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Two-stage weaning reduces stress on calves

Plastic nose flap prevents nursing while allowing calves to stay with their mothers, which reduces stress

Two southern Alberta ranches are among those who have found a two-stage calf weaning program is less stressful for livestock and improves rate of gain.

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

Calves are then released back into the cow herd. In the majority of 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 reusable nose flaps.

“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 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.”

Watch the video below with Joseph Stookey from the University of Saskatchewan who describes the research and benefits of two-stage weaning.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPsw3VfjH8s]

Research shows conventionally weaned calves — those removed from milk and their mothers on the same day — will spend the next two days pacing and walking as much as 25 miles, bawling and looking for their mothers. Among calves weaned with the two-stage system using the 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, who ranches with his uncle, Michael Monner, has been using the system with their 240-head commercial cow-calf herd at Milo, in southern Alberta, for about six years.

“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.”

Monner says the tags, which cost about $2 each, are easy to install and remove. He says there is very good retention, estimating they 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 that were still nursing look pretty sad, and they’re bawling and looking for their mothers.”

The Blades family began using the two-stage weaning program last year on their 600-head cow herd on Rocking P Ranch.

“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.”

They also say calves that “cheated” and continued nursing were distressed while the rest were calm.

Mac and Renie Blades operate Rocking P Ranch with son Justin, daughter-in-law Mida, and daughter and son-in-law Monica and Blake Schlosser. 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.”

In 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.

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,” says Blades. “By removing that stress calves were much healthier, there was very little sign of sickness or respiratory disease.”

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