HAYS, Kan. – It’s always been done this way, right? Calves are weaned in the fall. But drought conditions in the Plains states prompted some beef producers to wean calves earlier than usual in recent years, which may have been surprisingly beneficial, according to recent Kansas State University studies.
“The conventional weaning time has always been in the fall, when calves are around 180 to 210 days old, but there was no substantial research to show that that was necessarily the best time,” said John Jaeger, beef scientist with K-State Research and Extension, based in Hays. There were probably many factors at play over the years, including bringing cows home from summer pasture, fitting weaning into crop harvest, fall school activities and more.
“We wondered if, rather than putting growth on calves at the expense of cows, it might be better to wean them earlier. If the calves fared well, it might give the cow more time to recover from calving and lactating and improve her own body condition before going into winter,” Jaeger said.
This may be an especially important time to look at such management options, he said, as producers are planning to expand herds after cutting back several years due to drought and the resulting lack of forage.
The cattle industry in Kansas generated $7.88 billion in cash receipts during 2012, and ranked sixth nationally in the number of beef cows at 1.33 million head as of Jan. 1, 2013, according to Kansas Agricultural Statistics.
Jaeger, along with K-State Research and Extension beef science colleagues K.C. Olson, who is based in Manhattan and Justin Waggoner, based in Garden City, conducted two studies – one in 2007 and another in 2012, to determine the effect of earlier-than-usual weaning on the calves.
Calves gain, cows benefit
The studies found that calves weaned at 120 to 160 days at an average of 360 pounds gained as much weight and were just as healthy as calves that were weaned later. It also indicated that the health risks and death loss were no different in early-weaned calves than in those weaned at the more conventional ages of 180 to 210 days.
“Previous studies by other researchers have shown that early weaning reduces grazing pressure,” Jaeger said, adding that a calf weighing 450 pounds at 120 days of age eats about 6.8 pounds of forage per day. So, for every 30 days that a calf is weaned early, there should be one week of additional grazing for the cow.
Early weaning also decreases the cow’s nutritional requirements. The studies showed that for every 30 days that a calf is weaned early, there will be another three additional days of grazing for the cow. Cows enter fall and winter in better body condition, which trims the amount of winter supplementation needed and decreased cow maintenance costs. If the increased body condition is maintained through the winter and calving and to breeding, there is potential for improved conception rates the following summer.