We are trying a new type of weaning this year: wean rings. This is a plastic ring that clips inside the calf’s nose like a clip-on earring. We think wean rings are the least stressful and most natural way to wean. When the calf tries to nurse its mother, the ring’s spiky points make it uncomfortable for the mamma to nurse her calf. She’ll then initiate the weaning process. These rings may look drastic, but they are safe and cannot hurt the mamma cow. Our calves are still able to have all the physical contact that they want with their mammas. They can still nuzzle, follow around, and get licked on by their mammas.
Deer, bison, and other non-domesticated ruminants will kick their babies away from the teat when the time comes for them to be weaned. Humans have domesticated cattle to the point where this instinctual behavior was lost and now it is necessary for the stockman to intervene. Weaning is a very stressful time for the calf and the cow. Both are clearly bonded to each other. However, weaning must occur.
We wean calves around 7-9 months of age. The mammas are pregnant with their second calf at this point. At this time in their lives, calves are steady eating grass and drinking water, so mamma’s milk is just a treat. It is crucial that our calves fully transfer to grass before their sibling is born. The mamma cow needs to spend all of her nutrition growing the fetus calf, as opposed to making milk in her last trimester for the older calf.
Once the younger calf is born, the older calf would out-compete it if both calves were to suckle. Additionally, this would impede the younger calf from getting adequate amounts of colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk produced by a mamma cow during the first few days after birth before her body switches to making normal milk. Colostrum is a unique kind of milk rich in antibodies, fats, and proteins. Calves do not passively receive immune support from their mothers across the placenta as humans do. They must get their antibodies from colostrum. It is imperative to calves’ health that they drink colostrum in the first few hours of life. The wean rings ensure our young calves have a healthy start to life while allowing the older calves a low-stress introduction to their adult diet of grass.
We are excited about our new system. We look out at our pasture and see a bunch of teenagers with nose rings and we couldn’t be happier. We’re respecting the mother-calf bond and the herd-mentality of our animals while still ensuring the health of future generations of cattle.