The Latest in Alternate Weaning Strategies
Joseph M. Stookey and Derek B. Haley
Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences
Western College of Veterinary Medicine
Cattle producers normally think of “weaning” as the time of the year when cows
and calves are separated and when the chorus of bellowing and bawling begins. It
represents a time of obvious stress to the cows and calves and may even add a couple of
sleepless nights to the local residents. To the cow-calf producer, weaning time seems
almost “natural” in the sense that it is a chore that must be done and the results and chaos
that follow seem unavoidable. What we tend to forget is that the traditional way in which
we wean our livestock is very far from the natural process. It is this deviation from the
natural process that causes undue stress.
The title of this article implies there are alternatives to the “traditional” strategy
for weaning calves and they may offer improvements. It also implies that some work has
been done recently that deserves some mention. In this paper we intend to review our
knowledge of the weaning process, discuss the stressors associated with weaning and
identify the latest weaning methods that may help alleviate some of the stress.
The natural weaning process
: Most birds and all mammalian species are born dependent
upon one or both of their parents for protection and nourishment. For mammals, a major
part of the nourishment comes in the form of rich milk and it enables the young to grow
and develop at a rate superior to the growth they could obtain on strictly an adult diet.
However, as a mammal grows and matures there comes a point when its dependency
upon the milk for survival ends and the supply of milk from the mother ceases. The
young mammal is then said to be weaned. Even among wild mammals this event is
marked with some conflict between the mother and the offspring.
In biology there is a well established and accepted theory of parent-offspring
conflict. It refers to the selfish nature of all young to beg to try to extend parental care
beyond the point needed for survival, balanced against the mother or parent’s interest of
shifting their current investment towards future offspring. However, the fact that the
conflict occurs does not necessarily mean the event is extremely stressful for either party.
The young are simply programmed to beg and solicit food for as long as the parents will
oblige and the parents are programmed to recognize the point at which the young can
successfully survive on their own. In a sense mammals evolved to accept that at some
point they will be denied milk from the parent. Weaning is indeed a natural process which
both the parents and offspring are preconditioned to accept with a minimum amount of