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Two-stage weaning reduces calf stress

Capturing ‘win-win’ benefits in an area where new knowledge and options are emerging

Two southern Alberta ranches are among those who have found a two-stage calf weaning program is not only much less stressful for livestock and improves rate of gain, it also makes for a much quieter weaning week.

The two-stage weaning system involves processing calves about a week before the actual weaning day to apply a commercially available plastic guard, or nose flap, in the nose of each calf. It is a small plastic plate, about the width of the muzzle and three inches deep, that just clips into the nostrils, similar to the plastic closers found on many bread bags. The Canadian-made flaps are marketed by the Saskatchewan company Quiet Wean.

Calves are then released back into the cow herd. In most cases the nose flaps prevent the calf from nursing its mother. Within four or five days the calf forgets about trying to nurse, and then calves and cows can be separated. On weaning day, calves can quickly be run through the chute again to remove the nose-flaps, which are reusable next year.

“It is natural for calves to be weaned — to stop nursing their mothers,” says Dr. Joe Stookey, a researcher and professor in animal behaviour at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon. “But in a—natural environment the cow will simply dry up and discourage the calf from nursing, but the calf is still with its mother. What is not natural is for a calf is for mother and milk to disappear on the same day. Conventional weaning is probably the most stressful event ranch calves will experience in their lives.”

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The two-stage weaning program eases calves into weaning. Research shows calves that are conventionally weaned — simply one day removed from milk and their mothers — will spend the next two days pacing and walking as much as 25 miles, bawling and looking for their mothers. Among calves that have been weaned with the two-stage system using the Quiet Wean nose-flap, walking is reduced to about 10 miles, and there is very little bawling.

“It is such a simple system, yet so effective,” says Stookey. “The stress on the animals is greatly reduced and that leads to all sorts of benefits related to improved calf health and improved rates of gain, not to mention it is much quieter.”

Chad Monner, Milo, Alberta

Chad Monner, who ranches with his uncle Michael Monner, has been using the two-stage Quiet Wean weaning system with their 240-head commercial cow-calf herd at Milo in southern Alberta, for about six years.

About a week before actual weaning, they process calves through the chute, apply the nose flaps as well as vaccinate and turn the calves back out with their mothers. A week later they sort the calves for weaning, remove the nose flaps, apply a topical pest control, and put calves into their on-farm backgrounding operation.

“Since we have been using this two-stage system, weaning day doesn’t even seem to phase the calves one bit,” says Monner. “They go on to feed the first day — get right into it. There is no bawling, no pacing, no wasting time. From an animal welfare perspective you can see it is much less stressful for the calves. After a week of wearing these nose flaps and not nursing they’ve learned they don’t need mom anymore.”

Monner says the tags, which cost about $2 each, are easy to install and remove. He says there is very good retention, estimating they may have to replace about 10 per cent each year.

“The odd calf will lose one, and some calves will figure out a way to nurse the cow even with it on,” he says. “And you can certainly identify those calves on weaning day. Everyone else is quiet and eating, and the ones who were still nursing look pretty sad, and they’re bawling and looking for their mothers.”

For their operation applying the nose-flaps is one extra step in calf processing in the fall — they plan to vaccinate and apply insecticide anyway, but Monner says it really doesn’t take that long, and overall it improves calf performance.

Rocking P Ranch, Nanton, Alberta

The Blades family at Nanton, Alta. has been impressed with how smoothly and quietly weaning week went in 2013 after following the two-stage weaning program for the first year.

They wean their 600-head cow herd on Rocking P Ranch in three bunches of about 200 head at a time.

“We were really happy because you could see the difference,” says Mac Blades. “We background our calves every year, bring the calves home from pasture and put them in the corral for a couple days or more to allow them to settle down and then put them out on pasture again.

“This year with the two-stage weaning the calves were so much quieter. The few that may have lost their nose flaps or figured out how to cheat were much more restless. They were bawling and looking for their mothers and the rest were calm and started eating. We kept them in the corral one night, and then turned them out to pasture.”

Mac and Renie Blades operate Rocking P Ranch along with their son and daughter-in-law Justin and Mida and their daughter and son-in-law Monica and Blake Schlosser. They pay attention to practices that can reduce stress in the cow herd, and maintain good records — all cattle are tagged, calf birth weights and vaccination protocol is recorded.

While the ranch headquarters are just west of Nanton, they have a second place and most of the summer pasture south of Chain-of-Lakes.

“We manage the cattle in three herds, and do any sorting right on pasture,” says Blades. “Handling the smaller groups is less stressful, and after sorting we haul calves back to the ranch by truck and trailer, which is also easier on the calves.”

With actual weaning day planned for late October, they moved portable corrals to the three pastures to capture calves and apply the nose-flaps and vaccinate about a week before weaning. Calves rejoined their mothers for five to seven days before being sorted, weaned and hauled home to corrals at the main ranch.

“Even a few days before they were actually weaned you could see a difference,” says Blades. “Calves with the nose flaps couldn’t nurse anymore, so the calves were bunching up by themselves. You could see they were learning they didn’t need their mothers anymore.”

The day they were weaned, calves were brought home to the corral and didn’t miss a beat. “There was virtually no bawling, they seemed content and just started eating,” he says. “By removing that stress calves were much healthier, there was very little sign of sickness or respiratory disease.”

Blades says they will definitely be using the nose flaps in coming seasons. Admittedly they got a lot of comments from people who saw calves on pasture with the yellow nose flaps on their faces. “But I’ve also talked with a few neighbours who say they plan to try it themselves this year,” he says.

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