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3 key reasons to consider early weaning

Contributed by Jill Peine Published on 23 March 2022
Calves in a pasture

The time in which calves are weaned is typically based on their age or weight or because “that is when it has always been done.”

While the majority of cattle producers in the U.S. and Canada wean calves at around 205 days old, or 7 months, situations may arise in which weaning calves early may be beneficial for the condition of the cow herd, the pasture or forage availability and marketing opportunities. We will walk through several reasons why weaning calves early could be beneficial – but first, let’s define what “early” means.

What is early weaning?

The term “early weaning” can be used quite loosely. University research studying the impacts of weaning beef calves early shows that it has been done successfully as early as 6 to 8 weeks old, although this is not recommended for all producers under standard practices unless doing so is deemed necessary. Around 40 days old could be a minimum for early weaning when calves don’t require milk replacers and are old enough to consume dry feed. If the cows are already too thin to rebreed or if drought conditions make it essential to provide large amounts of forage to maintain the cow herd, pulling these young calves may be necessary but is usually considered a last resort.

Studies at Oklahoma State University show that calves weaned early, at 6 to 8 weeks old, can be efficiently raised to a normal weaning weight. Research looking specifically at very thin first-calf heifers saw increased conception rates, from 50% in normal weaning to 97% in early weaned calves, and a shortened time to first estrus by 17 days. Mature cows in this same study were determined to be in moderate condition. All early weaned cows rebred, while 81% of normally weaned cows rebred. If the main objective for weaning calves early is to achieve high conception rates in cows too thin to rebreed otherwise, strategic timing may be necessary to maintain an optimal calving interval and keep cows from falling behind.

The biggest issue with weaning calves this early is often the ability to provide a facility to raise young calves, which may not be practical in some conditions. Another issue that can create added costs is having the feeds to manage them, especially since calves under 3 months old have high nutrient requirements. When making these decisions, producers should work with their veterinarian for optimal calf health and a nutritionist to achieve optimal nutrition.

Calves in the 4- to 6-month age window may be more practical to manage or sell immediately following early weaning. During the latter part of the summer, this may be something for producers to consider if they find themselves short on grass due to the weather or stocking rates. The decision to wean early can help lessen the impact of forage shortages, thanks to reduced intake, and can benefit the cow by reducing her nutrient demands for lactation, permitting more time for the cow to regain body condition.

Why wean early?

1. Cow body condition score (BCS)

One of the most common objectives of early weaning is to reduce the nutritional requirements of the cow. Weaning early gives her the opportunity to gain condition economically when requirements are reduced, after lactation but prior to the last trimester of the subsequent pregnancy. Early weaning calves from 2-year-old, first-calf heifers reduces the stress of raising a calf, which may lead to these females being in better body condition at the next calving. This should result in cows that cycle and breed back earlier in the breeding season, improving their longevity in the herd.

It takes, on average, 80 to 100 pounds of weight gain for a 1-point increase in BCS. Some of the key times when body condition should be monitored are at weaning, 60 to 90 days prior to calving and at calving. Condition should also be monitored during the late summer and early fall, 45 days after weaning and at the beginning of the breeding season. To be the most effective while determining the BCS of the cow herd, follow these three steps: Record it, track it, and do something about it.

2. Drought or low forage situations

In many situations, early weaning is critical as a result of drought conditions in the summer months or a decreased availability of harvested forage. Joint research out of South Dakota State University, North Dakota State University and University of Wyoming found that, from September through November, a dry cow used 72% of the amount of forage a cow-calf pair did. Put another way, when calves were early weaned, 28% of the forage that otherwise would have been used during that time was saved. This decrease in forage requirements may be associated with lower cow intakes, less trampling and the elimination of calf grazing.

If forage availability is in question, calculate whether you are ahead, which would allow you to leave the calf on the cow (given that the cow condition is adequate), or whether it would be more economical to wean the calf and feed it and, as a result, not have to feed the cow as much. Low forage availability may also be the result of higher stocking rates on pastures. As the summer months progress, forage availability may be more limited, especially with a high stocking density. This may be another situation in which early weaning is beneficial compared to the risk of overgrazing.

3. Marketing

An early weaning program can also provide access to calf marketing programs that require calves to be weaned and eating dry feed before being marketed. Selling early weaned calves prior to traditionally weaned calves may also be advantageous, allowing you to capitalize on higher prices for lighter-weight calves by selling off-season. Lighter calves could bring higher prices per hundredweight in some scenarios. This may also be a more lucrative time to sell off those open or cull cows before the market becomes more saturated after normal weaning in mid- to late fall.  end mark

Photo by Julie Brown.

This article originally appeared on the Crystalyx blog, June 15, 2020.

Jill Peine
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