Beef producers are continuously faced with changing paradigms in beef cattle production. The challenge to be economically viable is continuous and unrelenting.
A management consideration that cow calf producers may want to consider when a change in traditional production systems may be necessary due to adverse production or marketing conditions such as lack of forage, adverse market trends, noncompetitive freight rates, adverse weather, etc., is early weaning of their calves.
Traditionally, calves are weaned from their dams when they are between 180 to 220 days of age. Early weaning of beef calves is a possible alternative for cow calf producers who have historically weaned calves at approximately seven months of age.
Early weaning is defined as separating calves from their dams at less than 108 days of age. Early weaning of calves can be performed with calves as young as 45 days of age with proper management.
Shifting of calving or weaning dates can result in improved herd performance. Some of the possible advantages to early weaning of calves are: improved reproductive performance of cows; increased calf marketing options; increased cull cow marketing options; more efficient utilization of ranch resources; and calves when finished may have improved marbling and therefore have higher quality grades versus traditionally produced calves.
When to Early Wean Beef Calves
Early weaning of beef calves is done most commonly during periods when feed is scarce or expensive. It is also used in situations where breeding females are at risk of reproductive failure because of high nutrient requirements coupled with poor diet quality. Under these conditions, early weaning is a tool that reduces the nutrient requirements of the lactating female and allows her to gain or maintain body condition and weight.
Research has shown that when a calf suckles a spring calving cow, that lactating cow will lose one tenth of a body condition score (BCS) every two weeks. Further research indicates that a cow which calves with a BCS score of 5 will have a post partum interval that is 30 days shorter than a cow calving with a body condition score of 3. The reproductive performance of cows which are nutritionally stressed indicated by poor body condition scores can be enhanced by weaning calves before or early in the breeding season.
Early weaning of calves during drought conditions decreases the nutrient requirements of breeding females which, in turn, reduces the grazing pressure on range and pasture conditions. A calf weighing between 250 to 350 pounds will consume, on average, five to six pounds of forage on a dry matter (DM) basis per day. A lactating cow compared to a non lactating cow will consume an additional five to six pounds of forage per day, and a 1,200 lb. cow will consume approximately 28 pounds of forage (DM) per day.
Therefore, when a calf is weaned and assuming grass is available, for every two and a half days that the calf is weaned there should be one more day of additional grazing for the cow.
Weaning calves before the start of, or early in the breeding season is not a common management strategy. When early weaning is considered, it may be a last resort effort to correct a management problem most often related to inadequate nutrition before or after calving. Reducing the nutrient requirements of the dam associated with lactation has the potential to allow non cycling thin cows to resume estrus and become pregnant.
Preparing Calves for Early Weaning
Several management considerations need to be addressed to prepare calves for early weaning. Calves that start eating dry feed immediately after separation from their dam have a decreased incidence of morbidity and mortality compared to calves that do not eat for one to two days after separation.
Management considerations regarding vaccinations, availability of fresh water, watering systems, bunk style and height, bunk space, pen design, sanitation and welfare considerations for both the dam and calf should be addressed prior to weaning.
Addressing these concerns prior to weaning will reduce the stress on the cow and calf, and will assist the calf to grow and remain healthy.
One of the keys to a successful early weaning program is a wellplanned health program. The health program designed for a particular ranch will vary depending upon prior management inputs and the next stage of production for calves.
Therefore, the ideal health program for weaned calves should be developed for each ranch. The ranch's veterinarian is the most valuable resource to design a health program that addresses health challenges common to a particular area.
Minimally, the disease prevention program should include vaccinations of calves for the control of the viral respiratory diseases, the commonly occurring clostridial diseases, be treated for internal and external parasites, and dehorned and castrated when indicated.
Ideally, weaned calves should be vaccinated, treated for parasites, dehorned, castrated and exposed to novel feedstuffs before separation from the dam. This process is commonly referred to as preconditioning. It begins with an initial round of vaccinations against the viral and clostridial diseases two to three weeks prior to separation. Castration of calves along with dehorning should occur at this time or earlier if possible.
Exposing calves to novel feeds should also occur prior to weaning. Exposure to new feeds can be addressed by the use of a creep feeder or feeding calves supplemental feed on the ground, in which case their dam will teach them to eat the introduced feed. A second round of vaccinations and treating the calves for internal and external parasites should occur at weaning or a few days prior to separation from their dams.
All drugs and biologicals should be handled and administered per label directions or by the instructions of a ranch's veterinarian.
Preconditioned calves generally experience less stress, are healthier and grow more efficiently after weaning than non preconditioned calves. Preconditioned calves that can be documented as such can potentially draw price premiums at the time of sale.
