Over the last couple of weeks, I can't count how many times I have been asked the questions "Does fence-line weaning really work, and is it really something that is practical to implement?" My response has been the old standby consultants' answer "It depends." Research suggests that there is a benefit to fence-line weaning, but the magnitude is dependent upon the study and therefore the feasibility of implementation is also variable. When I have asked long-time cattle producers their thoughts on this subject, most of them are in favor of fence-line weaning "if you are set up to do it." What constitutes being "set-up to do it" has ranged from having facilities that are primarily pipe to those that are primarily portable panels and poly wire, indicating that being able to implement this type of weaning management is directly related to the temperament of your cattle (which can be directly related to how they are handled) and whether "athleticism" has been used as a selection trait in the past.
Recently, the opportunity arose to conduct a demonstration comparing calves that were weaned across from their dams (fence-line) to those that were completely removed from their dams and drylotted during the weaning process (traditional). The demonstration occurred at the D. Joyce Coffey Ranch west of Marietta, Okla., and lasted for 28 days (Sept. 4 to Oct. 2). Processing occurred on day one, boosters were given on day 14 and weights were taken every seven days. Feed (13 percent crude protein) was allocated daily (morning) and was stepped up until 1 percent of body weight (approximately 4.5 pounds per head) was achieved. Two strands of polypropylene electric fence, at heights of 28 and 42 inches, were used to separate calves from cows in the fence-line group. Both groups received high-quality hay (12 percent crude protein, 58 percent total digestible nutrients), however the fence-line group had access to stockpiled bermudagrass (unfertilized) at all times during the weaning period.
Table 1 and Figure 1 represent one years data for various performance characteristics and health status for calves subjected to the two different weaning programs. Overall consumption of hand-fed feedstuffs (supplement and hay) was lower (7.67 vs. 13.24 pounds per head) for the fence-line group, which indicates that the bermudagrass was being consumed, and possibly preferred, over the hay. Morbidity was higher for the traditional group, however in general, there were very few health problems in either group. Fence-line weaned calves exhibited higher overall daily gain (1.25 vs. 0.7 pounds per head per day, respectively) compared to the traditional group (Figure 1). Daily gain during Day 1-7 and Day 14-21 were significantly higher (Figure 1) for the fence-line group, indicating that these calves responded to processing more favorably, but gain during the other two seven-day periods favored the traditionally weaned calves.
Labor involved with removing animals that have "crossed over" (cows in with calves or vice versa) has always been a concern when discussing the subject of fence-line weaning.
Surprisingly, no calves or cows crossed over the poly-wire fence during the 28-day period. This could be due to various factors ranging from the calves being raised around electric fence to the fact that the cattle are handled as gently as possible every time they are gathered. It is our feeling that another very important aspect was how the fence-line animals were acclimated to the weaning process. This was done by providing supplemental feed as close to the electric "weaning" fence as possible, turning the cows out slowly, allowing them to find the feed and settle down and then slowly turning the calves out. This process resulted in very few calves bolting to their mothers and therefore allowed them to "find" the electric fence before it was wrapped around them.
Plans are to continue and improve upon this project in the future; adding to the information obtained from this group of calves, thus providing more conclusive results. Furthermore, these calves are part of an additional study and information is being collected as to the effects of weaning management on subsequent performance and health.
Information reported from demonstrations is for illustration purposes only and should not be taken as conclusive evidence. Demonstrations are conducted in such a way that definitive statements about differences or similarities among factors or treatments cannot be made with any level of certainty. In a similar way, preliminary results from designed experiments are subject to conclusions that could differ dramatically from year to year or location to location. Therefore, information from demonstrations and all preliminary results should be viewed with a degree of caution.