We are weaning calves from the mother cows. We want to do this before there is snow on the ground (or at least snow that stays as it has all melted at this point). This can be a stressful time for the calf but there are a number of things we do to reduce as much of that stress as possible. Hence, we use a low-stress weaning method called fence-line weaning.
Just like stressed humans, stressed cattle are more susceptible to disease therefore reducing stress has positive benefits on animal health. Calves that have been fence-line weaned tend to have treatment rates of only 5-10%, compared to 25-30% being treated when calves are abruptly weaned.
What is Fence-line weaning?
Cow-calf pairs on pasture are brought to a fence corner where we have a wing to hold them or we put up a temporary electric fence to hold them. This means we can do this from almost any field. From this corner the calves are allowed to pass by, out into the field they have been in for the last couple of days and cows go through the gate into a new pasture. This keeps the calves in a familiar environment where they know where the water source is and where the good grazing is at – only one thing is changing.
One of the nice things about fence-line weaning is it only takes two people. One person is in the gate, letting cows in or calves by and one person brings them up. A medium sized group can be gathered and separated in as little as two hours.
Afterwards the cows and calves can see each other and touch noses through the fence. We keep the fence between the two grouped electrified to prevent calves from crawling through to their mothers. We also make sure it is at least 4-5 strands of barb wire that is in good condition, no saggy wires allowed!
After 5 days or so we move the calves to the backgrounding lot at home. By this time there is usually minimal fuss, at least after the first mile when they figure out how to trail out.
Why use fence-line weaning?
There are a number of low-stress weaning methods available. Two-stage weaning has shown excellent results in research. However, given the size of our operation the additional handling to put on and take off the nose tag is simply not practical. Also, research has shown that fence-line weaned calves vocalized 50% less, walked less, and had higher weight gains in the first 10 weeks after separation than abruptly weaned calves. This has been the best fit for our operation for X decades.
This year we brought in a group of cows that we wanted to cull close to the yard when it was time to wean. We fenceline weaned and shipped the cows. This meant that instead of moving the calves 5 or so days after weaning we gathered the cows into the corral. The calves didn’t even notice the cows were gone for nearly 12 hours. The day after the cows were shipped there was some vocalization and walking along the fence. But by day 4 they were back to grazing, content with the world.