Early weaning can have advantages
Sometimes weaning calves earlier than your usual weaning date can be beneficial for both the cows and calves, especially on a dry year when forage resources are short, and if you can plan ahead and be set up to do it properly.
David Bohnert, beef Extension specialist and ruminant nutritionist for Oregon State University (Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, Burns, Ore.) said ranchers who use public lands generally do not like to wean early because it means an extra gather off their allotments, turning the cows back out after taking the calves off them. “However, we know we can improve cow body condition score by weaning calves young, especially when pastures are dry and short. Our studies show that cows will go into winter at least one body condition score higher than if you leave calves on them until fall.” This is better for the cow, for next year’s calf crop and breed-back.
“When cows are in better shape, this means less feed is needed, to get them to an optimum level. Maintaining them through winter is a lot easier than trying to increase their body condition during cold weather,” he said.
“When you pull her calf off, you are probably reducing the cow’s nutrient requirements by about 40% if she is no longer lactating. According to the research I’ve seen, depending on the calf’s age and size, you can expect a decrease in forage intake somewhere between 10% and 60% by early weaning compared with traditional weaning. This would extend the time you could be on the range with the cows,” he said.
If ranchers have to keep their cows at home because they can’t go to the range (if their allotment must be rested after a fire, for instance), they may have to graze hay meadows, which means a short hay crop or buying hay. Many people are looking at ways they can stretch forage supplies, which may mean early weaning.
Dr. Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University, said another circumstance where early weaning can be used to advantage is with calves from first-calf heifers. “In addition to the lactation demand, we have a 2-year-old that is still trying to grow and reach mature size. Even in a non-drought situation, it can help these young cows if you don’t leave the calves on them too long. You free up more nutrients to complete growth and have a healthy pregnancy.”
Lardy always recommends that producers do some planning if they decide to early wean. “You need to figure out how you want to do it and make sure you have facilities in place, feed for the calves, and work with your veterinarian to make sure you have the proper animal health program for those early weaned calves,” he said.
HANDLING THE CALVES
“This may be a new experience for some people. If you plan to wean a young calf, it needs high-quality forage or grain,” Bohnert said.
“If you can get a high concentrate ration into those calves, they can do very well. Data on this type of feeding shows that you will increase the marbling in those carcasses, and those young calves are more efficient in handling grain than forages.” If the calves will end up in a feedlot, they can do very well. If any will be kept as replacements, however, that’s a different story. Heifers destined to be cows need to develop their rumens more fully for efficient forage utilization later in life.
“One thing to remember when working with really lightweight calves is that facilities you built to handle 500-600 pound calves when you wean them in October aren’t going to work as well for a 250-pound calf weaned in July,” Lardy said. Those small calves can find the tiniest hole in the fence and crawl out. They may also have problems reaching over the bunk to eat, or reaching the water in a tank. Make sure you think through some of these things and adjust the facilities.
You may also have to deal with heat stress at that time of year. “With early weaning, especially in a drought, you are almost always dealing with hot, dry weather — higher temperatures than normal. Heat stress can be factor to take into account when weaning and handling calves, and when working the cows,” Lardy said.
You might need to provide shade for those calves, instead of protection from fall and winter storms. “If you get into earlier weaning, make sure you can protect calves from heat. Having plenty of fresh water is very important, and some calves have no experience drinking from tanks or fountains. They may have been drinking from a dugout, pond or stream,” he said.
It pays to put the cows and calves into the weaning pen or pasture ahead of time, so the cows can show the calves where the feed and water is. Some people also have success with a trainer/babysitter cow, or an older feeder calf as a role model. The older animal can teach the young ones, and also be security for them, in a leader/follower role. That animal can have a calming influence on younger calves.
“It’s important to work with a veterinarian to make sure you have a good vaccination program in place that will work for early-weaned calves. You need to plan this, but sometimes a person gets into a situation where you need to take emergency action. If your pastures had fire damage and you lost a lot of forage, you may not have time to do much planning,” Lardy said.
WEIGHING THE OPTIONS
“If you early wean and are looking at that calf as a feedlot animal, it’s better to feed the calf what it needs, versus trying to feed the cow to feed her calf through the milk,” Bohnert said. That’s not as efficient as feeding the calf directly. The other option is to just market the calves after you take them off the cow to wean at 300 to 400 pounds.
Early weaning does increase your marketing flexibility. “You have light calves you can sell now, or you can feed them awhile and get them into a growing lot where you can finish them, or just feed them for a little bit and then winter them to sell as yearlings next spring.” Depending on your situation, location and feed resources, one of these options might work.
You might be able to find a food processing byproduct for the calves, such as beet pulp, onions or vegetable wastes. “Early weaning will decrease the amount of feed that you need to buy,” Bohnert said.
If you have facilities for weaning young calves, it may pay to keep and feed them awhile. Then you can figure out the best time to market them. Feeder calf prices vary through the year, and calves are worth more when there’s a shortage. “Historically light calves bring good money during summer, but this depends on pasture availability, whether its California range pastures or Midwest wheat fields. If the calves are really young, however, they are not ready for pasture. If you early-wean, you almost have to put them on grain to get them to a bigger size first.”
A few feedlots are set up for early weaned, very young calves, and have done well with them, but calf health can be an issue. “Even if you vaccinate them, young calves don’t always mount good immunity. This is why it is a challenge sending young ones to a feedlot, because they tend to have a little more sickness and health costs, and more death loss,” Bohnert said.
You must evaluate your own resources, but early weaning can add to your options. If it’s a choice between early weaning and trying to buy expensive (or non-existent) hay for cow/calf pairs, you might be better off to sell your calves, even at less money than usual, and get rid of them.
“Some of the work we did here was with calves weaned the first of August versus mid to late October. We saved one body condition score on the cows doing that. The cows that were traditional-weaned were at body condition 4 versus the early-weaned group that maintained their body condition at 5 — which is pretty close to where we want them. To get those condition score 4 cows back up to a 5 took about $30 per head (and this was some years ago when feed was less expensive). On average, early weaning will decrease feed costs by about 18%. You can generally decrease winter feed costs 15 to 20% by early weaning,” Bohnert said.
You may not get as much money for your calves if you sell them younger, but it may save enough in winter feed costs to pencil out. “You have lighter calves, but if you don’t have feed, what else can you do? A person has to think outside the box and stretch forage supplies with grain, or some alternative feed source.”
On a year where pastures may be short, early weaning is an option to consider. “Without a calf at side, a mature cow that was raised in her environment and adapted to it, can usually maintain body weight. Historically, our cows have gotten bigger,” he said. They’ve been selected for larger body frame and also more milk production, and don’t do very well in harsh conditions if they are still lactating.
“This is why on most ranches early weaning during a drought can really help. In just 80 or 90 days without good pasture, these cows may lose a whole body condition score because you left the calves on them. Depending on the range situation and cow size, this means you need to put 100 to 150 pounds back on that cow before she calves again next spring,” he said. ❖
— Smith Thomas is a cattle rancher, horseman, freelance writer and book author, ranching with her husband near Salmon, Idaho. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.