Two-Step Process for Weaning Beef Calves

Weaning is a stressful time for calves and cows. Freshly weaned calves and their mothers spend a lot of their time during the first 4 or 5 days bawling and walking the fence lines. The calves’ response is caused by the sudden loss of milk and maternal contact. During this period calves spend less time eating and have an increased risk of becoming ill.

A two-step weaning process has been developed in an effort to reduce the negative effects of traditional weaning. In Step One, calves are prevented access to the cow’s milk while still having social contact with their mothers. Step Two is the complete separation of the calves from the cows.

Compared to the traditional abrupt weaning method, the two-step weaning process results in calves spending 25% more time eating and reduces calves’ bawling by 80% and walking by 85%.

Previous attempts to design methods aimed at reducing post-weaning setbacks have been of limited benefit. Placing “trainer” cows (cull cows) in the feedlot pens with freshly weaned calves did not appear to help calves find the feed bunk sooner or reduce their stress over the separation from their mothers. The fence-line contact weaning method reduced the time spent walking but did not eliminate bawling by cows and their calves after weaning. Cows and calves attempting to reunite may damage the fence separating the two groups. The two-step method nearly eliminates the negative weaning responses of both cows and calves.

Step One – Weaning

A reusable plastic anti-sucking device is clipped into a calf’s nostrils (without piercing the septum). This painless device blocks access to the cow’s teats, effectively preventing sucking, but allows the calf to remain with its mother. While wearing the device, the calf can still graze, drink, groom and socialize with its mother.

The calf wears the device for 4 to 7 days. During this time cow-calf pairs may occasionally call but do not display the typical loud bawling heard when calves are weaned and moved out of sight of the cows.

Step Two – Separation

The calves are separated from the cows and the plastic anti-sucking device is removed from their nose.

Benefits for Cow-calf Producers

Research has shown that traditionally weaned calves walk over 40 km during the first two days after weaning while calves weaned using the two-step method walk approximately 15.5 km in the same time period. This is only slightly more than they would normally walk while on pasture with their  mothers and still nursing.

The two-step method requires extra labour as the calves have to be handled twice to apply and remove the anti-sucking device. Gentle handling through this process will reduce the cumulative stress and result in a much lower level than that experienced from traditional abrupt weaning. Developers of the two-step method believe cow-calf producers who feed their own calves or sell breeding stock will reap the most benefit from this lower stress weaning method. A quieter weaning method will also result in less noise for cow-calf producers and their neighbours.

Benefits for Feedlot Operators

Weaning stress may be associated with problems for newly arrived calves to the feedlot. Freshly weaned calves at the feedlot often show signs of:

• not settling down

• constant bawling

• fence-line walking

• greatly reduced feed intake sickness

Calves weaned in two steps gain more in the first week post-weaning compared to traditionally weaned calves. For the first 8 weeks, post weaning average daily gain is similar for both methods of weaning. Calves weaned with this method also exhibit less negative behavior when arriving at the feedlot.