As you know, my husband and I have three kids. I spend my days both raising my kids and helping my husband care for the cows and calves on the ranch. As a parent, I help my kids navigate the stages of life, giving them a solid foundation so that they can become responsible adults and contributing members of society. Similarly, as a rancher, I guide our cattle through the different stages of production, setting them up to reach their full potential as members of the reproductive and/or beef producing herd. Though their ultimate jobs are very different, both my children and my cattle need my care and guidance to be successful.
Every year, generally in the late fall and early winter months, we lead our calves through the weaning process. Weaning is the separation of the calves from the mother cows, and the first few days are often marked by a little bit of stress and chaos. Each calf handles weaning a little differently, some sailing through the transition gracefully, while others become temporarily agitated and distracted by the fact that their mother is no longer right beside them. Vocalization (bawling) is to be expected from both the calves and the cows, and it is our job to rein in the chaos and ease that initial stress of weaning.
In order to set the calves up for success for this time when they learn to live independently from their mothers, we do several things on the ranch (beginning from the day that the calves are born) to ease the transition.
A good herd health program which includes scheduled vaccinations and nutritional mineral supplementation
- Introducing the calves to hay and cake in the weeks prior to weaning so that they learn to eat delivered feed independently, prior to being separated from their mothers
- Spending time with the calves and cows: caring for them, moving them from pasture to pasture as pairs, and allowing them to become comfortable with us, their human caregivers
- By the time that weaning rolls around, not only do the calves have solid immune systems, but they also know that the hay feeder/caker means food and the rancher that brings the food is trustworthy.
When it comes time to actually separate the pairs, we use what is called fenceline weaning, a process in which the calves and cows are sorted and placed on opposite sides of a fence in neighboring pastures. The fence prevents the calf from nursing from its dam, while still allowing the calf to have visual contact with the mother cow.
The first few days of weaning start with what is familiar to the calf, the hay feeder and caker bringing breakfast! We feed the cows first which helps to settle them down, and then we feed the calves. Feeding the cows first allows for both sets of animals to be less distracted and come to eat more readily.
After a few days, when both the calves and cows have settled into living independently of one another, we move the cows away to another pasture and leave the calves where they are familiar and comfortable. The familiarity of the pasture allows the calves to further settle and continue to learn the daily routine of their new life.
A minimally stressful, positive weaning experience equates to happier, healthier calves that are better equipped for the future. If you think about it, weaning is sort of like preschool. For many kids, preschool is their first experience away from their parents, and it is a learning experience which builds the foundation for the rest of their education and ultimately their future.