Playing Peek-A-Boo…

It is an old wives’ tale that the phases of the moon determine how easily calves wean.  Although I am a stalwart believer in science, I put great faith in the wisdom of the “old timers”.  I also have weaned enough calves over the past 15 years to realize that there are some things that cannot be explained by textbooks…

We weaned our first group of calves the day after Labor Day.  They weaned so well that I was feeling like a genius.  The second set of calves (weaned last week) brought back a little bit of humility into my life…

Both sets of animals were “set up for success” with minimal stress and an excellent preconditioning health and nutrition history.  They also both originated on ranches only about 20 miles away from my farm.

Sometimes the calves arrive in stock trailers like these, and sometimes they come on a semi-truck…

My cowboy attributes the difference in weaning ease between these two groups to the phase of the moon—I think that he is a smart guy…

So, how do I tell an easy weaning experience from a more challenging one?  Here is a list of things that I look for in order to make an accurate decision.

  • How long did the calves display anxious behavior and “search for mama”?  Or, when looking at it from the other side, how long did it take for the calves to achieve contentment in their new surroundings?
  • How easily did the calves learn how to eat out of the bunk and drink out of the water tank?
  • Did the calves maintain good health during the weaning period? (The first 2 weeks are critical and we watch them closely for 4 weeks.)

    He’s calm and he’s comfortable in his new home…This is the goal.

The answers to these three questions not only determine the success of the weaning transition time, but they also determine the stress and fatigue level that my guys and I experience during each weaning episode…

When newly arrived calves are not yet completely acclimated, they can be very difficult to keep in the home pen—they want to leave the pen to search for mama.  I laugh that they play a very determined game of Peek-A-Boo

She’s good help…

I was thankful for my two favorite blondes last week because the three of us took the “sunset shift” at the feed yard babysitting the newly arrived cattle.  The time of day that the animals search the hardest and are most likely to try to leave the home pen are dawn and dusk.

She’s good help too…

I solve the dawn challenge by exercising the calves during that time which begins by allowing them to leave the pen to search, but ends by showing them that the home pen is where they will find feed, water, and comfort.  It works very well and shortens the length of time that the calves “look for mama” because they learn quickly that they can take care of themselves.

The beautiful promise of a new day…

Dusk is a bit more challenging.  I do not like to exercise the calves at that time for two reasons: 1. It does not correspond with one of the two feeding times of the day, and 2. If something goes wrong I do not have time to fix it because darkness falls and impedes my ability to see!

The setting sun draws the day to a close and reminds me that darkness will soon prevail…

The first night that the calves were at the feed yard last week, the majority of the steers were able to escape from the home pen to play a rousing game of Peek-A-Boo.  It took me a while to figure out how they were getting out of the pen, but it turns out that they were able to squeeze in between the gate and the fence post and also underneath the gate.

Some extra dirt underneath the gate and a chain put an end to most of the Peek-A-Boo game…

I am happy to report that the calves are now thriving in their home pens and are fully acclimated into the feed yard.  I have to admit that playing Peek-A-Boo with calves can be tiring and make for long days. I relish the successful feeling that I get when my animals settle in.  This victory carries me forward to the next bunch of calves!

We will wean a set of calves each week for the next three weeks.  Each weaning experience will be unique, and also ensure that there is never a dull moment on the Feed Yard Foodie farm!


Filed under Foodie Work!, General

7 responses to “Playing Peek-A-Boo…

  1. We just weaned our calves this week also. Much better than last year – no one has escaped yet. We only have the ability to do fence-line weaning though, so they can still see mama. Never knew that the phase of the moon might have something to do with it – so interesting!

    • I love it when my ranchers can fence-line wean. I think that it is a great “low stress” way to transition calves from nursing on the cow to living on their own. Kudos to you all for setting your animals up for success so well! Great job!


  2. cowdoc lana

    Anne – with you emphasis on low stress handling and working with the bovine psyche for the calves to be successful I don’t understand why the calves you buy are not pre weaned at the farm of origin? There is ample research to support that two-stage weaning is much less stressful than abrupt weaning and less stressful than fence line weaning. Weaning at the feed yard doesn’t seem like a win-win for either the calves or the humans…

    • Hi Doc,

      That is a great question. The short answer is that a few of my ranchers do not have the resources (especially in years of drought) to wean all of their calves at home. We only wean a small percentage of our animals at the feed yard (less than 15%)—most are weaned on the farm of origin. I am reminded every fall of why I do not wean very many animals at the feed yard—it is hard on everyone. There are many things that I have implemented at the feed yard to help these animals transition more easily–I hope to touch on them in blog posts as we move through the fall.

      I think that I will do a blog post next week talking more in depth about why we do wean a small number of animals at the feed yard, and then can move into some of the other aspects of trying to “set those animals up for success” . Thanks for bringing up a great point.


  3. Mary Laura

    My Dad always says “If it can happen, it will.” After several days out on the boat that have brought that concept home yet again, thank you for making me laugh with your escaping cows. No matter how careful you are about the details, there always seems to be a loophole. I am going to sleep with a smile.
    Mary Laura

  4. Mary Laura

    P.S. An escape artist donkey from a neighboring farm taught my little quarter horse how to roll under the bottom fence rail. After we reinforced the fence with extra rails bottom and top (he’d already done the over it thing), my horse figured out all he had to do was back up to the fence and basically sit on it until it fell over. I’m not sure we are the superior species!

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