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Weaning preparation: Experts discuss transition diets and calf performance

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

                  In a recent Kansas State University (KSU) Beef Cattle Institute (BCI) podcast, veterinarians and nutritionists highlight several considerations producers should consider as they focus on transition diets and improving weaned calves’ performance.

                  Phillip Lancaster, Bob Larson and Brad White, all professors at BCI, in addition to Hubbard Feeds Nutritionist Twig Marston share their knowledge on weaned calf management and practices. 

Transition diets

                  Marston shares his knowledge on transition diets by providing an economic assessment of a weaned calf scenario for a 45-day feed timespan prior to sale. He shares the cost-effectiveness of feeding weaned calves depends on available feedstuff. 

                  “Obviously, the faster amount of gain producers want to get out of calves, the more purchased feeds or the more concentrate feeds they may have to include in the ration and cost goes up,” he explains. “A lot of it comes down to what the cost of gain is going to be in order to get 1.5 or two pounds of gain per day on calves during the 45-day period.” 

                  Marston says rations depend on what kind of cattle he is feeding and his target. How producers feed replacement heifers might be different than what one would feed their steer constituents, he adds. 

                  “I’m always looking at the next stage of development and what I want those cattle to do,” says Marston, noting it is important to feed weaned calves for high-reproductivity and longevity, but it is just as important to avoid overfeeding.  

                  Marston adds, genetics play an important role when looking at calves. If calves don’t gain one to 1.5 pounds per day, correcting genetics may need to be considered. 

                  “I’m looking at getting cattle to stay healthy and prepared for the next marketing opportunity or stage of production,” he says. “The goal is to get calves to that next stage of development in the most economical fashion by using available resources.” 

                  “It seems when I use local resources, I get a pretty good return on an investment,” Marston adds.

                  Intake and gain provides producers insight on how healthy cattle are and how well they are doing.  

Weaning timeline

                  Larson shares he believes the 205-day average target for weaned calves should be based on forage availability and annual precipitation.

 “For most of the country, 205 days is the average weaning age, but there are a lot of year-to-year variations,” Larson says. “During weaning, I am thinking about this year’s calf performance, as they need forage to grow because there not getting much milk from their mothers at six months since they calved, but I’m also thinking about forage availability.”

                  Forage quality can impact calf growth, Larson explains, but also has implications for residual forage. 

                  Larson encourages producers to not overgraze calves as they can grow bigger than their mothers, but consider what and how much forage they are pulling off the land. 

 “I’m okay with an average weaning date of 205 days, but I think producers should make a decision unique for each year’s situation,” says Larson. “Typical cattle prices are a lot of supply and demand, and there’s a lot of weaned calves on the market in the fall.”

                  He continues, “From a marketing standpoint, there may be an advantage of holding calves over and putting weight on them if I can get some good, cost-effective, locally grown feed that isn’t trucked from a long distance, and selling them a couple months later than everybody else.”

                  If producers wean early, they might hit a good price window, but there is the possibility for calves to be lighter, adds Larson. He recommends penciling out feed expenses and expected income based on market price. 

                  Lancaster notes stress may also be a determining factor in calf performance during weaning. 

                  “If I’m not going to keep calves around long enough to recover stress and weight loss, then I’m better off leaving the calves on the cow rather than weaning,” shares Lancaster. 

Operation variability and benefits

                  Forage condition will determine what producers do when weaning a spring-born calf. 

                  Keeping the calf’s nutrition in mind, as milk production decreases, the calf is heavily relying on forage. With forage availability decreasing due to drought, this will result in a low-nutrient base intake, explains Lancaster. 

                  “I may be better off to wean calves earlier than the 205-day weaning target weight and feed some supplemental feed,” says Lancaster. 

                  Forage availability is a determining factor in deciding whether a supplement needs to be utilized.

                  According to Larson, there are several benefits of an earlier weaning: the cow is able to gain body condition prior to winter, and the calf is able to grow better when placed on a better plane of nutrition and supplementation.

                  White notes year-to-year variability may be possible.

 “I think once pastures reach a certain point when forage isn’t providing much and the milk isn’t providing much, figuring out what works for individual operations is important,” says White. “Have the ability to be flexible in your plan based on the forage availability, rainfall received and marketing plan.” 

Limited storage availability 

                  Lancaster shares storage availability for feedstuff should also be a consideration. 

“If producers have to buy bags of feed from a local feed mill, it will be tough to make a profit on pre-conditioning calves,” notes Lancaster. 

                  He recommends a gravity flow wagon or a three-ton bulk bin as an inexpensive solution if producers want to handle feed in bulk and avoid purchasing sack feed. 

                  Marston concludes, “It’s really easy for a nutritionist to calculate the necessary feedstuffs for weaned calves. Starting cattle is a lot easier than it used to be because we know we can get energy concentration and protein at the same time in the package.”

                  White adds, “There’s the diet we make on paper, the diet we actually put in the bunk and the diet the cow actually eats.”

 For any questions on post-weaning rations, producers are encouraged to reach out to a local Extension agent or nutritionist. The best practice will be developing a transition diet specific for specific operations and availability of resources.

                  Brittany Gunn is the editor at the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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