Kelly Nordlund is fixing fence a lot less these days. He has his cows to thank. That, and a small piece of yellow plastic.
For the past five years, Nordlund, a Clearbrook, MN, seedstock producer, has used the QuietWean™ two-stage weaning device and says it dramatically cuts the amount of bawling and walking, not only by the calves, but by the cows.
Nordlund Stock Farm is a 250-cow registered Angus and Red Angus operation that calves both spring and fall, so they're weaning around 125 calves at a time. “About a week before we plan on actually separating the calves from the cows, we'll put that nose weaning tag in the calf and they go right back and run with their mothers,” Nordlund says.
The tag, or more accurately a nose flap, prevents calves from nursing, yet allows them to graze, eat from a feeder and drink. It's based on the concept, proven by research, that the stress of weaning comes from breaking the social interaction between cow-calf pairs, not from preventing the calf from nursing.
“It's pretty amazing, once you get them through that period (after the device is inserted in the calf's nose), how easy it is to separate them,” Nordlund says. He and his son Mike wean calves in a dry lot.
“One of the things we like about it is we can immediately drive the cow herd away from the yards. We move the cows at least a half-mile away and we've never had the cows tear down the fences and come home when using this tag. Any other way we tried it, we had to let the cows come right back to the yards because they would tear the fences down to make it.”
Weaning the cows
In fact, says David Harrington of Guymon, OK, you're weaning the cows as much as you're weaning the calves.
“We gather (the calves) and give them two shots, a 7-way and a 4-way, and put the nose tags in and turn them back out with their moms,” he says. “And then somewhere between a week and 10-12 days later, depending on our schedule, we get them in, give them another shot of 4-way and take the nose tags out.”
The cows are then moved across the fence to an adjoining pasture. But unlike fence-line weaning, where the cows will bawl and walk the fence looking for their calves, Harrington's cows are done.
“The calves will walk the fence, walk and bawl, maybe for a day. The moms are pretty well done. They'll go to the other side of the pasture and put their heads down. They're weaned.”
After a day or so of walking and talking, the calves are, too. “Within 24 hours, they (calves) have their heads down and they're eating grass.”
Both Nordlund and Harrington combine jobs when using the QuietWean nose flap, vaccinating and re-vaccinating when working the calves to put the device in and take it out. Nordlund prefers to administer his first round of vaccines three to four weeks before weaning, necessitating three trips through the chute. While it's extra work, he says the added benefits of low-stress weaning more than compensate.
Those benefits are largely health-related, says Grant McKay with the TC Ranch at Franklin, NE. “We've seen a dramatic drop in treats from pneumonia and other weaning stress,” he says.
Like Nordlund and Harrington, McKay vaccinates in conjunction with working the calves through a chute to put in and take out the nose flaps, leaving them in for six to nine days. And he's working quite a few calves — the ranch runs 600-700 cows.
McKay came to the TC Ranch two years ago. Last year, he weaned half the calves, around 300, with the QuietWean device and the other half with fence-line weaning.
“Yes, you have to have a chute somewhere handy to put them in and take them out. We use a portable alley and really, as far as equipment and manpower, it's not a lot different that what we were doing already,” McKay says. He and his crew can run 70-100 head/hour through the chute, vaccinating and applying the flaps, then again to revaccinate, remove the flaps and separate the pairs.
Some basic advice
The QuietWean company recommends that once separated, the pairs not be allowed back together. The company also recommends the calves wear the nose flaps a minimum of four days, saying research has shown the same benefits whether the nose flaps are worn four days or 14. Cows, however, were much quieter after separation when the nose flaps were worn for eight days rather than four.
All three cattlemen say they'll lose a few nose flaps every year, and a few calves are always smart enough to tilt their heads sideways and keep on nursing. Those calves get weaned the old way.
However, at Nordland Stock Farm, they'll bring calves that have lost the nose flap back up to the chute and reapply if they can. But McKay says that the percentage of calves that lose the flaps or learn to nurse with it still on is small enough that the commotion and bawling they create doesn't affect the rest of the calves.
And the tags can be reused. “If you're careful with them, you can reuse one a long time,” Harrington says. The tags are not expensive, he adds, “and if you figure you can use one for several years, it gets down to next to nothing as far as the cost per calf.”
The QuietWean nose flaps, which cost about $2 each, were developed by Canadian researchers and are marketed throughout North America. Information on the tags can be found at www.quietwean.com.
McKay has been using the nose flaps on his own cattle for five or six years. Two years ago, he went with the TC Ranch and used them on part of the herd last year.
“There's some labor involved, but gosh, you cold-wean and you spend time trying to get them up to the bunks to eat,” he says, in addition to sick calves. And if you're going to give two rounds of shots anyway, you're not working your calves any more than you would normally, he adds.
Plus, the reduction in stress, measured by the money he saves in medicine and the work he saves by not doctoring sick calves, is well worth a little more effort on the front end, he says. “It works pretty well, real well, in fact. I honestly wouldn't go back,” McKay says.