Calving season brings in newborns which can make for a loud, raucous fall when it’s time to wean. It’s surprisingly quiet, though, with a practice called fence line weaning. Call it a gentler, kinder way to separate a calf from its mother, it allows the pair to remain close and greatly reduces stress on both.
Mark Goes, an expert on the process, spends part of his time as an instructor at Southeast Community College in Beatrice, Nebraska and the rest of his time as a small cattle rancher. He got into the process, which he calls ‘pasture weaning’ while working with his students in 1998 in a Ranching for Profit class.
“We wean as early as possible,” said Goes. “"A calf's rumen is inoculated to digest solid feeds by 4 months of age. This also coincides with the time that dam's milk production begins to decline. We like to get the younger calves weaned and on a solid feed diet as soon as possible, thereby meeting the performance demands of the calf more effectively and freeing up more pasture to run more cows."
Goes deals with just 30 animals at home and a maximum of 60 at the school. “The University of Nebraska is doing fence line weaning with herd sizes of 250 or more,” he said.
Goes experience at home as well as the college shows the wean stress is over in 2 to 3 days. “Calves get over it faster than cows, all they need to learn is where to eat” he said. “We use a nanny to show them the ropes – where the feed and water is.”
“A cow’s milk production continues and she wants some relief so what we’re really doing is weaning the mother.”
A power fence is critical to the process. Goes uses a simple and inexpensive two wire fence and an energizer from Gallagher to control his animals. Explaining its effectiveness, Gallagher president Erwin Quinn said “An electric fence is a psychological barrier that doesn’t require great strength to be effective. It must be well designed and constructed to absorb some pressure from animals, snow and wind and the energizer must have enough power for the length of the fence and for the animals being controlled.”
A pulsed electric current is sent along the fence wire, about one pulse per second, from a grounded energizer. When an animal brushes against the fence, a circuit between the fence and the ground is completed and the animal feels a short, sharp but safe shock.
Most people agree that posts and woven wire won’t do. “Weaning calves are like sheep,” said one proponent. “They’ll bunch up next to the fence and, sooner or later, they’ll push through. The power fence prevents them from doing that.”
To prevent fence line crowding, Goes said it’s important to eliminate corners and place food and water sources away from the fence.
Backing up Goes’ real life experience are many scientific studies. California researchers, for instance, tested the effectiveness of fence line weaning a few years ago. They weaned a group of calves with only a power fence between them and their mothers and compared them to calves weaned totally separated from their mothers.
They found that fence line calves and cows spent about half their time within a few feet of the fence during the first two days. Fence line calves bawled and walked less, and ate and rested more than the separated calves.
All the calves were placed together 7 days after weaning. Even so, at two weeks, the fence line calves had gained 23 pounds more than separated calves. At 10 weeks, fence line calves gained an average of 110 pounds compared to 84 pounds for separated calves, indicating the stress from weaning was an ongoing problem.
Goes agrees with the research. He noted that at harvest the fence line calves still showed more weight gain and better quality meat than traditionally weaned animals.