Calves are optimally weaned from between four to six months after birth. If this does not happen, a calf will suckle until deep into its first year, negatively affecting the condition and fertility of the cow. Farmers with large properties accomplish the separation simply by moving weaners to camps away from their dams.
This is not an option for small scale farmers. They might then sell calves out of hand after weaning with the downside that the animals have not yet put on weight and fetch a poor price. Alternatively, they resort to nose-rings or isolate calves in kraals for weeks on end. These are stressful, drawn-out and visually cruel processes for both generations of animal.
There is another method. Through trial and error with Nguni weaners, we adopted a plan that works well on smaller properties. Using this technique, calves are effectively weaned with minimal expense and in a manner that is far less stressful for all the animals.
There is some support for this practice also in the United States.
The technique is called fence-line weaning. As the name suggests, weaners are placed in a separate camp or pen separated from the cows only by a fence. The fencing needs to be sturdier than normal with an extra standard and dropper here or there.
The partitioning of the three bottom strands of wire must be no more than 100mm to prevent suckling, preferably barbed wire. For every meter of fence there should also be three or four vertical loops of restraining wire to prevent horizontal strands from being nudged apart. Mesh may also be added. This is a one-time outlay.
Notwithstanding the fence, cows and calves still have nose-to-nose contact. Although there is a good deal of bellowing in the first few days, as with normal weaning techniques, cow and calf settle down to grazing and sleeping side by side until weaning is complete after about seven days. It is still too soon to reintroduce any heifers to the herd as suckling may resume. It takes about two months for weaning to be secure and it is best done once the cow has again been covered.
The weaning camp does not have to be that big. It should have its own water and preferably grazing. At any given time, we have had a maximum of seven weaners and with a bit of extra feed for the calves. They very quickly improve their condition in a three-hectare enclosure. The hand feeding also helps calm them down.
With births staggered throughout the year, we also like to have heifers of different ages keeping each other company in the calf camp. This is in fact an essential element of fence-line weaning which works with the inherently social instincts of cattle. Keeping a pregnant cow in with the weaners for the first two weeks of separation also considerably reduces the stress and drama of weaning. Also useful is allowing cow and calf to first occupy and explore the calf-camp together for a few days before herding the cow out.
This can be a delicate operation best done in the early morning so that there is some daylight after separation. The farmer may monitor how the calve and cow are taking it, and so that both get used to the reality of the fence between them when it is light.
We wean at around four months. For us, fence-line weaning is not suitable for weaners over six months as they make an effort to scramble through the fence. Weaners that are too heavy or strong, especially young bullocks, can upset the best laid poles. If one of them does break out to return to the cow, it will not easily be restrained by any fence again and should probably be sold immediately.
In the United States, fence line weaning is increasingly popular among small landholders. It is made easier with electric fences, which most farmers in South Africa would lack. However, the smaller size of Nguni cattle makes conventional fencing, reinforced with extra strands, droppers and standards, a suitable barrier that might well not be the case for bigger breeds.
Our experience with fence line weaning of Nguni cattle is very positive. It’s a great way for farmers on smaller properties to effectively wean calves with the least amount of stress and cruelty for the cattle.