Considerations for early weaning
By Shelby Rosasco
As drought conditions persist throughout the West and parts of the High Plains region, producers are going to be faced with tough decisions in order to maintain their operations and protect rangelands. Proactive planning for drought conditions and establishing key dates for evaluation of precipitation amounts and forage conditions will allow for timely management decisions to be made.
Several weeks ago, Chance Marshall outlined a number of strategies for producers to consider when developing a drought plan in his article “Managing Cow/Calf Operations Through Drought Conditions in Wyoming.” While herd reduction is often the first option producers consider, altering weaning strategies or timing of weaning can be a viable option for reducing forage demands during drought or in years where forage resources are limited.
Impacts on productivity and forage
Maintenance requirements are at their peak during lactation, resulting in significant feed and nutritional demands. Meeting these requirements is essential to ensure the cowherd maintains adequate body condition and reproductive performance, however, this can be challenging in years where feed quality and availability are limited.
Weaning calves earlier can significantly reduce cow nutrient requirements and decrease dry matter intake, as well as allow available forage to match cow nutrient requirements more closely.
Removing the nutritional demand of lactation can also significantly help first-calf heifers. Two-year-old cows still have a growth requirement, which results in additional nutritional demands during lactation.
By weaning calves early, nutritional demands are decreased, and nutrients are now available for growth and to allow heifers a chance to regain or maintain body condition in the fall. Multiple studies have demonstrated that early weaning calves at approximately 120 to 150 days of age can help increase body weight and improve body condition of cows heading into the fall and winter.
Increases in reproductive performance as a result of early weaning, however, are inconsistent. Removal of the suckling stimulus, as well as improving energy balance could provide potential improvements in reproduction in thin cows.
Similar benefits, however, may not be realized in cows in good condition. Reproductive performance is generally not limited in cows in good condition, therefore benefits of early weaning may not result in significant improvements similar to those seen in cattle that are in marginal to thin body condition.
Additionally, removing calves before the start of the breeding season or early in the breeding season is generally not a common management strategy, as management of calves less than three months of age is often much more complex, requiring additional labor, facilities and nutritional inputs.
Reducing nutrient requirements by weaning calves early will result in decreased cow dry matter intake. In addition, early weaning also eliminates forage demand from the calf. Calves consume approximately two to 2.5 percent in body weight of forage depending on the size and age of the calf, which can result in considerable forage utilization through the fall.
Previous research has reported early weaning can result in pasture forage savings of approximately 28 to 36 percent. Removing lactation requirements and forage consumed by calves through early weaning can extend the number of days available for grazing or increase the amount of forage remaining. This can be extremely valuable in years when forage production is low and/or when the cost of additional hay or supplement needed is extremely expensive.
Impact on calf performance
Decisions regarding what age to wean, how to manage calves, when to market calves and whether to retain ownership is one of the more complex aspects of determining whether or not to wean calves early. Producers should consider if they have the facilities and resources to manage lightweight calves or if calves need to be marketed directly after weaning.
Proper management of early-weaned calves is critical to allow for continued growth and body weight gains. Depending on the age and size of calves at weaning, they can be grown in the drylot for a period of time before entering the feedlot or transitioned back to pasture as lightweight stockers.
Regardless of management strategy, it is critical to get calves on feed and eating as soon as possible. Providing a palatable, energy-dense diet can help calves transition after weaning and allow for adequate growth.
If managing calves in the drylot, forage should still be included in the ration to ensure proper rumen health. Calves two to three months of age may require additional nutrition and management to ensure calves maintain adequate growth and performance.
Nutritional requirements of young calves are much higher, and energy-dense feed is necessary due to calves having a smaller rumen volume. In addition, waterers and feed bunks in facilities designed for larger calves or mature animals may be too tall for young calves and would need to be adjusted.
Management of calf health is an important aspect of weaning regardless of timing. Working with a local veterinarian to develop a health management plan can help reduce morbidity and mortality.
Vaccination decisions should be made based on the current herd health plan and the age of calves at weaning. Working with a veterinarian or animal health specialist and nutritionist prior to weaning can help ensure the weaning process goes smoothly.
Although generally lighter and on feed for a longer period of time, research has demonstrated that early-weaned calves still perform well in the feedlot. Furthermore, carcass quality and the proportion of calves grading U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Choice is similar between early and traditionally weaned calves.
There are several factors producers should consider when deciding if early weaning should be a part of their drought management plan, including forage resources, forage availability, cattle price outlooks, grain prices, hay prices, pasture costs, cattle facilities, etc.
Early-weaned calves weigh less at weaning, and while prices are generally higher for lighter calves, they are usually insufficient to offset the lighter body weight and result in decreased calf revenue.
Several studies evaluating the economic ramifications of early weaning have suggested retaining ownership of calves for a portion of time following weaning can allow producers to regain some of the profit potential lost through weaning lighter weight calves. This also allows producers to take advantage of the increased ability of young calves to convert feed to gain compared to older calves.
Early weaning and then backgrounding calves can also provide flexibility for producers in the timing of marketing calves. Decisions regarding backgrounding and/or retaining ownership of calves should be made based on market outlooks, feed prices and cost of gain.
Additionally, early weaning can help facilitate selling cull and open cows earlier, allowing producers to take advantage of seasonal price increases in the cull cow market between April and August. Additional revenue from earlier culling may help offset reductions in calf revenue. Producers should also account for the value associated with additional days available for grazing and increases in cow body condition.
During periods of drought or feed shortages, early weaning can provide significant advantages by allowing for more efficient feed use, increasing grazing days available, decreasing the potential for overgrazing and reducing the need to liquidate the cowherd, all of which can provide significant long-term benefits to cow/calf operations.
Shelby Rosasco is the University of Wyoming Extension beef specialist and an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming in the Animal Sciences Department. Rosasco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.