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Fence-line Weaning -Low-stress Handling Keys to Calmer Calves

There are many ways to wean calves, but not all of the methods used are created equal.

Typical weaning scenarios can leave calves highly stressed, and later lead to reduced appetite, weight loss, and suppressed immunity. Fence-line weaning offers an effective strategy to minimize the stress and the side effects that come along with it during this critical time.

Rick Habein of Drewsey, Oregon has fence-line weaned his calves for over 20 years with much success. Formerly a grass-fed rancher in Hawaii, Habein and his family moved their cattle operation to Oregon in 2006. While the environments of both states are drastically different, Habein says he has used fence-line weaning in both cases and found it works well no matter the climate or region.

On his ranch in Hawaii, Habein used a corral that was adjacent to two 20-acre pastures to sort cows from calves at weaning time. After sorting, the cows were placed back into their former pasture and the calves moved to fresh grass in a neighboring pasture. This system kept cows and calves separated, while allowing them to see, hear, and smell their dams from across the fence which was constructed of woven wire with hot wires (7000 volts each) placed at nose level on each side.

"Typically, on Day 1 cows and calves talk to each other and the calves will graze out and back to the fence line," says Habein. "We basically just leave them alone for that first day."

On the second and third days, Habein would distribute compressed alfalfa cubes along the fence line for the calves as an attractant. Calves soon became accustomed to the new treat and learned to follow him, bag of cubes in hand, into a new pasture on the fourth day.  Around this time, calves also began to settle, he notes.

During the entire process, Habein keeps his cows in their original pasture. After the fourth day, he shifts calves to new pasture yet again before finally moving the cows to fresh grass. This strategy maintains a paddock buffer between cows and calves ensuring the weaning process is successful. It also has the extra perk of helping cows cease lactating quicker, he adds.

"After a week, as long as nothing goes wrong, you're on your way," says Habein. "The nicest thing about it is the calves aren't pacing, licking, and becoming hoarse from spending days bawling."

On his current ranch in Oregon, the process differs only slightly with type of fencing used. A five-strand barb wire fence, approximately a quarter mile in length, separates the pastures Habein uses for fence-line weaning. To modify the fence for fence-line weaning, he installed off-set wires on either side at nose level for cows and calves and maintains a voltage of 7000 volts on each hot wire.

"The trick to it is having as hot a fence as you possibly can," says Habein. "When the calves' wet noses touch that hot wire, they'll get a good zap and that sends a big message."

Habein clarifies calves still do bawl for their mothers a little during the fence-line weaning process; however, it is significantly less than what would be seen in traditional weaning. Calves eventually learn to view Habein as their new herd leader and follow him to new pasture. He notes the addition of a lead steer or dry cow to the calf group can also help in settling and moving calves.

Overall, Habein says he cannot imagine weaning calves any other way. His calves rarely experience sickness post-weaning and stress is kept to a minimum.

"Fence-line weaning is super effective as long as you have a fence that's hot and a physical barrier like a 5-strand wire fence," says Habein.

Habein's first-hand successes in Hawaii and Oregon mirror much of the research findings available on fence-line weaning. Results from multiple land-grant universities have shown fence-line weaned calves vocalize less and exhibit improved performance by spending more time eating and gaining more weight post-weaning than their traditionally-weaned counterparts.

When it comes to making management changes, however, it's important to remember fence-line weaning may not be practical in every situation. On some farms or ranches, the right fencing infrastructure needed may not be there. In any case, reducing stress during weaning is still crucial, says stockmanship expert Steve Cote.

"The critical part isn't the weaning method used," says Cote. "The secret is getting the cattle (cows and calves) trusting of you and practicing working them using low-stress techniques before weaning."

The stress of weaning comes from the way it's done and how the cattle feel about it, explains Cote, not the weaning itself.  To be effective, he suggests bringing pairs to the pasture calves will be placed in following weaning to become familiar with their new surroundings ahead of time. In addition, pairs should be worked using low-stress handling techniques to "take the stress" off before, during, and after weaning to reduce stress to as much as possible.

In the end, the combined use of fence-line weaning and low-stress livestock handling techniques has the potential to be a benefit to more than just the calves. It may also lead to less stressed and calmer cattle producers as well thanks to quieter livestock and a better working environment for all parties involved.

Authored by Jesse Bussard a agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

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“The trick to it is having as hot a fence as you possibly can”