Meg’s Musings: Reducing Stress at Weaning; a Holistic Approach

Reducing Stress at Weaning- A Holistic Approach

There are few events in the farming calendar that we dread; most of the year care of livestock is a pleasure. Ok, the odd difficult calving and lambing spices things up a bit, and the air goes blue when fences are broken, and escapees need to be reunited with their comrades but, more or less, it’s hard work but stress free.

There are two weeks of the year, however, that we find somewhat distressing, and that is weaning time.

We calve in blocks, so six weeks in winter and six weeks in spring we calve our cows. As that time comes around, we separate last year’s calves from their mothers. The calves are huge, 10 months old and more than capable of coping on their own. In some smaller production systems calves are left with their mothers until the next calf arrives, but in our experience this means little or no colostrum available for the new calf, reduced fertility in the mother, and slower growth rates for the infant as the teenage offspring drinks most of her supply. Some cows will push away the older calf when the younger one arrives, but our docile Herefords will let anything drink, whenever they like- which is not ideal with mixed age offspring.

So, two months before our cows are due to start calving, we wean the calves. It allows the cow to ‘dry up’ and stop her milk production, and those two months allow her to rest and put on condition prior to calving. In our experience it also gives her adequate time to start producing very high-quality colostrum, the first milk, the elixir of life for a newborn.

A necessary evil

Despite this being a sensible management decision, the cows and calves do not see it like that, and the separation causes distress to both- even if the calf has all but self-weaned off milk anyway.

Like any compassionate farmer I find the bellowing distressing, although it is suspected that the vocalisation is likely caused by the loss of the milk for the calf and uncomfortable full udder on the cow.

We always try a ‘soft wean’ approach, using a creep gate (a gate that calves can fit through but cows cannot) to get the two used to being separated. The cows that are being ‘dried off’ are fed hay on their side of the shed to reduce the protein available for milk production, and the calves are given a richer silage to plug the protein gap left by the milk.

We used to feed cattle nuts to the calves to tempt them into the creep section but we are now confident in our forage quality (we have it analysed) and so have stopped using concentrates completely.

The lure of the sweet-smelling silage is usually enough to get the calves through, and we then use a secondary gate to stop them getting back to their mothers. We increase the time apart gradually over the course of a week until the gate is shut for the final time and the calves are fully weaned.

Although this approach is much more subtle than a straight separation, we still have a few vocalising cows and calves, and the odd calf gets a touch of scours for gorging on milk when they are reunited, so this system clearly needed work.

Homeopathic helping hand

Because both my husband and I both recently completed the Homeopathy at Wellie Level course, we realised this would be a perfect opportunity to test out our newly acquired knowledge and started adding ignatia to the water troughs. This remedy helps with separation anxiety and when we started using it there was a marked reduction in vocalisation- although not completely resolved. The addition of pulsatilla (a remedy for ‘feeling of abandonment’) to the calf’s troughs also helped further but we still had some calves and cows standing by the gate all day, trying to get to each other.

Interestingly we use an abrupt weaning method on the sheep because of the impracticalities of ‘soft weaning’ outdoors. So, we can only use homeopathy to help them. The weaning was completely silent this time around, with no issues with vocalisation, loss of appetite or mastitis. This has completely convinced us of the power of this holistic method in our sheep flock.

The differences could be down to the susceptibility or sensitivity of the sheep vs cows to these particular remedies, and also the fact that they have much less milk to dry up as day length has a huge effect upon sheep hormone production, and we wean in early autumn as the breeding season is kicking into action.

Always looking for a better way

The cows, by contrast, breed all year around and are in such rude health that they have milk production worthy of a dairy cow. The discomfort of an abrupt wean on those engorged udders would make any of us shout!

So soft weaning helped but was not perfect. The homeopathy helped further but was also not perfect, so I did a bit of research, spurred on by a beef farmer on Instagram who urged me to try a process known as Quietwean.

Without sounding like an advert, Quietwean is a process of fitting a nose plate to the calves. This plastic clip fits in the nose (not through like a bull ring) and stops the calf being able to suckle. Whichever way they move their heads to drink milk, the plate gets in the way and prevents it.

The theory being that the calf gets over the loss of the milk bar quickly, but they still have the emotional support and companionship of their mothers. Then, after 4-7 days, you separate cow and calf and remove the nose plate. Instead of being a double whammy of losing access to milk and their mothers in one hit, you stagger the process which reduces the stress.

An interesting experiment

So we gave it a go.

The calves were cross.

(I’m not one for anthropomorphising – I think it has led to a dreadful disconnect between food production and reality – but I digress.)

They were cross that they couldn’t get to the milk. Cue head thumping their mothers’ udders and being generally bolshy teenagers. But after an hour or so, all cows and calves were eating hay and silage, drinking water, cudding and curled up together in the straw.

Silence.

I was a little sceptical, early days, as the cows udders began to fill, surely we’d hear some bellowing?

Nothing.

By the fourth day, the cow’s udders had all but disappeared. Returned to their normal shape and every animal completely contented.

Except number 6.

As if he’d overheard my cynical thought processes, number 6 and his mother decided to provide a control to my experiment.

Number 6’s mother is an 8 year old, middle ranking cow who always produces an excellent calf who is often much larger than its cohort. She is very milky, but unfortunately gravity has not been kind to her generous bosoms, and they have pendulous tendencies.

Because of this, her calf- a bullock- so therefore greedy anyway, worked out that he could contort his neck and push his nose clip into his mother’s udder and still access the good stuff.

Putting theory into practice

We duly separated all the cows and calves and removed the clips 7 days after we started the process.

Silence.

No fuss, no bother, no noise. Visibly and audibly relaxed cows and calves.

What a triumph.

No drop in calf body condition, no mastitis in the cows. Perfect.

Except number 6.

Who shouted and bawled and bellowed, matched only by his mother’s calls from the other side of the gate. We moved him to the bull shed to be out of sight and smell to help his mother to ‘bag down’, as his calls were making her stream milk all over the floor. Her discomfort and his greed I think were the root cause of the noise, but it was a very interesting reminder of why we try to avoid this stress for all our sakes.

The shouting continued for three days by the number 6 duo, but now peace is restored again. She is settled and eating with her herd mates. He is playing and eating with his bull friends and enjoying a shoulder and back scratch whenever I pass.

So there you have it. A piece of plastic and a trough full of homeopathic remedies were all it took to ease the most stressful time of the year.

I think that’s a win.