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A Touching Separation

Highland cattle

Written By

Caroline Abels

Written on

November 25 , 2015

For the past eight years, calves at Greenfield Highland Beef in Greensboro and Plainfield have been permanently separated from their mothers through the process of “nose-to-nose weaning,” or “fenceline weaning.” Rather than be removed abruptly from each other, cow and calf are allowed to spend the weaning period on opposite sides of a slatted metal gate, allowing them to touch noses and smell each other before the cow invariably loses interest in her calf and the calf is comfortable on its own.

It’s a process that farm owners Janet Steward and Ray Shatney say is more humane for both calf and cow. They’ve also noticed that calves weaned in this way are bigger and healthier. Here’s how it works:

Highland calves

After seven months of being together on pasture, the calf and its mother are taken into the barnyard, where they are kept on opposite sides of a slatted metal gate. Approximately eight or nine calf-cow pairs live in the barnyard at a time. The weaning process usually takes place in the late fall or early winter, since nearly all of Greenfield Highland’s calves (about 40 new ones a year) are born in the spring.

Ray Shatney with cow

The mother cows are let onto pasture every day, but they’ll come down to the barnyard and check on their offspring three to four times a day. After the initial physical separation, the mothers do engage in the kind of bellowing that’s typical during weaning, but Janet says it’s over sooner than in conventional weaning, when cows and calves are not allowed to see each other and mothers tend to wander extensively, looking for their calf. Ray Shatney pictured.

Highland cow with calf

After 10 days or so, the mothers’ milk production begins to stop and the cows no longer actively come to visit their calves. When the calves no longer call for their mothers and are eating comfortably, they are moved onto a different pasture from their mothers. “We started fenceline weaning more as a humane decision,” Janet says, “but then we began to notice that the calves don’t lose as much weight.” She says the calves are less stressed and eat more than during conventional weaning.

It’s not clear how many other farms in Vermont practice nose-to-nose weaning, or if it’s practiced with farm animal species other than cattle. Janet learned about it at a workshop given by the American Highland Cattle Association. And Ray recalls an incident many years ago that inspired him to adopt the process: “I came home one time, had a calf in the barn down by the road, and its mother was in the middle of Route 16, trying to find it. After that we decided we didn’t want to wean ‘em on Route 16.”

—Text and photos by Caroline Abels, editor,
Vermont’s Local Banquet

About the Author

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels is the editor of Local Banquet and the founder-editor of Humaneitarian.org, a website that inspires people to buy and eat humanely raised meat.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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