Farmers and ranchers see alternatives such as these as a vast improvement over conventional weaning, during which calves and cows are abruptly separated and not allowed to see, hear, or smell each other again, often resulting in abnormal behaviors such as bellowing and pacing.
The farmer Janet Steward of Greenfield Highland Beef says she started practicing an alternative approach called “fenceline weaning”—also called “nose to nose weaning”—because it seemed more humane than traditional weaning. Then, she says, “we began to notice that the calves don’t lose as much weight.”
Steward, who runs the farm with her husband Ray Shatney in central Vermont, allows mother cows and their calves to live briefly on opposite sides of a slatted metal gate after they are physically separated. The mothers are let onto pasture every day but return to the barnyard three to four times a day to check on their offspring.
Through the gate, the pair can touch noses, smell each other, and call to each other—without nursing, of course. The proximity offers meaningful connection, given that the mother-calf bond is partially facilitated after birth through licking, vocalizations, and the release of hormones.
After 10 days or so, Greenfield Highland’s mother cows no longer actively come down from pasture to visit their calves, and milk production slows down. When the calves no longer call for their mothers and are eating comfortably, they are moved onto their own pasture.
Steward and Shatney first heard about fenceline weaning about 10 years ago, at a workshop given by the American Highland Cattle Association, and decided to give it a try. The couple say that after the initial physical separation, their cows and calves do engage in the kind of bellowing that is typical with abrupt weaning, but they’ve found that it’s over sooner than when they weaned conventionally. And their calves generally eat more, which allows them to put on weight faster and provide more economic value.
A 2003 University of California study backs this up. It compared growth rates of calves weaned in different ways and found that “fenceline-weaned calves gained at least 50 percent more weight the first two weeks after weaning than calves weaned by other methods,” according to one summary of the study. “They also retained that weight advantage through at least 10 weeks post-weaning.”
The number of farms and ranches practicing fenceline weaning isn’t tracked, but it’s not a fringe practice. Beef, an industry publication, has run a number of articles on the practice, and a handful of universities have sponsored studies. Greenfield Highland Beef is a small operation, but ranches with thousands of acres also practice fenceline weaning.
Another way to wean beef calves is through “two-step” or “two-stage” separation, in which a plastic nose flap is inserted in to a calf’s muzzle to prevent nursing (while still allowing grazing). When calves go to the udder, the flap keeps them from accessing the teat; some devices include small spikes that irritate the udder and lead the cow to push her offspring away.