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How to Wean Calves Without Stressing Them

How to Wean Calves Without Stressing Them

Separating a cow and her baby calf at the weaning stage is probably the most stressful time both animals will encounter; however, it doesn’t need to be. There are some simple procedures to follow in order to keep cow and calf calm during the transition period as researched by the SRUC, Scotland’s Rural College. 

The result of this research are some top tips for weaning beef calves off their suckler cow mothers: 

  • Whether newly weaned cows are housed or kept outside, they will always try and return to their mothers. Never graze cows across a road from their newly weaned calves.
  • Do not keep newly weaned calves outside where they cannot hear their mothers. They will break out and wander in all directions, maximizing the chaos/problems they cause.
  • If cows and calves can be grazed near buildings prior to weaning, then keep the cows in the shed and leave the calves in their familiar grazing field. Weaning across a very strong fence is often considered to be less stressful to both.
  • Some farmers gradually wean by removing perhaps a quarter of the thinnest cows in each group each week. After a few days, the dry cows are returned to a different group. This means that the only change for the calves is the removal of their mother and her milk supply.
  • Always give newly weaned calves access to the creep feeder they have been used to and continue feeding the same feed.

  • If weaned calves are housed, put the creep feeder into the shed with them.  Ideally, begin to trough feed them, so they get used to eating out of troughs. Temporary troughs within the pen, filled by hand will help quieten calves and make them accustomed to humans on foot, associating them with being fed. This would be particularly critical for calves destined to be replacements.
  • If weaning occurs indoors have a calf creep area where calves can be fed away from the cows. Calves can then be gradually weaned by shutting them off for a longer period each day over say a 2-3 week period.
  • If possible, introduce calves to forage such as silage for 2-3 weeks while they are still with their mothers. The cows will quickly train their calves by example.

AgriExpo e-Magazine spoke to Basil Lowman, the senior beef specialist at SAC Consulting—part of SRUC. He expressed how the poor weather in Scotland this year makes proper weaning more important than usual. 

Weaning is always a critical time for the calf and, hence, the farmer’s profitability. But this year it is even more critical due to the terrible spring weather we’ve experienced. This has adversely affected the amount of milk cows have produced and the amount of grass they’ve had. This autumn, it will be absolutely vital to make every effort to minimize stress for the calf. 

You might also enjoy this story about organic dairy farmer David Finlay who, with his wife Wilma, launched The Ethical Dairy.