Weaning is a natural stage of development for mammals. With cattle, for example, even in natural weaning conditions, the process can cause some degree of stress as a cow progressively rejects the calf’s attempts to suckle as her hormones change. So how can cattle professionals optimize cow and calf well-being around the time of weaning?
Cattle professionals know that good well-being is the basis for good animal health. And as the science of animal welfare evolves, so are practices once considered as standard. Among others, experts have identified weaning as an opportunity area for optimizing cow and calf well-being, by focusing on minimizing stress.
Controlled weaning of calves at different ages is a standard practice to allow for professional management of cattle. There are different approaches in practice across the world, but it generally involves separating the mother and calf at a defined date to encourage the calf to mature and ready itself for a grain or pasture-based diet.
The most important aspect of weaning is to handle cattle as calmly and as quietly as possible. If weaning is not handled well, it can be stressful for both cow and calf, which in turn can affect calf behavior, leading to weight-loss and disruption to farm operations, affecting production.
What is essential to understand is that handling practices that minimize lifetime stress and increase well-being actually help enhance animal resilience. We take a look at practical ways cattle professionals can encourage positive relationships that not only optimize well-being and productivity, but may also help operations run more smoothly.
Practical tips to promote calf well-being
Calves learn from their mothers. If the cow is calm and comfortable in the presence of humans, their calves are more likely to be too. The first test comes at birthing. Calving is stressful for cows and can lead to aggressive behaviour. Handlers can overcome this by making efforts to bond with the cow at least 30 days before she is due to calve, such as by providing small rewards of feed as positive stimuli.
Ensure first contact with the calves is positive. Whether it’s simply walking across the paddock, or filling the drinkers, ensure working is carried out calmly, quietly and without intimidation. Cows have a good memory and they can identify people and attach positive or negative experiences to them. When calves can trust in their relationship with farm workers, it helps them to develop into calm, productive cows.
Routine handling procedures, such as vaccinations, are necessary. However, every time a calf is handled, it causes some level of stress, so it’s important to stagger these procedures and carry them out swiftly and efficiently. Experts recommend planning routine handling procedures at least one week before weaning, ideally when the calf is still with its mother.
Studies have shown calves have lower stress levels when they have access to their mother during weaning. This approach is known as ‘side-by-side’ or fenceline weaning and allows cows and calves to be close enough to see, hear and smell one another during the weaning process, as they would in a natural environment. Farms that have practiced side-by-side weaning have seen improved calf weight gain, while avoiding additional workload caused by distressed animals.