Fenceline weaning on pasture prevents illness in calves
Most ranchers expect a few sick calves during the weaning process, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Traditional weaning in corrals stresses calves a lot, with the sudden deprivation of mom and milk, not knowing where mom is, and having to learn how to eat a new feed out of feed bunk.
Dusty corrals add to the stress as calves run frantically back and forth trying to get out, breathing in all that dust. Even if calves were vaccinated ahead of weaning, there are often a few that get sick, because stress suppresses the immune system.
In the 1980s a few ranchers started weaning on pasture instead of corrals, which really helped cut down on sickness, then some innovative stockmen started weaning the calves right through the fence from the cows; the moms and babies were still on pasture with just a fence between them. This worked even better, because the calves not only had good pasture but also had mom nearby and could lie down next to her through the fence. She was still there for comfort and security.
One rancher who has been doing fenceline weaning for a long time is David Hall, who ranches in southern Missouri near West Plains. He started fenceline weaning 19 years ago. That first year, he used a pasture that had an old web-wire fence. “The fence was really old, made out of some old hedge posts. We put the cows on one side and the calves on the other, and we might have had a few crawl through. It didn’t work exactly perfect but was still a lot better than what we’d been doing,” he said.
“We’ve since learned some ways to make it even easier. We always make sure the calves have really good forage on their side. Having their belly full is really important. We also try to rotate through those side-by-side pastures at some point with the cows and calves before weaning, sometime in the calf’s life, so the calves are familiar with the pasture. They know where the water is, and they’ve laid down with mom in there and they’ve been comfortable there,” Hall said.
Jon Millar of Millar Angus Ranch, near Sturgis, S.D., has been fenceline weaning for seven years. He moves pairs into the weaning pasture about a week before sorting cows off, so the calves are acquainted with that environment and feel at home there. He weans his calves in two bunches because the herd is already in two groups when they go to summer grass — cows with bull calves in one group and the cows with heifer calves in another. “We wean the bull calves, and then wean the heifer calves a couple weeks later,” he said.
“Occasionally one or two calves have gotten through the fence to get with their mothers, but after we put them back in the weaning pasture, they don’t go through the fence again. They probably got shocked and don’t want to try it again. One time I actually watched it happen. The calf went up to the fence, and wasn’t used to the electric fence yet. When he touched that wire, instead of jumping backward, he bellered and leaped forward and jumped through the fence. It’s a very hot fence, so a calf that touches it will never try it again. I’ve never had a cow get in with the calves, and rarely will a calf go through. Last year we didn’t have any go through, but that was probably because I turned the hot wire on when we first put the pairs in the weaning pasture, and they start learning about it before we ever sort them away from their mothers,” he said.
It’s important to sort/separate them as quietly as possible. Hall brings his herd up into a catch area and then leaves them there for a couple hours, before trying to sort them. This gives them time to mother up, nurse, and be relaxed and calm and there’s no bawling when he comes back to sort them.
“By that age if they get separated, often the cow is bawling for the calf more than the calf bawls for the cow. The calves are getting independent by then, sort of at that ‘teenager’ stage, but mama might get a little worried. So we leave them in the pen to mother up and settle down and realize everything is fine. Then when we come to sort them, often they are going back the way they came and we are sorting them quietly — sending cows on one side and calves on the other side of that fence. Then we just leave. We have the salt, mineral, water, etc. already there, and we try not to disturb those cattle at all for at least 48 hours.” Then there are no distractions to upset them.
“A good mother cow, if she’s on one side of the fence and her baby is on the other, if you go out there on a 4-wheeler or on a horse her first reaction is to bawl and try to see where her baby is. She gets worried because she’s a mom. So we try to not give them any reason to worry,” he said.
“If you bring the herd to a catch pen their first idea is ‘Oh no. We are going to be run through the chute or some other bad thing is about to happen.’ But then if you let them calm down and relax for a few hours, and then quietly sort them and turn them out and they go to fresh pasture, the cows are happy. They can see and smell baby through the fence, but the pasture is enticing and they are happy to go graze. They realize baby is OK, and the 4-wheeler or the horse has left and they are not being bothered,” Hall said. You have defused all that worry and those cows will generally go to grazing and not worry very much about their calves.
Millar has a set of corrals about a mile from the weaning pasture, and the calves get their preconditioning vaccinations three weeks ahead of weaning, while the herd is still grazing other pastures. “Then the day we take the cows and calves to the weaning pasture, we go through the corrals and give the calves their booster shots and get their weaning weights. This is all done about a week prior to the actual weaning because they stay in the weaning pasture as pairs for a week,” he said. That way they are not stressed very much from the shots because they go right back to mom.
Then a week after the calves’ booster shots he sorts off the cows into the adjacent pasture. It’s a simple process because he leads the cows through the gate with the feed truck — which they readily follow — and a couple people on horseback can hold back the calves as the cows trickle through the gate. “The calves stay in the weaning pasture another two weeks because there is plenty of grass, and then we haul those calves home,” Millar said. There is not much stress.
The only thing that is changing for the calf is taking the milk away. Everything else is the same — the feed, the environment — and mom is right through the fence. They can still be close to one another if they want to be.
“I’ve seen them bellow at each other and come walking up to the fence. They stop and talk to each other and realize mom (or baby) is still there, and then may just turn around and go off to graze, content,” Millar said. They still want some social contact and the calves want the security of knowing where mom is, and they stay calmer than with corral weaning.
“It takes a little more management, but we feel it’s worth it because they keep grazing and stay healthier,” Millar said. Most years there is plenty of grass for the calves in that weaning pasture, but if it’s a dry year he may start feeding the calves a little supplement in that pasture to augment the grass.
With fenceline pasture weaning, the calves keep grazing and gaining weight and its less stress on them — and less stress on the humans — and is also more profitable. “There is no downside to this way to wean calves. Some people balk because they don’t have a fence that will work, but it’s not that hard to build one,” Hall said. Even just a hot wire along an existing fence will do the job. ❖
— Smith Thomas is a cattle rancher, horseman, freelance writer and book author, ranching with her husband near Salmon, Idaho. She can be reached at email@example.com.