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Reducing Stress During Weaning

The old adage “Good Things Come in Small Packages” is ringing true for a number of beef producers this season, thanks to a new product that is significantly reducing stress on calves during weaning.

“Weaning is a stressful time for the calf, which can often result in respiratory disease in the first three weeks after weaning,” said Dr. Larry Goelz, veterinarian with Pipestone Veterinary Services in Pipestone. “It is a tough combination because, the calf is under stress just when its immunity from the cows milk is decreasing.”

A number of concepts have been introduced over the years, but they still require significant management and special facilities, pastures or fencing needs.

Many producers have tried fenceline weaning, which keeps calves on one side of a fence and cows on the other. Calves can still see and communicate with their mothers, but aren’t able to nurse, said Dr. Goelz. Rotational weaning keeps calves in their home pasture and moves cows to other pastures in groups.

“Fenceline weaning is a really good idea, but it also requires a really good fence,” he said. “Even with the best fences, there are always a couple calves that manage to sneak through and you have to start the weaning process all over again.”

Plastic calf weaners that are inserted in a calf’s nose are proving to be a simple, inexpensive way to minimize stress on the calves and minimize labor and land requirements for farmers.

The plastic weaners are about four and a half inches long. The weaner is designed to insert into the calf’s nostrils. The other end of the weaner has small plastic spikes around the edges. The spikes don’t hurt the calf, but they are uncomfortable to the cow when the calf tries to nurse.

Dr. Goelz said that several Pipestone clients tried the product in 2014, and he’s seen more interest in 2015. Producers insert the weaners during the calves’ pre-weaning vaccination.

“The concept is very good,” he said. “The calves are able to stay in the same pasture with their moms and their buddies. It is a very natural approach with no disruption in their routine other than the cow pushing them away from nursing.”

The nose weaners don’t interfere with drinking or eating, so calves are able to graze in the pasture or eat feed from a bunk without any problems. By minimizing stress, calves should avoid many respiratory and other health issues that happen during traditional weaning. They should also continue eating and gaining weight as normal.

Dr. Goelz recommends leaving the paddles in for at least two weeks to ensure weaning is complete, but points out that they can be left in for a few months without any problems.

“Fall is a busy time of year, so it is no problem to leave them in until it works with the producer’s schedule,” he said.

Ian Cunningham, farmer and beef producer from Pipestone, Minnesota is trying the plastic paddles for the first time this weaning season after hearing good reviews from other producers.

“Anything we can do to reduce stress and improve the quality of life for an animal is better for us and for them,” he said.

He had been using fenceline weaning, but as his cow herd has grown, it has been difficult to manage with limited pasture space and the time it takes to monitor and separate calves that get through the fences.

He put the paddles in at the same time the calves were given their pre-weaning vaccination, then the calves were put back into the pasture with the cows. Ian said there was a short learning curve to inserting the nose paddles, but after a few times, he was able to easily insert one in 10-15 seconds with no pain to the calves.

“The cattle seem happy. It is definitely causing less stress for the animals and the calves have been able to eat without a problem,” he said. “There was a little mooing when the calves went back to the pasture and the cows turned them away from nursing, but nothing compared to the stress and health concerns in some other weaning systems.”

After a week with the nose paddles in, Ian said everything has been very routine. The calves are in the same environment with the same ration and water supply. He plans to take the nose paddles out later this fall when a Pipestone veterinarian comes to preg check cows.

Producers interested in learning more can contact their veterinarian or Pipestone Veterinary Services. The weaners are about $2.05 each and can be saved and used again.

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