Homesteading, Organic Gardening, How to Farm, Preparedness, Self-Reliance
If you raise animals you will inevitably be faced with the decision to wean or not to wean. Weaning is something that has been manipulated by domestication for so long that it has become sort of complicated. In the wild there is no one telling the young fawn that it needs to separate from it's mother other than the natural instinct that both mother and baby have telling them to get on with their lives. Neither one puts up a fuss and weaning ALWAYS takes place. When people began putting animals in a protected environment and raising them on their own schedules rather than Nature's then we interfered with this instinct. We also began selecting breeders for traits that fit our desires, such as weight gain or docility. Inadvertently, this tunnel vision caused us to overlook some of the traits that Nature deems desirable. We didn't remember to also include in our selection criteria that we needed breeding mothers who were good at caring for their young, but also good at weaning them at an appropriate time. The result is that weaning can be a controversial and torturous time for all.
Over the years we have tried lots of angles. Sometimes one thing that worked for one mother/baby pair failed miserably for another pair. Through it all we kept one thing in mind - select for animals that work with us in our environment! It takes years to get your breeding stock to be dependable and to find mothers that fit your farming style, but always keeping this as one of your criteria will help to get you there sooner. Here are some of the things we have tried and the results we have gotten...
First, we tried not weaning. We figured that the animals in the wild know how to wean themselves, so maybe our animals had a shred of that natural instinct left. For some animals it worked fine. Sure, we had 10 month old calves that were still nursing when most farmers wean their calves at 6 months, but we figured if the mother cow didn't like it or couldn't produce enough milk for her young, then she would kick them off. And by the way, this is actually how Nature weans. A good mother will know when the baby is ready and will literally kick, head butt, and simply avoid the baby in order to make them stop nursing. We even have a donkey who will turn her head back as the baby is nursing and bite them in the rump to make them stop! We found that our cow's instincts were to let the calves nurse longer than mankind would have, but we figured they had a reason. The trouble from mankind's perspective is that the mother cow requires more feed (grass or grain) in order to keep her body condition up while producing milk. If her condition fails then she won't breed back as quickly thereby interfering with the farmer's breeding schedule. Well, we decided to try things at a slower pace and let the cows make their schedule. We found that we had a lot of unbred cows at the end of the season. Darn! The real trouble however was when we left the weaning to the cows and one mother decided that she didn't want to wean her calf - ever. She actually did breed back, but when it came time for the next baby to be born, she was still nursing her year old baby from the last breeding. We thought for sure this would cause her to wean him, but he was, of course, much stronger than the new calf and would push it out of the way and not let it near it's mother. The mother accepted this and would walk away from the calf and let the yearling nurse. No matter what we did, we couldn't force the mother and new calf to bond and ended up bottle feeding this calf...and processing this cow!
We also tried hard weaning lambs. When the lambs were 3 months old, strong and healthy, and eating lots of grass we decided that it was time to wean them. It really looked ridiculous to see a lamb almost as tall as it's mother bending down on it's knees to nurse! It also looked to us like it really hurt the ewes because the lambs would head butt their udders so hard that it would take the ewes back feet right off the ground! We couldn't understand why they put up with it, but most of them did. So one day we used portable electric fencing to divide the paddock of sheep in half with the intention of separating the lambs on one side and the ewes on the other. Attached to that paddock we ran a chute of more portable electric fencing which we thought we could use to drive the newly separated lambs out of the paddock and down to a far away paddock where they could be by themselves. Well, our perfect plan turned into a disastrous day where we ran around like crazy in the hot sun chasing sheep every which direction that would stop at nothing to get back together. Certainly portable fencing was no barrier to a mother protecting her baby! After hours of this we decided we were exhausted and the sheep were very stressed out, so we changed plans. The next day we drove the cattle trailer out to the pasture, loaded up all of the sheep and then got on with them sending out one ewe at a time until only the lambs were left on the trailer. This also was not an easy task, but at least it worked. We drove the lambs to a far away paddock and released them thinking our job was done. The next morning we woke to sheep everywhere! In the night they called to each other and busted out of their paddocks to get back together. We decided right then that the ewes that remained in the paddock and did not break out where our future breeders and the rest had to go!
So after trial and error we have decided that there are times when we wean and times that we don't. We have learned which animals we can depend on and which ones we have to watch. We have also learned that weaning is very stressful for everyone and so we take a calmer approach whenever possible through something called "line of sight weaning." This is were you slowly separate the animals with some sort of physical barrier, but still allow them to be next to each other. For example, we move the sheep to a paddock that has permanent perimeter fencing, then one by one and as calmly as possible, catch one lamb at a time and put them on the outside of the fence. This way the mother and baby can still see each other and even rub noses, but the lamb cannot nurse. After a few days the lambs become used to being separate and we can usually move the lambs to a far away paddock and not risk them breaking back out. There is a lot of balling and calling for those few days as the lambs cry to be back with their mothers, but it is more out of habit at this point rather than requiring nourishment. Weaning is always an adventure no matter how many times a farmer has done it!
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