Any time I have a group of farmers visiting the farm, my weaning policy usually creates a lot of discussion, and also some raised eyebrows.
My thinking is that after six months of lactation, and with the quality of grass on the fail, there is little point in keeping the calves with the suckler cows.
Lots of visitors disagree with this approach. They are usually of the opinion that it would be wasteful to have the suckler cow dry (or not working) for five to six months. A lot of farmers will keep the calf sucking away at the cow until she is about six weeks out from calving, which will help keep condition score down in the cow and ensure less problems when giving birth next spring.
Then you have those people who think that you will have a better calf if it sucks away at the cow for 10 or 11 months.
However, I have found it very easy to dispel these two myths.
Having the cow on her own makes it very easy to control her condition score. All you have to do is restrict the amount and quality of feed (if you have good-quality silage, just feed less of it). By doing this, you can save on the amount of silage required for the winter.
As for the calf being on its own, weaning early makes it very easy to give it the best quality silage or grass that you have available, and add in some meal if it is required.
It’s a win-win situation, but I have another reason for weaning at this stage.
Here in Fermanagh, the ground conditions can deteriorate very quickly in the autumn and the suckler cows can become very discontented. They can start tramping about and doing a lot of damage to the ground.
I have worked hard at improving my land and it breaks my heart to see the way that suckler cows can literally take it apart.
Weaning now means that I can house the cows and leave the calves outside grazing for another few months. This helps extend the grazing season without ruining the ground.
This year has been exceptional in this area, and I have been able to delay weaning until the end of September. Some years I have had to wean at the end of August.
However, for this to work, I must have most of the calves born in March as those later born calves end up being weaned too young and too small. My preferred method is the Quietwean nose flaps. It is all very straightforward – the nose flaps go into the calves on a Monday and the cows are removed from the batch on the Saturday.
The cows fill up a little with milk and rise a bit of noise, but the calves remain settled. Then when the cows are removed, the calves don’t miss them.
I have been at this for four years now and I find it the least stressful way of weaning calves.
I take the cows to the house and feed them hay or poor-quality silage until I open the silage pit, and then they are onto a restricted diet depending on my silage analysis.
The calves stay on the paddocks they were on and I introduce meal. At this stage, I have already separated male and female calves so I can feed the male calves a little extra.
The male calves will usually be housed towards the end of October (weather depending), with the heifers normally staying out into November.
The other important management task pre-weaning is to make sure the calves are fully up-to-date with worm dosing. I also vaccinate for IBR and pneumonia.
This year has been ideal, as most of my calves were born in early March and with the good weather, I have been able to delay weaning for a couple of weeks. Hopefully ground conditions hold for another month or so.