I use a lot less medication than I used to--for my calves as well as for myself! It's not too often that a rancher finds success with something that decreases his veterinary bill as well as his own over-the-counter ibuprofen and antacid expense. This person was telling me about his results with fenceline weaning. His enthusiasm told me that his operation would never go back to the way he used to wean calves.
Fenceline weaning differs from traditional forms of calf weaning in what it doesn't do. The calves are not moved to a new location out of the sight and sound of their mothers. They're not plunked down in a drylot in a new, strange location. There, under the stress of all this novelty, and with no mother to show them how to eat, drink, and act, the calves are expected to figure all of this out-maybe in the middle of weather conditions that are going through their own dramatic changes as well.
Every rancher has observed signs of this stress. The calves pace their pen, bawl for their mothers, and don't spend as much time eating, drinking, or resting as they did before they were weaned. In fact, all of these things have been measured by animal scientists when evaluating different types of weaning systems.
Another thing scientists measure in calves is cortisol-the stress hormone. Unlike epinephrine (adrenaline), which is produced by the body in response to a sudden threat such as being spooked by a wild animal, cortisol begins to be produced during periods of long-term stress, like a three-day blizzard or a long trailer ride. The most common long-term stress calves endure is that of weaning.
This cortisol hormone has some beneficial effects on body energy during these times of stress, but too much for too long is detrimental to the immune system. Cortisol kills off some of the body's white blood cells, and hampers the activity of the ones that are left. This gives bacteria such as Mannheimia or Histophilus a leg up in their attempts to hurt the calf's respiratory system. Calves under the influence of cortisol show higher populations of the bad bugs in their nasal passages compared to unstressed calves. It's for these reasons that we have shipping fever or bovine respiratory disease in recently weaned or transported calves.
Fenceline weaning visibly reduces stress in the weaned calves. Cows and calves are left on the same pasture they're currently on, but the calves are moved to a place on the other side of a fence from their mothers. They can still see and hear mother, they just can't nurse her. Yes, you want to have a good fence, and even then, an industrious calf or two will find a way to reunite with their mother. Calves weaned in this way spend less time pacing and bawling, and more time eating, resting, and gaining weight. After 7-10 days of this, the calves-who by now don't visibly miss their mothers at all--can be moved off pasture into a lot for feeding.
Interestingly, studies have not documented significant differences in cortisol levels or even sickness levels between conventional and fenceline weaned calves. This might be due to the controlled environments some of those studies employ. But I have yet to find a producer dissatisfied with their own experiences. Post-weaning illnesses have been minimal at best for these producers, which I chalk up to the significantly lowered stress levels in these calves.
But more than just having calves do better post-weaning, there's something more profound to take away from fenceline weaning. It's just one example of management changes-low-stress handling and the Sandhills system are others-that can have great impacts on the well-being of livestock. To make fenceline weaning work, we don't need antibiotics or additional vaccines. All we needed was a fence-along with a willingness to think differently about managing animals. These are stories the general food-eating public needs to hear-how farmers and ranchers are changing their ways of doing things, directly resulting in healthier animals and safer food.