Mr Laurie, who runs a 500-head breeder operation on 2600 ha “Rawdon Vale”, west of Gloucester, had to abandon his usual yard weaning routine as drought prevented him from making hay and he didn’t have enough paddocks for cow-calf separation.
Hunting for options, he bought Easywean nose rings, which offer a “soft” weaning by preventing calves from suckling their mothers.
“My feeling up until then was that they were something only hobby farmers used,” Mr Laurie recalls.
He took the plunge and bought a batch of about 400 rings for that year’s calves. Those rings are still in use.
“The unexpected benefit of the rings is that the calves are as quiet as they can be,” Mr Laurie said.
“They’re much quieter than they would be even in the yard weaning system, which is hard to grasp, because in the yards you’re getting in amongst them and feeding them. I’m not sure why — maybe it’s the complete lack of stress?”
Mr Laurie hasn’t done a weight gain/loss comparison between the Easywean system and yard weaning, but his practiced observation is that the difference is negligible.
“You don’t get the weight loss that you initially get in a yard weaning system, but you’re not feeding the calves up either, so I can’t see that there’s much difference in weight gain between the two systems.”
A criticism often levelled against weaning rings, that they are labour-intensive because calves have to be caught in a crush to install the ring, and caught again to remove it, “is not our experience at all,” Mr Laurie said.
That’s helped by the fact that “Rawdon Vale” has a yard system built along principles designed by legendary US livestock behaviourist Bud Williams.
The race works so well that Mr Laurie doesn’t bother to segregate cows and calves before running them through the crush to apply or remove nose rings.
Despite the ferocious appearance of the Easywean’s punk spikes, Mr Laurie doesn’t think the spikes do much jabbing.
“It looks to me that they mostly move the teat out of the way so the calf can’t get at it,” he said.
“The calf will sometimes still get a bit of milk, but its such hard work for the calf and the cow that the calf increasingly moves to grass. That means that the weaning process isn’t drastic. It’s a steady breaking apart of of the cow-calf relationship.”
After three years, Mr Laurie is still using his original batch of rings. He estimates annual losses at around two per cent, “about the same as NLIS tags”.
“Sometimes I have calves come through that haven’t been weaned, but I don’t stress about them — they just have to do it their own way.”
“They will pine a bit, but all their mates are over it, so they quickly accept the attitude of the mob.”
“There is also an incredible difference with the cows. They don’t have any of the stress that you normally associate with weaning.”
The Easywean concept grew out of weaning practices developed in fenceless African villages, where physical separation is impossible. Instead, Africans use a range of ingenious devices for preventing calves from suckling their dams.
Mr Laurie’s experience is that the African method translates well to Australian conditions.
“We’re not going back to yard weaning,” he said. “The rings have taken away a lot of the financial and labour cost of weaning, and pretty much eliminated any animal health issues.”
“And since we started, we haven’t had to make hay.”