Timing of weaning can differ depending on the geographical location of the ranch, and it is influenced by forage availability, market prices and management procedures.

Traditionally, calves are weaned between 6 and 8 months old. However, in drought conditions ranchers are faced with decreased feed and water resources for their cattle. In these situations, calves are often weaned earlier, usually between 3 and 5 months old.

Early weaning will help to maintain the energy requirements and body condition score of cows due to decreased lactational stress. This can lead to improved reproductive performance such as initiation of postpartum estrus and higher pregnancy rates.

In calves, early weaning has been associated with an accelerated finishing time of approximately 30 days. Furthermore, it can improve feed efficacy, quality grade and beef tenderness.

Stress management

The abrupt removal of the calf from the cow is a very stressful process for both the young calf and cow and, in some instances, also for the rancher if they have to listen to bawling calves for a few days.


In calves, commonly observed behavioral changes after weaning are vocalization, increased walking, less time resting and eating. This behavior subsequently leads to decreased feed intake and decreased average daily weight gain.

Weaning stress in calves is increased by movement to a new environment, social structure, introduction of new feed and transportation to a backgrounding operation or feedyard.

Other management tasks such as vaccination, castration, dehorning and branding add significantly to the stress level of these animals.

This stress has been associated with immunosuppression, increased risk of developing respiratory disease and increased treatment cost of newly weaned calves, as well as a higher mortality rate.

One of the management tools to decrease the risk of sickness and death in weaned calves is to decrease stress by processing young calves prior to weaning.

It is advised to process calves three to four weeks ahead of the actual separation. This management facilitates an increased immune response, decreases stress and helps calves to achieve resistance against diseases.

When considering cattle welfare and stress levels of calves at the time of separation from the dams, low-stress weaning methods such as fenceline and two-step weaning are preferable over abrupt weaning methods.

The low-stress weaning methods help to decrease stress for the cow-calf pair that can be assessed by behavioral and physiologic parameters. Low-stress weaning methods can be more profitable for producers and are also a more attractive management procedure for consumers.

Fenceline weaning

Fenceline weaning separates the cow-calf pair into opposite pastures while the animals still have contact with each other through the fence. The cattle can still smell, see and hear each other although they are physically separated.

When using the fenceline weaning method, the fence needs to be strong enough to hold pressure from the cows or calves since they may try to break through the fence to the other side.

Furthermore, the fence needs to be constructed in such a way that nursing through the fence is impossible.

Before separation of cows from calves, it is advised to move the pairs to the pasture in which the calves will remain several days before weaning.

This helps to familiarize calves with the new environment and water sources. At the time of weaning, only the cows are moved to the adjacent pasture, and the animals are kept separated for up to a week.

Usually after four or five days, cows and calves finish their social/maternal bond and can be separated without visual contact.

One study has shown that fenceline-weaned calves had lower stress indicators measured in their blood and gained more weight in the first two weeks after weaning when compared with calves that were abruptly weaned, since they spent less time vocalizing and walking.

Two-step weaning

Another alternative to abrupt weaning is the two-step weaning method. This method has also been shown to be less stressful for the cow-calf pair. The first step prevents the calf from nursing from the dam by applying a nose flap. The second step includes the physical separation of the calf from the cow.

A lightweight plastic nose flap is put on the calves and left in place for a minimum of four days but no longer than 10 days. After removal of the nose flaps, the calves are separated from the cows.

Since this method more closely stimulates the natural weaning by terminating nursing first, calves vocalize less, walk less and spend more time eating and resting after separation from the dams.

A study has shown that calves weaned with this method were less stressed than the control. In this study, a difference in average daily gain was not shown, but the authors assumed that this was due to less favorable pasture conditions.

The two-step weaning method represents a practical approach to decrease both behavioral and physiological stress of the actual weaning process on young calves.

Currently, the cost of nose flaps is approximately $2.20 apiece and can be purchased in a pack of 25. The nose flaps can be re-used after cleaning. In some studies, only 5 percent of the nose flaps were lost.

In the author’s own experience, more than 5 percent of the nose flaps were lost when they were re-used, and it is advised to watch the calves to replace lost nose flaps.

Using the nose flaps is an effective weaning method, but it is more labor-intensive since the calves have to be moved twice through a chute – once to apply and then again to remove the nose flaps. Low-stress cattle handling methods should be applied to reduce the stress of moving them through the chute.  end mark

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PHOTO: Two-step weaning begins with the placement of a nose flap into calves. Photo courtesy of Anita Varga.

Anita Varga