Reducing Weaning Stress of Beef Cattle - Frequently Asked Questions

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 Why is it so important to reduce weaning stress?
The process of weaning is very stressful on beef cattle. The separation of cows and calves, handling and processing, transportation, the time calves spend without feed and water during this entire process and sometimes through the public auction system, the mixing of unfamiliar animals and the introduction of novel feeds all impose an incredible amount of stress, on calves in particular, The consequences of all this stress are predictable. A high proportion of newly weaned calves get sick and require treatment.

What is the most stressful component of the weaning process?
Probably the main cause of weaning distress is the separation of the cows and calves. Cows and calves bawl and walk aimlessly for 3 or 4 days at weaning, not because they were transported, nor because their feed was changed. At pasture, bawling and walking help pairs to reunite, and these responses to separation are not easily extinguished. Though certainly familiarity with the feed itself can play a role, probably the biggest reason why newly weaned calves spend less time eating in the first week after separation is not because they cannot find the feeder but rather because they can’t find their mother and because they are spending so much of their time bawling and walking in search of her.

How can the stress of separating cows and calves be avoided?
The key to reducing this stressful aspect of weaning is in how the cows and calves are weaned and separated.

One alternative is fenceline contact weaning where cows and calves are separated into directly adjacent pens or pastures. Granted, you should have secure fences to do this. Careful behaviour observations and published scientific research proves that cattle bawl and walk less when weaned with fenceline contact. Another research study even showed fenceline calves had a higher average daily gain than calves separated far away from their mother.

A second alternative recently discovered by Canadian researchers at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine involves a two-stage weaning procedure. Using a simple reusable nose-flap, calves are prevented from nursing their mother for just a few days (stage 1) before being separated (stage 2). Somewhat surprisingly, the pairs show very little objection when weaned this way. Scientific studies show that compared to traditional methods, two-stage weaning reduces calves’ bawling by roughly 80%, reduces walking by 80% and increases the time calves spend eating following separation by about 25%. One potential advantage to this system is that calves can be shipped right at the point of separation whereas the fenceline contact method requires calves to be held on the farm a few days until their distress over weaning has passed.

The Weaning Two-Step
More on Two-Step Weaning

What else can I do to reduce weaning stress?
If dehorning and castration are part of your management these chores must be done when calves are as young as possible and not at weaning. When calves are small they are not only easier to handle but the soft tissue damage from these procedures is minimized and the healing and recovery are quicker. The idea of leaving male calves intact until weaning to improve growth does not appear to be supported by any scientific evidence. In fact, a study by researchers at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine showed that any ‘natural growth’ benefits gained are subsequently lost by the set-back in average daily gain those same calves experience when they are castrated at an older age.

Effects of Castration Technique and Anesthesia on Behaviour and Weight Gain in the Feedlot

If calves do need to be handled for fitting eartags, take your time and practice low-stress handling methods. It’s not only less stressful for the calves but also for the handlers! There is some paranoia about handling cattle and some say it should be avoided whenever possible. However, through an improved understanding of cattle behaviour more appropriate handling facility designs are now available as are new techniques that really do help make handling easier and less stressful. These methods are not always intuitive to even the most experienced cattle handlers, but the techniques can be taught and with practice, used very effectively.

Low Stress Livestock Handling Seminars by Dylan Biggs, Coronation, AB
Temple Grandin, Livestock Behaviour and Facilities Specialist

The transportation of cattle is unavoidable in some cases, but the way cattle are handled at loading and unloading can have a major impact on their stress level.

Familiarizing calves with any special feed they will be given after weaning, before that happens, can help reduce any stress from reduced intake calves experience during the transition to a completely unfamiliar feed.

Putting Calves on Feed
Creep Feeding

Prepared by Derek Haley, Provincial Livestock Welfare Specialist, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development

For more information about the content of this document, contact the Ag-Info Centre.
This information published to the web on April 4, 2006.
Last Reviewed/Revised on April 21, 2015.