It may be hard to believe but something as simple as a humble nose flap on a calf can turn a very stressful event — weaning — into a manageable process. That matters, because stress can have significant negative impacts on a calf and impacts the animal’s ability to adjust to new feed and new surroundings, and leaves them susceptible to sickness.
It wasn’t that long ago that weaning was largely planned as an abrupt event: separate calf and cow and get them as far away from each other as possible. Sure, both animals do adapt within a few days of bawling and pacing, but the stress inflicted over those days is actually worse for the calf compared to painful procedures such as castrating or dehorning.
We know this because of work done by animal behaviour scientist, like Dr. Joe Stookey, professor emeritus from the University of Saskatchewan.
As Stookey explains in the audio below, research first looked at fence line weaning, where calves and cows we sorted in to adjacent pens where they could still see and hear each other, but the calves couldn’t nurse. That definitely decreased stress and vocalization, which made researchers wonder if the stress was really about the lack of nursing or the lack of contact with the cow. (more below)
From there, the move to nose-flaps and two-stage weaning made sense. As Stookey says, nose flaps for a few days simply prevent the calf from nursing, but leave the cow and calf in the same setting and with each other.
When checking on pairs, Stookey says that by a few days in calves would be off on their own naturally, and separation and movement became much less stressful.
The return on investment is pretty evident, as a calf that is less stressed gets on to feed much more quickly, Stookey says, and requires fewer treatments for illnesses. What’s more, the nose flap costs only a few dollars and is reusable after a quick clean. There is the time it takes to put the nose flaps on and remove, but they are often put in during vaccinating or some other processing anyway. He does caution that leaving them on too long, say until the vaccine booster timing, can be an issue, as some calves will lose the flaps or learn to wiggle them out of the way to nurse.