A stress-free way to wean young calves comes to Heather’s Idaho ranch.

Heifer with nose flap in place

This is what nose flaps look like. This is our heifer “Rocket” with her flap in place.

Every year, weaning time is a stress on people and animals.

In nature, without human intervention, calves are weaned by their mothers, who kick them off before the next calf is born.The big calf still follows along and stays with the cow, never losing the comfort and security of her presence. He may still try to nurse for a few days, but the cow won’t let him, and he resigns himself to weaned status.

Calves are very stressed when separated from their mothers, and stress can lead to immune suppression and vulnerability to disease, especially if the stress of weaning is coupled with bad weather or a long transport when newly-weaned calves are sold. It always pays to try to reduce stress on calves, but this can be a challenge sometimes.

We started fenceline weaning more than twenty years ago, separating the cows from the calves but keeping them in adjacent pens or pastures so they could still go to the fence and be next to each other. It was a little easier on them than the “cold turkey” weaning we had done earlier, which left the calves in a corral while their mothers were moved to a far-away pasture, and resulted in bawling, upset animals.

This fall we tried something different, using “nose flaps” on the calves and leaving the pairs together until the cows’ milk started drying up. We’d heard great reports about this method from ranchers who use it, and I’d talked to Joe Stookey, the man who invented this innovative device at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, about 10 years ago. The “nose flaps” are now being marketed as a product called Quiet Wean.

When I talked to Joe Stookey about the nose flaps, he said it all came about because of a student’s question. “One of our students asked what does the calf miss most — the milk or the mother? So we decided to find out. When we did the study and took away the milk by creating this anti-sucking device, none of the calves were upset,” Stookey told me.

Cow and calf weaning with nose flap

A cow and calf at the research center in Saskatchewan. The cow’s udder is full and the calf can’t nurse, but they have each other and are not upset.

“Then when we took away the mother a few days later they didn’t miss her either, and we realized we’d already weaned the calves! We had weaned them in the presence of the mother and that was the big difference. It was an amazing revelation about the whole weaning process,” he said.

These small plastic flaps can be quickly and easily installed in seconds while the calves are restrained in a chute.

Michael installs a nose flap

Our son Michael, installing a nose flap.

Then the calves are returned to their mothers. The flap hangs down over the nose and mouth, preventing the calf from getting a teat into his mouth to nurse, but without hindering their ability to eat grass and hay or drink water.

The calf cannot nurse, but he’s not emotionally upset because he’s still with his mother.  He feels secure because he has her companionship and protection during the weaning process. As the cow starts to dry up, the calf adjusts to not having milk. About 5 to 7 days later the flaps can be removed from the calves and cows and calves can be completely separated from one another without stress.

We ordered nose flaps for our calves this fall and put them in a week before preg-checking our cows. It was humorous to watch them; they’d run to mom, try to nurse, and maybe bunt the udder in frustration or just stand there — and get kicked. Mom couldn’t figure out why baby wasn’t nursing, but they kept track of each other and spent time together. There was no desperation, and none of the frantic pacing and bawling that happens with other weaning methods.

Cows and calves in the corral

Some of the cows and calves in the corral, ready to be turned back out to pasture together after nose flaps were installed.

By the time we took the nose flaps a week later, when we ran the calves through the chute again for vaccinations, the cows were drying up and the calves essentially weaned. We put the calves in a new pasture and took the cows to our upper place to spend the rest of the fall on mountain pasture, and everybody was happy. It sure was easier on everyone!

Photos courtesy of Heather Smith Thomas and the University of Saskatchewan Western College of Veterinary Medicine

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas has written extensively on animal health care, authoring thousands of articles and 24 books on the subject. Her books include Storey’s Guide… See Bio

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