Daily gain for calves nursing cows is usually considered to be around two pounds per day. Calves weaned early should be managed to gain in this range as well. For the first few days, post weaning calves will often consume limited dry matter and will have a dry matter intake of 1 to 1.5 percent of their body weight. Therefore, feed ingredients need to be considered carefully to ensure that the initial post weaning diet can meet all the nutritional requirements for energy, protein, minerals and vitamins.
The diet fed to calves post weaning (starter diet) should be nutritional dense (65 5, 75 percent total digestible nutrients) relatively rich in protein (i.e. 14 percent to 16 percent) and highly palatable.
Two weeks after separation from their dams, calves should be consuming approximately 2.5 percent of their body weight on a dry matter basis and a diet change may be indicated. For recentlyweaned calves, the use of low quality feedstuffs should be avoided.
Examples of low quality feeds would include straws, corn or milo stalks, soybean stubble, mature hay, dusty or moldy grains, grain screenings, moisture or heat damaged feeds or older feeds. Silages should be used only in limited amounts in diets for recently weaned calves.
The high moisture level and palatability characteristics of silage make it unlikely that calves will consume silage based diets in amounts adequate to grow at targeted levels. Urea can be used in the diets of early weaned calves, but it should be limited to 0.5 percent of the rations on a DM basis. Feed bunks should be cleaned daily, with any uneaten feed removed from the bunk. This is especially critical in hot and humid environments.
Water is an essential nutrient and the availability of fresh water, the watering system utilized and water intake for a group of calves and individuals should be monitored. If feed intake for a group of calves starts to decline, check to ensure that calves have availability of fresh, clean and adequate water. Any individual calf that is not drinking water will become quickly dehydrated and will need medical intervention.
Feed intake and feeding behavior are indications of health and well being for calves. The amount of feed fed per day should be recorded and monitored for the group of calves as well as individual calves that come to the bunk when fed. If feed intake for a group of calves declines or an individual calf is noted as not coming to the bunk when fed, this may be an indication that either the pen of calves is experiencing a group health problem or an individual calf may need medical attention.
Recently weaned calves should be grouped and penned according to size. If there is a significant variation in weight within a calf crop (150 lbs.), calves may need to be penned into two or more groups.
Often, lack of dry matter intake by recently weaned calves can be blamed on a lack of experience with feed bunks or watering devices. Calves that are inexperienced with these items are therefore reluctant to use them.
Starting Calves on Feed
It is critical to get calves to eat as soon after separation as possible. The calf's first diet following separation is referred to as a starter diet. In general, and depending on the weight of the calf, the starter diet should be fed until the calf is consuming 4 to 5 lbs. (i.e. 1 to 1.5 percent of body weight) per animal per day. Ranchers may wish to consider creep feeding calves beginning three to four weeks before weaning. This use of creep feed is intended to train calves to eat concentrate based feed from a bunk, rather than to increase weaning weight.
A number of different weaning techniques can be utilized to achieve a successful transition for the calf from suckling to eating only forages and dry feeds. The goal of each technique is to minimize the stress experienced by both the cow and the calf, with emphasis placed on the calf.
The most common weaning system employed in the United States is to move the calves from pasture into a dry lot or pen which is out of the sight, smell and hearing of their dams. The converse may also be practiced where the calves remain in a pasture and the cows are taken to a dry lot for a period of a few days. After a few days, the location of the calves and cows are reversed, with the calves being taken to a pen and the cows returned to pasture.
A third weaning method is referred to as fenceline weaning. With this method, cows and calves are separated by an electric fence and are allowed nose to nose contact. It is thought that this system minimizes the stress associated with separation by allowing cows and calves to socialize while nursing is prevented.
Most studies of early weaning have concluded that ownership of early weaned calves should be retained for a period of time after weaning to generate enough revenue to create a profit potential. Early weaned calves weigh less at weaning compared to conventionally weaned calves, and usually even with positive price slides the potential revenue generated per calf at early weaning is insufficient to cover annual cow costs.
There are production advantages to early weaned calves when proper management is applied. Early weaned calves have efficient feed conversion ratios, they will gain as well as or better than traditionally weaned calves, and they will marble and grade higher at slaughter.
Early weaning of calves is a viable management alternative to traditional weaning. Early weaning reduces grazing pressure on pastures by decreasing the nutrient requirements of cows. Calves that are early weaned are efficient at converting feed to gain and can weigh as much or more than traditionally weaned calves.
Management considerations for early weaning of calves should be directed toward the health, nutrition and welfare of early weaned calves. Economically, early weaned calves, when managed properly and with proper marketing, are viable alternatives to traditionally weaned calves.