The classic definition of stress according to Hans Selye is, “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. Dr. Selye was an endocrinologist by training and is largely regarded as the grandfather of the study of stress. By any definition though, I think it’s probably safe to say that 2020 was a stressful year.
We saw cattle markets take a wild ride and grocery store shelves empty out of meat and toilet paper in response to COVID-19. That initial response to COVID-19 that saw bare shelves and low cattle prices is a great example of a stress response. Now here we are months later, and we’ve adapted to some of that initial stress. While things are certainly not normal, we know now that we will be able to go to the store and get the things we need, when we need them.
This scenario is not that different than how cattle respond and adapt to stress events. I would argue that the single most stressful period in a beef animals’ life is weaning. Up to this point that calf has relied on its dam for almost everything. Now it’s weaning time, and no matter what we do this is going to be a stressful period, we can’t control that. However, we can control how stressful this period will be.
It is important to get in the mindset that weaning is a period of time, rather than a single day. We could get the herd up, sort off the calves, load them onto the trailer and take them to the sale barn, and called them weaned. In this scenario calves arrive at the sale barn bawling, and they may be co-mingled with calves from other farms. They eventually work their way through the auction system and arrive at a feedlot somewhere west of here, in a process that can take several days. Along the way they may come into contact with novel pathogens, that can cause illness. Then once they get to the feedlot they may have to learn to drink out of a waterer and how to eat out of a feed bunk. They are also expected to eat a diet that is likely new to them and may contain ingredients they’ve never seen before. That was stressful writing all of that out, now imagine how it would be for a calf that experiences all of that over a 3-4 day period. We call this process abrupt weaning. As all the stressors compound, they can cause the calves immune system to weaken, increasing the risk for the development of respiratory disease.
What if instead the calves are weaned on the farm? No, this won’t be a totally stress-free process, but it will be less stressful than the scenario I described above. An alternative method to abrupt weaning is fenceline weaning. This method allows cows and calves to have visual and nose to nose contact. This can mean housing cows and calves in adjacent pastures or having calves in a dry-lot pen, that cows can access via a drovers alley. Allowing calves to be weaned on the farm, can get them through that initial stress of separation from the dam, without the added stress of comingling, and transit.
When weaning calves on the farm, it is important to consider the nutrition that is being offered to calves. The number one goal during this time is to encourage calves to eat, we also want to make sure that they are getting the most out of each mouth full that they do consume during this time. Offering calves, a high-quality grass or legume-grass mixture hay is important for calves in dry-lots. Offering a grain supplement can also increase the nutrient density of each mouth full during this time. Feeding this supplement daily by hand can allow you to visually assess the calves and take note of which ones are or are not coming up to the bunk.
By weaning calves on the farm, it is also possible to take advantage of new marketing opportunities such the CPH-45 program. These opportunities can allow you to capture additional value on the calves that you wean on farm, and pre-condition. Pre-conditioning allows us to separate out the stressors commonly associated with the auction system from those associated with weaning. With some planning it is possible to offer a low-cost feed supplement and efficiently add an additional 125-150 lbs of body weight to calves during this period.
I encourage you to assess your weaning program, is weaning a one-day event for your operation, or is it a period of time? Are you leaving money on the table, by rushing calves to market? By decreasing stress on our calves during the weaning period, we may in turn offer a better calf on sale day. This process may seem daunting, but with some planning it is not only easier on the calves but can be profitable too.