Everyone benefits.
One more thing we try to do is pick a nice stretch of weather when we wean. The nicer the better, one less issue to be concerned with. And of course the babies have shelter and clean bedding as well.
This does not have to be an elaborate set up, just that it gets the job done.
Keep the babies away from their mommas for several months. They will not forget each other, but the urge to nurse should be well passed by then.
Funny how the cows and calves will recognize each other, even if they have been separated in different pastures for up to a year, they still will acknowledge their calves and siblings when they see, hear and smell them. I have 3 generations from one cow and they all travel and hang together still. Its pretty neat how they know.

Happy weaning!!

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