Anti-suckling devices such as nose rings or nose flaps are designed to wean calves off milk by preventing access to the cow’s udder while the cow and calf are still together. A nose ring is a metal or plastic ring with spiked extensions. The nose ring clamps onto (rather than pierces) the septum. The spikes are painful to the cow’s udder when the calf tries to suckle and causes the cow to kick or move away from the calf. Other anti-suckling devices include plastic nose flaps which are clamped to the septum and hang down over the calf’s mouth thus preventing suckling.
Young calves have an innate need to suckle and experience frustration if they are prevented from suckling particularly while in the presence of their mother. Anti-suckling devices such as those with spiked extensions cause pain to the cow and have the potential to damage the udder. Calves fitted with these nose rings are also in real danger of being kicked by the cow.
Abrupt separation of the cow and calf is a common way to wean calves. Using an anti-suckling device allows the calf to stay with their mother and be weaned off milk prior to separation. These calves are less distressed than calves weaned abruptly, however, the method is not ideal from an animal welfare perspective.
In beef cattle, where calves are separated from their mothers at 8-10 months of age, the least stressful method is ‘yard weaning’ where calves are given good-quality feed in a yard, while their mothers graze in an adjoining paddock and, a few days later, are moved further away. Calves are well fed and become familiar with yards, feeding routines, handling and people and establish social bonds with their pen mates.
In dairy cattle, where calves are often separated from their mothers at birth, a more gradual separation process whereby the calf is prevented from suckling but still has (some) physical contact with the mother should be considered. If the dairy calf is given adequate and good quality feed, as has been shown with beef cattle, this allows separation of the cow and calf after several days with little distress. It appears that if calves are provided with an alternative source of milk while still with their dam – and therefore not nutritionally dependent on the dam – separation distress can be reduced.
For both dairy and beef calves, fence weaning (where the cow and calf can see each other) can be effective. Dairy calves continue to be fed milk (as well as having access to pasture and/or solid ration) and beef calves are fed a ration to ensure they are not hungry. Both cows and calves are less stressed with fence weaning compared to abrupt weaning methods evidence by less walking and less calling.
Weaning practices should aim to avoid any separation distress for both cow and calf and allow more natural behaviours to be expressed.