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New Way to Wean Calves Leaves Them Happier and Healthier

Lowering stress on the animals may also have economic benefits

(Brian Sytnyk/Masterfile/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

On many ranches and farms that raise cows, conventional wisdom holds that calves should be separated from their mothers as quickly and cleanly as possible. Though calves naturally wean themselves around ten months, on beef farms calves are weaned when they are around six months old; for dairy farms, this happens just 24 hours after they are born. However, some farmers are beginning to experiment with new, more humane methods for weaning new calves that leaves them both happier and healthier.

Weaning calves is a difficult process, but for many farmers and ranchers it’s a necessary part of the business. A mother cow who is nursing her infant calf could be taking energy away from a new one that might be gestating inside her, and for dairy farmers every drop of milk a calf suckles away means they have less product to sell. But at the same time, early weaning is a stressful process that typically involves complete and sudden separation of mother and calf, Caroline Abels writes for Civil Eats.

“You could compare it to a six-year-old child traveling to a different country without a parent and having to adjust to new foods, new surroundings, and new cultural norms,” Abel writes.

Weaning can often trigger abnormal behaviors in both cows, such as pacing, bellowing, and weight loss. However, some farmers are finding that a slow weaning process not only makes the cows less stressed out, but can provide some economic benefits to the farmers, too.

Eight years ago, farmer Janet Steward of Greenfield Highland Beef in Vermont started weaning calves using a process called “fenceline” or “nose to nose” weaning. The method allows mother and calf to interact through a slatted fence while keeping them separate. Steward and her husband, Ray Shatney, gave it a shot because they believed it was more humane. But soon, she says, they started seeing a change in the calves’ health.

“We began to notice that the calves don’t lose as much weight,” Steward tells Abel.

Gradually weaning the calves off of their mothers’ milk wasn’t just easier on both cows, but the calves were healthier, too. Not only did they keep on more weight after the weaning process was over, but they had better appetites, letting them put on even more weight and becoming more valuable as livestock. While traditional weaning requires farmers to keep a close watch on their cows in case they get worked up and get hurt or damage the farm, low-stress methods like fenceline weaning are less time-intensive for the farmers, too, Burt Rutherford wrote for Beef magazine in 2008.

But while some studies suggest that gradual weaning makes for healthier cattle, it’s difficult to know for sure which methods are the most effective for the least amount of stress, Abel writes.

“Weaning is a difficult thing to study, because how an animal feels can only be measured through their behavior,” Humane Society International behavior and welfare specialist Sara Shields tells Abel. “But we know there’s a relationship between mother and offspring that has evolved over millennia. It’s important to understand and respect it.”

Fenceline weaning has been popular with beef farmers for some time, but even some small dairy farmers are beginning to experiment with letting calves nurse for longer. While they might miss out on some of the milk, the farmers can save money on labor costs since they don’t have to hire extra workers to bottle-feed the infant cows.

“Our overall goal is for our animals to have a really good, comfortable life,” Steward tells Abel. “This kind of weaning is just one more part of helping them live that kind life.”

If that makes a cow tastier, then all the better.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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