Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Weaning Time

            Every animal must eventually be weaned: birds are pushed out of the nest, children are weaned from the breast or bottle, and calves are separated from their mothers.

            In the old open range days of one hundred years ago the calves were allowed to run in the herd with their mothers until they were two years old before they were gathered and shipped.  These calves were weaned naturally when their own rumens were completely developed, and when the udders of their mothers ceased to produce – usually 6-9 months.

            As the numbers of people on the land increased, the costs of grass have increased as well.  A cow in Montana must have hay for part of the year – no matter whether she is raising a calf or not.  A rancher must now manage the productivity of a cow very closely in order to make even a hint of a profit.  That management includes assuring that every cow is bred in the summer to produce a calf in the spring, which is then sold in the fall.

            Common practice for the last 70 years has been to gather the cows, sort off the calves, and load them onto trucks for their trip to a feedlot.

            These calves were suddenly separated from their mothers and the only home they have ever know, run onto a truck with 100 of their playmates, and hauled away – to join thousands of other homesick calves in pens 1000 miles away.  The result is a cacophony of bawling cattle.
           The cows bunch up in the fencecorner of the field where they last saw their babies.  The calves on the truck scream through the slats.  Everywhere is the plaintive mooing of cattle.
          This squalling lasts for about three days, until the separated cattle finally give up and drift off to look for food.  The calves are homesick, lonely, and stressed.  Many of them became sick.

            Over the last twenty years, “Backgrounding” has become a common practice.  Calves are given a booster shot of vaccines to prevent the “shipping fever” diseases that were frequent in calves that had been abruptly pulled away from their mothers and dumped into a feedlot with 10,000 other calves.  These calves are left on the ranch of their birth while they adjust to their new lives independent from their mothers.  It is only a month or so after they have made that transition into a new social structure away from their mothers that they are finally shipped to a new home.

            A new practice has been the advent of “weaning flaps”.  These are inserted into a calf’s nose at the time of fall vaccination, and prevent the calf from sucking.

            His rumen is now fully developed so that his nutritional needs are easily met by grass alone, yet he is still with his mother in his home territory.  The loss of his regular milk-break is a minor change.

            The concept of this weaning device is an old one.  Farmers have - for at least a century – used various strategies to keep the milk cow’s calf away from the udder.  Here is one that was seen on farms from coast-to-coast – and was probably sold by Sears, Roebuck, &Company. 


       What’s new is the cheap and easy plastic version.

            We’ve now used this device for three years.  We find that it takes a lot of the work out of weaning the calves, and significantly reduces the stress on both cows and calves.  It takes only seconds to insert, only seconds to remove, and can be reused again next year.

            It saves days of bawling cows and calves, saves days of feeding calves locked in a weaning lot, and saves many pounds of weight-loss in the calves at weaning time.

            Here’s to innovation!

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