Elk Weaning

Bring up the subject of weaning to a group of elk or red deer farmers, and you’ll get a lot of different opinions. That’s partly because we are still fairly new at intensively managing these animals in a farmed environment and partly because management philosophies vary between different styles of elk farms.

There are several reasons to consider weaning before the rut, i.e., in late August or early September. These include:

  • Removal of the need to lactate reduces the nutritional requirements for the cow, and she can then devote more feed resources to improving her body condition. This should also allow earlier conception and easier wintering of the cow.
  • Calves are growing rapidly in the fall. Separating them from the cows allows them to be fed exceptionally good feed without competition for that feed from their mothers and away from the stress associated with a bull’s rutting activities.
  • Artificial Insemination (AI) programs require several sessions of handling the cows. This is much easier and safer to do if their calves have been separated from them.
  • Handling at weaning time allows the farm manager to vaccinate, deworm, treat for ticks and weigh the calves. The dams of the calves with the best weaning weights can be identified and selectively bred to the best bulls, either naturally or by AI.
  • Weaned calves (weaners) can be handled again in thirty days for their second Chlostridial vaccination, another deworming and deticking and weighing to monitor their growth rates. This is much simpler without their mothers and the breeding bull.
  • The suckling of a calf stimulates release of prolactin, a hormone that has a negative effect on the release of hormones governing the estrus cycle. Removal of the calf may stimulate earlier cycling and breeding activity, but observations of wild elk suggest that this effect may not be particularly powerful.

The most important reason not to wean before the rut is the stress associated with the process. Detailed research projects have documented that calves, cows and farm managers may be highly stressed by the process of weaning. Both cows and calves pace, call out to each other, and generally remain unsettled for several days following separation. This is particularly so with abrupt procedures that generally involve running cows and calves into the handling facilities, returning the calves to the pasture from whence they came, and moving the cows to the furthest pasture away from the calves. Although this is a relatively simple and efficient process, and research has shown that the calves continue to gain weight at the same rates as with other weaning procedures, there are two other procedures that work very well and that are more humane for all involved.

The first more gentle alternative is “fenceline” weaning. In this procedure, the cows and calves are separated and returned to adjacent pastures, with only a fenceline between. This allows much socialization behaviour to continue, including vocalization, nose to nose contact, and lying together. It does require a well-built and maintained fenceline and gates, to ensure that neither the fences nor the livestock are damaged.

The second alternative is “soft” weaning, which involves the removal of about ten percent of the cows each day for ten days. This allows a gradual change to the social structure of the group, and allows access to the comforting presence of at least some of the cow herd.

No matter which procedure is followed, there is always some stress associated with weaning.

A good farm manager will prepare to minimize this stress by using one of the gentler techniques mentioned, and by following these procedures:

  • Begin feeding supplements to the cows and calves in mid – August. Oats and specially formulated pellets or cubes are a good choice. Start feeding at about half a pound per head per day, and increase by half a pound per head each day that the herd cleans up (in a short time, say half an hour) all that is offered. The calves will start nibbling grain at about 60 days of age. Be sure that you spread out the feed enough to allow each animal an opportunity to eat.
  • Prepare a pasture for the calves by seeding and fertilizing to produce a lush growth, and rest the pasture from grazing for the month of August. Fall rye or annual ryegrass planted in July makes a perfect autumn pasture for weaners. Try to have this pasture located near your house and yard so you can observe the calves easily. Newly weaned calves are more susceptible to attack by predators or disease, so you need to monitor them more closely.
  • Avoid weaning when the weather forecast for the next few days suggests cool, rainy or windy weather. Calves have low fat reserves, and their baby coats do not provide good insulation until the winter coat grows in. The stress of weaning predisposes calves to diseases, and this is magnified by poor weather.

The most common problems encountered in newly weaned calves are injuries due to poor handling, inadequate nutrition and Yersiniosis. All three of these are “management diseases” (i.e.) they are caused by poor management, and the course of prevention is good management:

  • Be sure that your handling facilities are in good working order, and that you are prepared to handle smaller animals. If you have a quiet older cow, put her in with the calves for the first week or two to give them a leader to follow.
  • If you have followed the procedures mentioned above, the calves will be on high-quality (young, tender, rapidly growing – YTRG) pasture, and they will be eating their fill of oats and supplement pellets, preferably fed to them twice or even more often per day. Feeding several times a day increases voluntary feed intake (VFI) and familiarizes the calves with your presence, making them much easier to handle in later life.
  • Yersiniosis is caused by bacteria that are present in the farm environment at all times. Healthy stock can resist the bacteria, but stress, poor nutrition, social instability and/or bad weather can drag down an animal’s immune system and allow an invasion of the Yersinia bacteria to occur. Affected calves hang back from the herd, appear depressed, listless, uncomfortable and typically show signs of very watery greenish scouring which will also turn bloody. Treatment must be immediate, and involve fluid replacement therapy and treatment of the affected calf and the entire group with tetracyclines. Consult your veterinarian immediately, as there are other diseases or problems that may affect weakened calves.

Should you wean early or not? In some situations, you may be better to let nature take its course. Elk and red deer mothers will slowly cease milk production as autumn turns to winter. Their calves stay with them, and the females will remain together for life as a matriarchal social group, if they are allowed to do so. If you have a small herd, for instance less than 12 calves, they will be more uncomfortable on their own than if the herd is larger and has an older, experienced leader. If 90% of your cows all calve in late May and early June, then you aren’t having problems with early and adequate conception. Top quality nutrition can compensate for not weaning early, unless you see advantages in the points listed above.

So, there are most of the considerations regarding weaning. Now, you have to decide which procedures suit your management style and on – farm resources the best. Good luck!

Source: Ian Thorleifson