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Bill & Joan Cabaniss
1215 CR 415, Taylor, TX 76574

512-627-5443 cell


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Lessons Learned

Weaning Calves

Separating a calf from his mother’s milk is always a traumatic experience for both parties no matter how young or old the calf may be. They will spend days bawling for each other——and this is not limited to only daylight hours. Because our property is small and most of our pens are in close proximity to our house, we have endured nights with little sleep because of the constant carrying on following a forced weaning .

The calves become severely stressed trying to find momma and a way back to her. This results in an increased susceptability to diseases and/or significant weight loss. It has been reported that production loss and death loss of calves at weaning is only second to losses at calving.

Different “methods” of classical weaning are described in the literature and given names such as Truck weaning, Traditional weaning, Fenceline weaning or Pasture weaning, but they are all the same basic method—–physically separating the cow/calf pair. The results are pretty much the same. The vast majority of calves will survive, but some definite suffering will go on.

For several years we have been following what has been called a two step weaning protocol. Step one entails placing a nylon weaning tab in the nostrils of the calf, preventing it from nursing (see pictures at the end of blog). Step two is the actual separation of the pair. With the first step there is initially significant stress on the calf (for about 5 minutes) as he tries his darndest to get that yellow gadget out of his nostrils. He will run around tossing his head violently, rubbing his nose on the ground, bellering and moaning—but all to no avail. Before long he heads to his momma to nurse, but cannot reach her teats because of the plastic which extends down below his mouth. I always thought that the reason cows and calves made such a fuss following classical weaning was primarily the missing of milk on the part of the calf and the tight/painful sensation in the unnursed mother’s bag. Evidently, that is not the case. It is the separation and bond breaking that causes the stress.

With this approach, calves are allowed to stay with their moms. We hear virtually no complaining whatsoever. The calves go right to grazing and drinking, never seeming to miss a lick. I’ve been told that the pair can be physically separated after about a week and they do fine, but we usually will wait for several months while we are determining what we want to do with the calf. The final separation is the second step in the process and we’ve had no difficulty with that part. Our experience has been, however, that it may take as much as 3 months for the cow to dry up and the calf to lose his urge to start nursing again. This is important when you decide to remove the weaner tab. One month is definitely not enough if you are going to continue to keep the animals together.

Recipient Cows

As our herd matures we have begun to move away from using recipient cows directly on our farm.  However for quite a few years most of our Aberdeen Angus calves were the result of successful embryo transfers using our own recipient cows.   As we did more and more transfers, we learned how to select better recipient cows to serve as the “surrogate” mothers. One of the big advantages of Aberdeen Angus is (ironically) their smaller size. Because they are smaller and lighter than most commercial breeds, Aberdeens can be grazed in greater density in pastures, they do not trample wet soils as badly, and they can be contained in lighter-duty fencing. The big recipient cows that we started with in our ET program had opposite characteristics! They ate voraciously, turned our pastures into trampled messes, and required us to use taller and heavier-duty materials for our fencing and corrals.

However, it is also possible to select recipient cows that are too small. For example, use of a miniature breed, such as the Dexter or the Miniature Hereford, may result in some delivery problems—particularly if the recipient is a heifer. One significant advantage to ET births using standard recipients is the ease of calving. We never had to assist any of our recipients in their deliveries. Our calves weighed anywhere from 32 pounds to 59 pounds, and were delivered without incident.  So it is good to use recipients which will have no problems delivering the Aberdeen calves.

We’ve found that we could have a standard breed for recipients and still have a smaller size. Our favorite recipient cows were those obtained from Woodstone Angus in New Ulm, Texas. These are registered Angus, but the foundation stock was imported from Ireland. They are approximately 2/3 the size of other American Angus. They are raised around people, and are gentle in nature. This is very important for recipient cows! Embryo transfer procedures require a series of steps to "synchronize" the recipients to be ready to receive the embryos. The cows must be loaded and transported to and from the ET facility. It’s a huge advantage to have smaller, cooperative cows. In addition, they don’t eat quite as voraciously, and they’re much easier on pastures and enclosures.

We’ve found that  48″ high fences work very well for Aberdeens.  We have some wood rail fences near the house, but our field fencing is wire and tee-post with a single strand of barbed wire at the ground.  The wooden fences are constructed with treated wood posts on 8′ centers.  These fences are backed with goat wire—a woven wire product that has 4″ X 4″ grids.  There are three horizontal rails of 1″ X 6″ rough sawn treated “corral” boards.  The field fencing is high-tensile wire (Stay-Tuff  Fence). The horizontal wire spacing is more narrow at the bottom, which makes it more predator resistant. Because the wire is high tensile, the tee-posts need only be placed at 25′ intervals.    This is a significant cost savings, since regular wire fencing will require tee-posts at 8′ or 10′ intervals.  Because of the high tension placed on these fences, the bracing at the ends is very important to keep the wire tight.  The spacing of the end braces should be 2 to 2-1/2 times the height of the fences—which means the posts are 10′ apart with a brace pipe between them.  The Stay-Tuff web site has a good diagram of how to construct the braces.  We used 12′ gates made of galvanized steel with 4″ X 4″ stock panels welded to the frame.  In retrospect, we should have installed 16′ gates.  No one in our area has a no-till grain drill smaller than 14′ wide.   We wanted to plant winter rye a couple of years ago and had to settle for a smaller traditional drill  —live and learn!  A double 8′ gate is nice if you are going to be loading animals.
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