Like many topics in the farming industry today, weaning beef calves can be a touchy subject. It’s not always as dramatic or traumatic as some people make it out to be though. On our farm we think about the welfare of our animals first. How can it be the least stressful for our calves, the mamas and then us. We come last in this equation because we believe in doing what’s best for our animals first.
There are a lot of different ways to wean calves. I’ll focus on beef calves because that is what we raise on our farm. We have done it a few different ways depending on the time of year, how many calves, and just plain ol’ life circumstances change and we have to adjust and adapt to them.
The method I like best has been called pen weaning or fence weaning. I don’t really have a name for it, it’s just what works best for us.
Why and When to Wean Beef Calves
Cows won’t naturally wean their calves like wild animals. If you leave a calf on the mama and she calves again it could cause some major problems. The first being that the yearling calf (the older one) will dominate and most likely not let the newborn anywhere near mom to nurse. She also won’t have time to dry off and then re-create colostrum which is so important to newborn calves. The new baby has very little chance of survival and if it does it’s going to take a lot of work from the farmer to keep it alive.
Because of all this, we aim to wean our beef calves around 8 months of age. I like giving them an extra couple of months with their mama (a lot of people wean around 6 months of age). And as we know, mom’s milk is THE BEST food source for them. I think it also makes it easier at weaning time because they are plenty old enough. And if you’ve had a bull in year round with them, there’s a good chance she’ll be calving again in a few months.
This will give mama some time to dry off (stop producing milk) and put on some weight and gain her strength back before her next baby. If you time your bull differently and know for sure she’s not pregnant then you could leave them with her longer. We’ve left some, due to life circumstances, as long as 9-10 months and it has been fine.
How We Sort The Herd
A day or two before we plan to separate the calves from the mamas we set up our pens. We have cattle panels that we can put up anywhere, in any size or shape. Instead of stationary pens that are only in one spot on our farm we have continued to use these because like I said, it seems like circumstances are always changing and this gives us flexibility to meet the needs of our cows.
We set the pens up in an area close to where they are but also moving in the direction of where the calves will go next. For instance, we have a gateway that leads from one of the big fields into the 5 acre horse field (where our 2 horses live.) This is also the field the beef calves go into while they’re being finished. So we align the gateway of the pen and the field.
Once the pens are set up we open the gates and let the herd get used to the new contraption. Cows are curious, they also see us and think hay so they usually go in and check it out. I like doing this a few days ahead because it gives them time to get used to something they don’t see everyday.
On the day we sort, we feed hay inside the pens. Since the cows have had a day or two to get used to them, they all walk in and start eating their hay. We close the gates and give them time to eat and hang out. They are calm so this goes quickly. If they were scared I would walk away and let them rest in there for an hour or two before starting to sort.
Our herd has gotten used to this and they are calm in the pen. My husband stands by the gate and watches, when a mama cow or the bull wants out, he lets them. Slowly they start to leave and head back out to their big field. Calves are all that’s left. They are more weary of us and flighty and they don’t want to get near my husband. If all the calves you have left need weaning, then you’re done! Last time we had 5 calves that needed weaning and 2 that needed to go back with their mamas. So I manned the gate and my husband walked around in the pen til he got the 2 on their own. Then he slowly pushed them to the gate, I opened it and out they went again.
Now that only calves that need to be weaned are alone in the pen, we move a water trough in and keep them topped up with hay 2-3 times a day. We double up the gateway into the field where the big herd is with panels so it’s like a combination of fence-line and pen weaning because they are in a pen but they are also along the fence line. We feed the big herd near them for the first day or two and then slowly move the hay bales away so the big herd is moving further away. The calves stay in the pen for about a week.
Do they moo? Yes. The first 24-48 hours they do moo more often. They are figuring out what is going on. Mama’s hang by the fence, the babies do too but they both figure it out in a day or two. It’s natural for the calves to want to be with the herd. Also, we never wean a single calf. We would only do that if it’s sick. We wean at least 2 at a time. Cows are herd animals and they do not like to be alone, this would make it a lot more stressful. Separating in groups allows them to form their own new little herd and feel safe.
Ready for New Pastures
After about a week, we are ready to let them out into their new pasture. If they need tags or banding, we run them through the chute on their way out. Otherwise we just open the gates and into their new field they go! We have some permanent pens up by our horse stalls at the barn where we start giving them their hay. This helps move them farther away from the big herd as well. But they can still see them and share a fence line.
Overall we have found this method to be best for our operation and easy for the two of us to do. If you look online there are other methods. It’s best to do your research and figure out what will work best for your specific animals and farm.
A quick last note about vaccines or boosters. We do not vaccinate our cows or give any type of shots at weaning time. I know a lot of farmers do and I’m not addressing whether you should or should not in this article. I’m simply sharing that we do not and have had no issues with our calves. They grow out to be beautiful beef cows with natural, delicious meat.
As always, thanks for reading! Leave your questions and comments below, I’d love to hear from you!