Reducing Weaning Stress in Two Easy Steps

The problem of weaning stress

Nothing is static, and so too our animal agriculture systems and management practices continue to evolve. One top candidate for change for some time now in beef production has been the way that we wean our cattle. Judging by their response (which lasts for several days!), it could well be the most stressful thing that we do to our animals.

There are several drawbacks to the common of "weaning on the truck" (separating cows and calves and sending the calves to auction). By this way of doing things, the negative effects of weaning stress are multiplied by transportation and handling stress, and by the stress of mixing and regrouping unfamiliar animals. As a result, a high proportion of newly weaned calves that were healthy and happy just days earlier, suddenly get sick and require treatment intervention to minimize associated losses. The leading preventative solution to this problem has been, the mass medication of all newly weaned calves with antibiotics (called metaphylaxis), to minimize the expected outbreak of illness. The negative public perceptions about the use of mass medication offer another important reason to consider alternative solutions.

One piece that I have been closely involved with over the last number of years has been trying to find ways to reduce the actual stress of the weaning itself. We all recognize that cows and their calves have a unique and close social bond. Dissolving that relationship requires quite a detailed understanding of the natural weaning process and the mechanisms involved.

The weaning two-step

To date, our best invention with respect to reducing weaning stress has been something called two-stage weaning, or as some fans of country music like to call it "the weaning two-step"! We discovered this quite by accident while exploring some very basic questions about the weaning process. I was curious about what all the fuss at weaning was really about. I was undecided whether calves were more upset by not having milk any more, or by missing the companionship of their mother. Normally when we wean, we remove both of these factors at the same time, making it impossible to know which is more important. The study that I designed to investigate this question gave rise to the weaning two-step.

An easily removable nose flap slip on the calf's septum prevents suckling.
Figure 1. An easily removable nose flap slip on the calf's septum prevents suckling.

We fitted calves with a nose-flap (Figure 1), which prevented them from nursing but still allowed them to graze and drink and have other forms of interaction with their mother. This allowed us to see what their response was when they were simply prevented from having any more milk. It turned out that there was almost no noticeable response at all, and things were very, very quiet. The calves gave-up trying to nurse within a couple of days. One thing we did notice though, was that calves spent their time quite close to their mother, which we suspected meant that the major fuss would come when the pairs were physically separated. But we were in for a big surprise!

Incredibly, after being physically separated, our two-step cows and calves were still extremely quiet. This was despite the fact that they were penned together with control animals that were being weaned by total separation and that were bawling and walking just like we expected them to. While it is true that cattle are herd animals, they have individual experiences and do not always act as one. Cows and calves that were weaned in two stages were clearly having a different and less stressful weaning experience and the calling, walking and commotion of the control animals did not seem to influence their response.

Just how much better is two-stage weaning? Well, compared with the traditional method of weaning by total separation (e.g., "weaning on the truck"), weaning in two stages reduced calling by calves by 95%. That means that for every 100 calls given by a calf weaned the traditional way, calves weaned in two stages call just 5 times. So this means a much quieter weaning experience for both you and your neighbours! Two-stage weaning reduced walking by calves by 60%, and increased the time they spent eating by 30%. So two-stage calves are wasting less energy searching for their mother and they are feeding more. We have shown that together, this results in two-stage calves gaining more weight in the first week following separation, compared to calves weaned by total separation. Cows weaned in two stages call 85% less and also spend 60% less time walking compared to cows weaned the traditional way.

All production advantages aside, we feel that another important plus of two-stage weaning is that taken all together, the evidence suggests that it improves the well-being of the animals, which is increasingly important in the evolution of animal agriculture practices.

Practical considerations

Our studies have shown that two-step calves respond the same way to physical separation whether they wear a nose-flap for 3 days or 14 days. We recommend that nose-flaps be left on for as little time as possible; 4-7 days. Don't forget the second step of separating cows and calves.

Some people have expressed concern about the stress of handling, but this is probably the area of beef cattle production has evolved the most in recent years. Many producers now use the behavioural concepts flight zone and point of balance to handle their animals calmly and quietly. Low-stress handling is a natural partner for low-stress weaning.

If you have questions about the weaning two-step do not hesitate to contact Dr. Derek Haley a new Faculty member at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph at dhaley@uoguelph.ca or 519-824-4120, Ext. 53677.

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