Weaning support from man's best friend
02 December 2016
An MLA-funded on-farm demonstration has found the determining factor in the success of any cattle weaning technique is maximum human and dog contact with the stock.
Martin Dunstan, Farming Systems Demonstration Project Leader at Agriculture Victoria, managed the demonstration and said six farms took part, with each trialling two of the three weaning methods being assessed – paddock weaning, yard weaning and advanced training.
“By preparing weaners well we can reduce the incidence of dark cutting due to high stress levels, minimise bruising during handling or loading, increase weight gains, reduce the need for repairs to cattle infrastructure and improve on-farm safety for stock managers," Martin said.
Advanced training, taught in this demonstration by stock training consultant Neil McDonald, is similar to yard weaning but involves more hours of human and dog contact, including familiarisation sessions with the stockyards, going into the race, through the crush and into small holding yards and being moved between small paddocks.
Dogs for weaning
Trained dogs were used to educate the calves in the weaning trial using simple pressure-relief training principles.
The calves were taught to accept pressure from the dogs, learning that as they moved towards the handler, relief would be provided (the dogs would be told to sit and keep their distance).
If cattle moved away from the handler or tried to break from the mob, dog pressure would be re-applied, and then removed again as soon as the calves submitted.
Systematic weaning process yields results
It only took about half an hour of watching Neil McDonald demonstrate advanced training techniques with weaning their cattle to convince the Ross and Madeleine Batten that good working dogs were just what they needed. They run 500 breeders producing offspring for the feedlot market on 450ha at Buffalo, south-east of Leongatha in Victoria's south Gippsland region.
“It was an epiphany really,” Ross said.
“During the weaner trial we got to compare how our cattle performed under two different weaning regimes – our yard weaning method compared to the advanced training technique using dogs.
“After all these years of ad hoc approaches to weaning and unclear advice from industry, here was a systematic process that made sense and produced the desired result.”
At the end of the weaner trial, the advanced-trained mob and the yard-weaned mob were both about 13kg lighter than at the start of weaning and the advanced training mob had a slightly slower flight speed. However, Ross felt the figures didn’t accurately tell the story.
“I think there are often external influences that make flight speed measurements unreliable and they can’t be extrapolated across properties,” he said.
Ross traditionally put weaners in a yard for about 10 days on water and hay with limited interaction from him and the working dogs.
“They ate a lot of hay but they still weren’t quiet,” he said.
“The end result of the trial was that the advanced training mob was considerably quieter than the yard-weaned mob. By applying the advanced training technique with weaners each year since, my herd’s docility has vastly improved.”
Ross believes their initial investment and the cost of continued maintenance of their dog team are more than compensated in the labour savings this approach to stock work achieves.
“We rotationally graze and move large mobs of cattle every three days,” he said.
“It used to take two or three people to do that each time.
“Now, except for when I’m moving cows and calves, I just need the dogs.
“I’m hoping in a couple of years I’ll be able to use dogs on our cows and calves as well.”
Ross Batten E: email@example.com
Martin Dunstan T: 03 5561 9903 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on weaning techniques visit MLA’s More Beef from Pastures Manual at www.mbfp.mla.com.au/Weaner-throughput
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