Not such a crazy idea after all
By Heather Smith Thomas
Weaning can be traumatic for calves, cows and ranchers—listening to a loud chorus of bawling for several days. If confined in a pen, calves run frantically back and forth. Resulting dust can irritate lungs, and the stress of “cold turkey” weaning hinders the immune system. In recent years many folks have found better ways to wean than putting calves in a corral and taking the cows away.
Jim Gerrish with American GrazingLands Services in May, Idaho, has been involved with innovative grazing systems, first as a grazing specialist with the Forage Systems Research Center (University of Missouri) and now as a stockman/consultant in eastern Idaho. The Forage Systems Research Center started weaning calves on pasture (instead of in corrals) in 1985. “They did a bit of walking,” he recalls, “but when we put them on better pasture a few days later they went right to grazing. We weaned 200 calves a year this way and had no sick ones. The calves gained, on average, 1.6 pounds per day during weaning, with no supplemental feed.”
Gerrish had 40 cows of his own and in 1990 started doing what he called cross-fence weaning, with cows and calves in separate but adjacent pastures for two days. The calves still had the security of mama next to them through the fence, but they couldn’t nurse. There was no frantic pacing and bawling like corral weaning, and calves had green pasture. By the third day, after the pairs are not so eager to get back together, he moved the cows farther away.
Gerrish was one of the first stockmen to try fenceline weaning. “I can’t remember where I first heard about it. Initially we used 5-wire corral fence. An occasional calf went through, but as more ranches have electric fence, and calves are accustomed to it from birth, they don’t try to go through it. We no longer think we need an impenetrable physical barrier. Many people now wean with just two electric wires and do fine, partly due to the early life exposure of the calves,” he says.
His advice is to have good quality feed for them. “It could be stockpiled pasture, a winter annual cover crop, or swathed alfalfa. Most people have best success if they move the cows away from the calves (into the adjacent pasture) so the calves stay in the pasture they are familiar with.”
Set the calves up ahead of time
Seedstock producer Kit Pharo from Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, has been fenceline weaning for 25 years. “We move pairs into the pasture a day or two ahead so calves locate the water sources and perimeter fences while still with their mothers. The primary water source should be near the fence, close to the adjacent pasture. We don’t have corners in the dividing fence where animals would bunch up,” says Pharo.
“On weaning day, we allow the pairs to finish morning grazing,” explains Pharo. “Then we slowly bring them to our sorting corral and leave them there to mother up and nurse one last time. When we come back, there isn’t any bawling; the cattle are loafing. Then we quietly sort cows out one gate into their pasture and calves out the other gate into theirs. Cows are ready to file out when you open their gate, knowing they are going to fresh pasture. If you are patient the herd will sort itself. Calves are easy to hold back. After the first cows have left the corral you can let a few calves out the other gate.”
“We leave a couple dry cows with the calves for reassurance and leadership. Since calves are returning to the pasture they came from, they usually aren’t worried; it may be a few hours before cows and calves go searching for one another. When they meet at the fence, their anxiety disappears. You’ll see a cow and her calf lying on opposite sides of the fence, both chewing their cud,” he adds. They go graze, and come back periodically to check on one another.
After three days, fewer cows come back to the fence. They know where their calves are, but are less concerned. “Calves begin to realize they don’t need their mothers. We wait at least four days before we move the cows clear away. By this time, they are usually eager for fresh pasture and we just open the gates ahead of them. Very few want to turn back for their calves. If the cows are not ready, leave them another day,” says Pharo.
David Hall ranches in southern Missouri and started fenceline weaning years ago, after reading one of Kit Pharo’s blogs. “No one around here was doing it yet, but it sounded logical,” remembers Hall.
“I remember my father telling me it was a crazy idea. He said, ‘Go ahead and try it and when it doesn’t work we’ll put the calves back in the lot and do it the way we’ve always done it. Within three years, however, he was bragging to everyone about the way we were weaning; calves were still gaining and we weren’t having any sickness,” Hall says.
Bill Barnes, near Burna, Kentucky, started fenceline weaning five years ago. “We have an excellent pasture to do it. Before that, we bought some calves that had just been weaned and their mothers came through fences and traveled several miles to get to their babies,” says Barnes.
“So, for our calves, we weaned them next each other, using a 7-wire electric fence. They look at each other and wander around for a few days, then the babies quit bawling. The mamas still bawl for another 24 hours and then it’s all over.” They have good grass and keep eating; they know their mama or baby is there—right through the fence–and they’re not as upset as if they were in a corral.”
Wally Olson ranches in northeast Oklahoma and has been fenceline weaning since 1986. “I had a friend who worked for the DeVore Ranch near Cassidy, Kansas and they were one of the first implementers of holistic management, or Savory grazing as it was called back then. I was at that ranch one day, and they’d weaned their calves the day before. The calves were on one side of the fence and cows on the other and everything was happy, and that’s what sold me on it,” recalls Olson.
The first year, he had a pasture that only needed an electric wire to make it work. “Then we adapted our setup using a fencer and some poly wire—offset from a barbed-wire fence–so we could wean wherever the cattle might be,” he says.
“Even if cattle are unaccustomed to a hot wire, you just put it on the calves’ side, and they don’t go through. You need it about one foot away from the fence (at a height they can readily check it out) so they encounter the hot wire first,” advises Olson.
Beating the dust
Jon and Breezy Millar have a purebred Angus operation near Sturgis, South Dakota and have been fenceline weaning since 2012 when it was dry and pastures were short. “We knew we’d have to wean early, but it was so dusty I didn’t want to bring calves into a corral. This spurred us to try fenceline weaning,” says Jon.
“Now we keep one pasture ungrazed, for weaning. It’s two 800-acre pastures side by side, divided by a barbed-wire fence with a hot wire on each side. On the weaning side the hot wire is nose-high for a calf, and on the cow side it’s on top of the fence.”
He moves pairs into the weaning pasture about a week before sorting. For a couple days before weaning, he drives the feed truck into that pasture and puts out a little feed. “The calves remember from when we fed them earlier, so they all come. On the day we wean, we just pull the cows into the adjacent pasture and leave the calves. We drive in there with the feed wagon and the cows follow,” Jon shares.
A couple of riders hold back the calves as the cows go through the gate following the feed truck. “Calves are easy to hold back because they’re a little timid. Then we shut the gate and the sorting is done. With the hot wire they don’t try to go through the fence. The cows actually throw a bigger fit than the calves. By the next day, most of the calves are out grazing or lying next to the fence, but for a couple days the cows pace the fence. With fenceline weaning at pasture, the calves stay healthy and quieter and we’ve had no sickness,” Jon says. n