Low Stress Weaning – Across the Fence
By Kit Pharo
Good for the Calves… Good for the Cows… Good for You.
(Website Note: This article is written based primarily on traditional fencing. We would add however that this procedure also works very well with electric fencing. We, as well as many of our customers wean calves across the fence with hot wire – it works.)
Cheyenne Wells, Colorado. Weaning is the process of separating a calf from its mother. It typically takes place in the fall of the year. It can be a very traumatic time for both the cow and her calf. The key to success is to minimize stress. Calves that are stressed will go off feed, which causes them tobe much more susceptible to sickness. Contented calves with a full belly will seldom, if ever, get sick. Cows that are stressed will lose weight and valuable body condition, which is needed to get them through the winter with minimum feed supplementation. I’ve also heard that ranchers who are stressed can become very difficult to live with.
Across-the-Fence weaning is a method we have successfully used for the last 15 years. Properly done, it is a very low-stress method of weaning for both the cow and her calf. Once the cows and calves have been separated, they are allowed to have some contact with one another across the fence for a few days. Most good fences will work. We use a very simple electric two-wire fence. I have heard of several variations of across-the-fence weaning, but my favorite involves leaving both the cows and the calves out on grass or other forages. If you can keep your cows and calves out of dusty or muddy lots there will be much fewer health and other stress related problems. It’s not natural for cattle to be confined in lots, eating harvested and/or processed feed. You will also discover that calves are much less likely to spook and stampede if they are not shut up. In fact, we have never had our calves spook and try to run through a fence since we quit shutting them up.
We like to move our pairs into the pasture the calves will be weaned in, a day or two prior to weaning so the calves will remain in familiar surroundings. This should be one of your better pastures. The calves will be able to locate all the water sources and perimeter fences while they are still with their mothers. For best results the primary water source for the calves should be located near the fence line. You should also avoid having corners in the dividing fence where animals on either side of the fence will tend to bunch up.
On weaning day we no longer ride out to gather pairs at daybreak. We relax after breakfast with a hot cup of coffee and allow the cows and calves to finish their early morning grazing routine. Around mid to late morning we slowly bring the pairs in to our sorting corral. Once the herd has been gathered, we go back to the house for another cup of coffee while the calves find their mothers for one last drink of milk. When we return, the herd will be quietly loafing. There won’t be any bawling or signs of stress. Keep in mind, cows do not understand the concept of time. They may have some regular routines and habits, but time means nothing to them. Ranchers would do a much better job of handling their livestock if they threw away their watches. Why does anything have to be completed by a certain time?
The sorting facilities do not have to be fancy or expensive. All you really need is a big corral with two gates. One gate that lets the cows out to their pasture and another to let the calves back out to theirs. If you have allowed the herd sufficient loafing time, many of the cows will be ready to file out when you open their gate, especially if they think they are going to fresh pasture. This is no place for loud, whip swinging cowboys. If you are patient, the herd will essentially sort itself. Calves are less likely to go past you so they aren’t hard to hold back. After the first jag of cows have left the corral you can let a few calves out the other gate. Before you know it, the sorting will be done and nobody will be stressed or upset.
A word of caution: If your cattle are not familiar with this type of handling, they won’t handle exactly as I have described. Don’t become discouraged, though. Throw away your watch, be very patient and work them as slowly and as quietly as you possibly can. The next time the herd is worked it will be much easier to handle. I’ve found that most cowherds are easier to train than most cowboys. If possible, we like to leave two or three older animals with the calves to provide some reassurance and leadership. An old dry cow works best. On their own, a herd of freshly weaned calves has absolutely no sense of leadership or direction. Since the calves are returning to the same pasture they came from, they usually won’t be the least bit bothered by the day’s activities. It will usually take at least two or three hours before they realize something is amiss. After a couple of hours of grazing in their new pasture, some of the cows will realize their calves are not close by, and will go in search of them.
Most people will say, “You can’t wean a calf across the fence from its mother. It will never work. They will tear down the fence. It will create even more stress for the calf and the cow.” Over the years I have spent considerable time watching individual cows and calves. Both will leave the fence to eat, but after a while the cow will return to check on her calf. When summoned by his mother the calf will come back to the fence. As soon as they get across the fence from one another most of their anxiety will disappear. Often, you’ll see a cow and her calf lying down on opposite sides of the fence, both contentedly chewing their cud. The next time you notice them they will probably be out grazing.
What if a couple of calves slip through the fence? Relax, it’s not the end of the world. Whenever it is convenient just walk the pairs back to your sorting corral and separate them again. In fifteen years, we have had only one calf and one cow that refused to stay where they belonged. After the second escape, we shut the fence-crawling calf up until the cows were moved. The fence-jumping cow was loaded up and hauled to the sale barn.
After three days, fewer and fewer cows will come back to the fence. They know where their calves are, but they are becoming less and less concerned about them. Likewise, the calves are beginning to realize they don’t really need their mothers any more. It’s as though you have allowed them the opportunity to gradually break the bond that has held them together for the last six months. We always wait at least four days before we move the cows away from the calves. By this time they are usually so excited about going to fresh pasture that all we have to do is open the gates ahead of them. Very few, if any, will consider turning back for their calves. If the cows are not ready, leave them another day or two.
In just four or five days, weaning is over. The cows are happy and storing up fat for the winter. The calves are healthy and adjusting well to life without mom. There is no shrink or weight loss. Some friends and customers of Pharo Cattle Company, Don and John Palmer, weighed their steer calves one year at weaning and again ten days later. Those steer calves gained a remarkable 1.5 pounds per day while being weaned on native grass across the fence from their mothers. This is something most of the so-called experts with degrees in animal health and nutrition will never be able to achieve.
Don Palmer suggests that you avoid riding or driving through the calves for the first few days of weaning. Whenever the cows see you out there they will all come running to the fence. Don says, “Go back to the house and drink a cup of coffee while you observe the weaning process through a pair of binoculars.” What are you going to do out there anyway? The calves don’t need fed, don’t need doctored and don’t need you.
Weaning doesn’t have to be as difficult or as stressful as we have been led to believe. The only thing that would be less stressful than across-the-fence weaning would be to not wean at all. Some of our customers are doing just that.
Kit Pharo is a no-nonsense seedstock producer in eastern Colorado. He shares his philosophies
and opinions in a bimonthly newsletter that is mailed out to nearly 30,000 ranchers. To receive this free
and very opinionated newsletter, call 1-800-311-0995 or send an email to Kit@PharoCattle.com.