In an earlier iGrow article, Dr. Elaine Grings discussed the impact of milk production on the nutrient requirements of cows and how early weaning can be used as a tool to match those requirements with the available forage supply. Early weaning works very effectively to add body condition on cows when forage is limiting. Although recent rains have relieved drought concerns for most of South Dakota, there still may be situations where early weaning fits.

Benefits: Feed savings & increased calf efficiency

Weaning calves early has advantages to the ranch beyond differences in cow performance and body condition. The biggest advantage is feed savings. Between reduced nutrient requirements and feed intake for the cow plus the forage that the calf would have consumed, early weaning results in a 28% reduction in daily forage demand. That difference could be enough to either avoid deeper culling during drought or extend the grazing season long enough to save significant amounts of winter feed.

Early weaned calves generally are more efficient compared to calves weaned at older ages, as long as they have high quality diets to eat. Feed conversions around 5:1 (feed:gain) are certainly possible. Calves of this age require a diet that contains about 16% crude protein and 70% TDN.  Typical diets are about 60% grain, 10-20% higher protein ingredients, with the balance of the ration comprised of higher fiber/roughage feedstuffs, as well as vitamins and minerals.

Drawbacks of Early Weaning

Marketing early-weaned calves at weaning can be a major drawback to this system. Younger calves will obviously weigh less, and might bring fewer dollars to the ranch, depending on the price slide in place at sale time. Another obstacle is finding buyers that want to feed and buy lightweight calves. Not every feeder is set-up to handle and manage very young cattle, which can affect the number of potential buyers and how aggressively they bid on lightweight calves.

If calves are retained on the ranch, the additional feed required must be considered when evaluating whether or not to wean early. Early weaned calves will spend more total days on harvested feed, but will usually reach slaughter weight at a younger age. The age difference could be a significant advantage if the cattle are finished before seasonal market declines occur.

Some producers have successfully weaned calves on pasture with a creep feeder. Once calves were consuming sufficient amounts of creep feed, the cows are sorted off leaving the calves behind. This works particularly well for older cows with lower milk production that are due to be culled.Using feedstuffs such as small grain regrowth, cover crops, or crop residue is another strategy to cut costs.

Another concern is keeping calves healthy. Because these calves do not have to deal with colder, wetter weather, they can transition through the weaning process relatively well provided they consume enough feed during the receiving phase. They can also get the benefit of some disease protection from maternal antibodies.  Producers should consult with their veterinarian for a health plan specifically designed for their operation.

What to Consider

Like many management practices, the decision to wean early should be based on the individual ranch circumstances. Early weaning is more likely to be economically viable when:

  • Forage quantity limits performance, due to either growing conditions or stocking rate decisions.
  • Cows are thin, especially if they are young.
  • The ranch has the ability to manage young calves, or there are enough buyers willing to purchase early-weaned calves without discounts.
  • The combination of reduced demands on pasture, improvements in body condition and reproduction, and the value of feed efficiency benefits are great enough to overcome the increased feed costs and management required.