by: Clifford Mitchell

Facing challenges is nothing new for commercial cattlemen. A different set of rules or circumstances seems to test the industry every year. High production costs have been a big topic the last couple years, but as in most years, the weather seems to dominate the conversation.

Certain areas have been plagued with flooding and other tragedies dealing with too much rain. Some areas even are blaming low hay production on unseasonably cold temperatures. Most cattlemen along the Gulf Coast and in bordering states would welcome these challenges. Drought, coupled with extreme heat has made conditions tough on livestock producers.

“Most producers haven't gotten the needed moisture since early rainfall gave way to hot humid, August like temperatures. Most were late with the first cutting of hay and tonnage was lower than expected,” says Dr. Tom Troxel, University of Arkansas.

Dry weather leads to lower forage production which is the primary input in a low cost of production scenario. Lactating females have an extremely high nutrient requirement, which makes early weaning an option for some producers. This option should better match resource demand and supply.

“Early weaning is usually more about the cow than the calf. Reducing nutritional needs should help extend pasture and not pull cows down in the long run. Limited feed budgets can be aimed toward the calf; not buying expensive hay or other inputs for the cow,” says Dr. Curt Lacy, Livestock Extension Economist, University of Georgia.

“Most of our producers calve in February and March. For some, it's a lot cheaper to feed that cow and calf separately,” Troxel says. “Early weaning makes sense because the cow's nutrient requirements and intake decrease.”

As with many management decisions some basic questions have to be answered for early weaning to be an option. Knowing the value of that calf or added weight gain is extremely important in this decision-making process.

“Just because you early wean, doesn't mean you have to sell. There could be ways that a producer could hold those calves for additional weight gain,” Troxel says. “Most people, when they talk about early weaning, plan to sell calves and right now the market is good.”

“Early weaning can present different options. Sell now, hold and add weight through a 50 to 60 day pre-conditioning period or roll them into a stocker enterprise long term,” Lacy says. “Producers need to figure out if they sell them today are they going to make any money. For most, it depends on how economical the growing program can be and calf prices decline from Labor Day thru November. This is where it's very important for producers to have access to a scale so they know exactly what their calves weigh.”

Weaning calves early presents some unique challenges to the management program. Risks involved often come from a health standpoint or inexperience handling younger cattle.

“Make sure your vaccination program is in check. Fence line weaning will lower the stress on these calves and they won't stand and ball in a dusty lot,” Troxel says. “Reducing stress is very important, especially with a young calf. Extra management is needed to take proper care of these calves.”

“There can be a lot of morbidity and mortality in these calves because they are already stressed due to the environment they are in,” Lacy says. “We can easily get trapped into paying too much for feed. Lock in feed costs so this doesn't become a problem.”

Calves at this age are very delicate. The “handle with care” sign definitely applies to management of these calves. Even though calves at this weight can be very efficient, cattlemen need to make sure nutritional needs are being met.

“Prices for heavier weight feeders will hold until mid October. Calves are very efficient at this weight and it makes a lot of sense to feed them,” Lacy says. “A dry lot or sacrifice paddock can work for these calves. You have to know the nutritional needs of that calf. These calves need high quality feed to make that gain.”

“These calves need a high quality feed. Intake is very important to health during the weaning process,” Troxel says. “The heat also has a big impact on calves' ability to eat. During high temperatures you're not going to get gains like you do in cooler months.”

Growing calves to a more traditional weight can add value and remove question marks from the buying public. Adding weight, even in a high cost environment, can be very practical for most operations.

“Some buyers could be a little leery of early weaned, light calves coming out of a drought area. These calves are stressed nutritionally and could be classified as high risk, which calls for a significant discount. In situations like this, pre-conditioning or backgrounding programs can add or retain more value than they usually do,” Lacy says. “We try to figure out the value of that gain. Calves that can gain 2 pounds per day in a 60 day pre-conditioning program means 120 extra pounds to sell. That increased weight is of considerable value in today's market. Most producers are surprised at how much they can spend on feed for these calves, once we run the numbers.”

Watching the market and knowing its traditions is also very important. Working through the timing of marketing calves may be just as important to making sure they are all healthy when it comes to value.

“There are a lot of opportunities with light calves. For some, a 60 day back grounding period and retained ownership could pencil nicely, with a few risk management options in place,” Lacy says. “October and November have been in the bottom one third of the calf market four out of the last five years. If producers early wean and pre-condition those calves for 45 to 60 days they can still market in a very favorable market.”

According to Lacy, a simple change in ration or expected gain could help calves fit another market. “Hold calves to gaining a half to one pound per day and hopefully, there will be some moisture. Market calves in a strong January/February market which also gets producers into a new tax year,” he stated.

Early weaning the calf crop is not the only drought insurance producers can utilize. Evaluate other classes of cattle during times of drought or decreased forage production. Producers can early wean, retain genetics and remove the “excess baggage” at the same time.

“Selling older or problem cows will help match forage demand to forage supply,” Troxel says. “Those heifer calves should be your most progressive genetics. Early weaning may allow you to retain some of heifers and preserve the genetic base. When times are tough, these are some of the hard decisions we have to make.”

“This is a really good time to cull the herd. Especially, if you have known for a month or two that you were going to cull that cow for some reason or another,” Lacy says. “Cow prices are holding up so producers can get rid of those problem cows in a pretty good market. Cow prices always bottom out during the fall of the year.”

Calculated management decisions will go a long way to protect the investment in a herd of cattle. Utilizing all the information available will help operators make an informed decision. One good decision can lead to several bad ones if producers are not careful. Continued management will help producers hold the value of their herd in tough times.

“Producers have to know the value of their calves and monitor things like feed costs or market price,” Lacy says. “Early weaning could be a profitable decision for some outfits, but continued management is needed to ensure success.”

“Producers have to monitor cows and body condition score (BCS) throughout the rest of the dry period. Make an honest evaluation because sometimes it's easy for producers to look at something they don't see,” Troxel says. “Monitor conditions, if we don't get fall rains and there is no grass, we may have to cull the herd deeper. Just because you made the right choice with early weaning, doesn't mean you can quit monitoring the situation.”

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