***Warning***TMI to follow. I’ll try to get the breastfeeding stuff out of the way quickly and vaguely, but skip the beginning if you’re a dude and uncomfortable with the topic. In any case, Ranch Baby is off the mom-juice and onto the moo-juice completely now. When a feeding-math fail resulted in needing to buy a new t-shirt at the Gap after a regular length film (that put a damper on date day with the Rancher!), I thought hey, I think I’m over this. RB is twelve months old now, and it was actually a really smooth process.
Week by week, I started subbing a normal feeding with a bottle or sippy cup, and he drank it. RB is all about milk, cheese, and ice cream (perhaps this illustrates the strong dairy gene from the generations of dairy farmers on my dad’s side of the family). This might have helped, but I think the gradual draw down and coordination with the dairy switch made the timing and process a natural thing. No crying and plenty of nutrition getting into RB. Everybody happy, happy, happy.
All of that to say, weaning isn’t rocket science, but there are some choices in terms of how it goes down. No different with beef cattle. Weaning signifies either the beginning of the end of a calf’s time here at the Bar U, as a steer or heifer calf will be marketed to a feed yard or fed through retained ownership through the Country Natural Beef cooperative in which the ranch is certified to participate. Or, for replacement heifers, after weaning, they will go on to produce more generations of calves as mother cows here on the ranch.
The calves being weaned right now were born in August and September of last year. They’ve reached the weight of about 800 lbs. living off their mothers, grass and hay. Timing, weights, and specific forage types may vary, but this is how the beginning of the beef life cycle begins in every part of the country.
Weaning is a great example of how farmers and ranchers are constantly improving our methods. In partnership with colleges and universities, we fund research particularly in areas identified for improvement in animal health, resource management, food safety, and nutrition. Millions and millions of dollars, year after year is voluntarily allocated to the pursuit of doing things better.
Weaning is a stage of the life cycle that can be stressful for the animal. Experience and research informs us that stress is a huge driver in future cattle health problems such as respiratory and intestinal issues. We want to avoid this as much as possible – any addition of time, cost and chance of mortality equals subtraction of profit, and multiplication of stress to not just the animal, the caretaker as well.
The practice of “fence-line weaning” has developed and gained popularity over the last 5-10 years because its shown to reduce many of the common negative side effects of weaning. Simply explained, instead of calves being sorted away from their mothers to a distant pasture or corral to facilitate separation, cows and calves are sorted into two adjoining pastures where they are able to have nose-to-nose contact at the fence line, but are not able to nurse. Cows and calves are able to keep visual contact exactly like they did before weaning and water troughs are positioned together at the fence line to mimic the shared water source they are accustomed to visiting each day. Necessary de-worming medications and vaccines are administered about 3 weeks before weaning.
Some of the key advantages of fence line weaning:
- Lowers the stress of separation for the cow and calf. Cows have a tendency to bawl incessantly and travel needless distances to search for their un-weaned calves when abruptly separated
- The same cows and calves display a blatant disregard for established fences when they are seeking each other, so although fence line weaning may require some new fencing to create the best environment, there is something less annoying about building a new fence than there is about having to fix a perfectly good fence when it’s been knocked down
- When calves aren’t desperately seeking their mothers, they are more likely to chill, drink, and eat what is accessible to them. Pop, nephew Jack, and summer ranch hand Patrick created the weaning pastures in a section of a hay field that had been cut, so both cows and calves have delicious windrows of hay evenly dispersed on the ground to munch on at their leisure. More eating and chillaxing means the growth process is uninterrupted, which is better for the digestive system as the calves will be gradually transitioned from forage (grass and hay) to a forage and high energy diet (hay, grain, corn) during the next stage of the beef process.
- When the weaning pastures are set up close to the corrals and your patio, you can monitor the progress of the weaning process. Plus, I’ve always thought it was nice to be able to drink your coffee in the morning and look out and see cows. It’s my view of choice.
- Quiet. Cattle that are calm are quiet. Weaning often conjures interrupted nights and conversations drowned out by cows bawling for their babies. I was totally ready for some vocal mamas around here, but it’s been downright subdued.
The results of this process and the rest of the health-related measures taken at the ranch and the feed yard will unfold for us as we track the calves to maturity and market weight and grade – information we can get back from the feed yard and processing plant to analyze and assess the performance of our cattle.
While cattle care is the number one daily activity on the ranch, when all is said and done, we are trying to produce high-quality beef for people to eat. I’d liken it to making sure your kid gets his homework done. He needs a good grade today, but the bigger goal is that he’ll build some marketable skills and become a productive adult. But, my kid is One. What do I know? I’m just glad he likes to drink milk. I better stop before this turns into Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey…Ranch Wife out.