Weaning is the process of acclimating a mammal to eating food other than milk and removing dependency on the mother. In nature this process occurs gradually, over time. After hitting the peak of lactation, the milk supply from the mother will slowly decrease. At the same time the milk supply decrease is occurring, the social bond between mother and offspring is being reduced. By the time milk supply is decreasing, the offspring is starting to eat other foods. The mother will then start to reject nursing attempts more frequently until she refuses to allow any nursing.
In cattle, natural weaning occurs between seven and 14 months of age. This large window may be due to several factors. Nutrition or food availability for the animals can influence this process. After nursing has ceased, calves may still stay in relatively close proximity to the mother for months afterward.
“Traditional” weaning of mammals in farm settings has been abrupt removal of the offspring from the mother. Traditional weaning is usually done between five and eight months. This tends to be stressful on the animal to varying degrees depending on the age at weaning. Weaning in this manner is often accompanied by depressed appetite and increased vocalizations in the young. Weaning at this age is done to preserve the condition of the mother as lactation uses a lot of energy.
Low-stress weaning can be achieved in one of two ways: fence line weaning or a two-step method with anti-nursing tags. Both methods reduce the social and environmental stress on the calves. Olfactory (scent), audible, and visual contact with the mothers are maintained with either of these methods.
Fence line weaning
Fence line weaning is where cows and calves are separated into two different adjoining pastures. A sturdy fence is required for this method. The pastures selected for this process should have adequate length to the so that the calves and cows can spread out along the fence line. After four to seven days, the cows can be moved to a new pasture away from the calves.
The two-step method utilizes anti-nursing tags that are an inflexible flap of material, usually plastic, that is inserted in the nose of the calf. These tags allow the calf to graze or consume feed normally and allows them to drink water without any issue. Calves still have the physical contact with their mothers. The tag only prevents suckling on the cow. An anti-nursing tag is usually installed three to seven days prior to the weaning date. The second step of the two-step method is the removal of the calf from the mother.
Any change in routine can cause stress. Using this method allows calves to experience limited stress at any given point in time, rather than all at once. The tag allows the calf social structures to be preserved while the nutritional stress of no longer getting milk is present. Once the calves are adapted to the no milk situation, removal from the mother can occur. After three to seven days, the herd is sorted with calves to one place, cows to another. At this time the anti-nursing tags are removed.
Note: This article originally was published in the Marquette County Tribune, Waushara Argus, and/or the Berlin Journal. This article was written by Lyssa Seefeldt, UW-Extension Agriculture Agent for Marquette County unless otherwise noted.