I mentioned yesterday that we weaned the calves. It made for a very loud few days as both babies and mamas “cried” for each other. As hard as it is to listen to them ball, it needed to be done.
Why wean? In theory, if left to their own devices mama cow should stop baby from weaning shortly before she gives birth to her next calf. In theory. This doesn’t always happen and sometimes mama ends up nursing multiple calves which isn’t good for any one. Also, weaning a few months before the next group of calves are born allows the cows to put weight back on and develop an optimal body condition. Letting nature run her course isn’t really an option.
There are several ways to wean calves.
The most stressful is immediate, full-out separation. Calves are removed from the herd and taken to a location without any proximity to their mothers. In a single day, calves lose nourishment (milk) and comfort (mother). This is stressful for both mom and baby. Not only is it emotionally stressful, it can also be physically detrimental to the calves growth. For several days they will cry and pace, searching for their mother. In doing so, they neglect eating and drinking. Calves can start to lose weight and become susceptible to illness.
Another option is weaning rings. These are simple plastic devices which clip on the calves’ noses and prevent them from nursing. It’s like a bull’s nose ring, but weaning rings don’t actually pierce the nose. Think of a clip-on earring. (Do those still exist?) The ring has dull spikes that make nursing very uncomfortable for the mother which prompts her to kick baby off as she would do if weaning naturally. This is another one of those “works in theory.”
Several of the yearling calves were weaned using weaning rings. The rings were put in around the time I arrived at the farm. Devons are a very docile breed. Some of the mothers simply tolerated the discomfort. For those calves whose mothers did kick them off, they found other cows who would let them nurse. Some managed to pull their rings out and one actually managed to pierce his own nose with his ring. An impressive feat given they are made of dull, thick plastic. Weaning rings also work best in a confinement situation as the calves must be worked through a handling system to insert the rings and then again a week or so later to remove the rings. This is always stressful for the animals. Sure, they aren’t stressed by the separation, but you are simply replacing one stress with another.
The option we went with on Wednesday is fence-line weaning. Fence-line weaning is pretty self explanatory. Cows and calves are separated by a fence. They can still see each other and even interact. They just can’t nurse. You are removing the milk, but not the mom. Not completely. Cows and calves imprint to each other’s call which is why they moo so much during fence-line weaning. They are letting their other half know they are still there. When immediately fully separated, they even lose the comfort of that familiar sound. By allowing continued, though limited, interaction, fence-line weaning significantly reduces stress for calves and cows.