Early weaning of beef calves is a powerful management tool for dealing with drought and feed shortages. By pulling the calves off the cows earlier than normal, we can cut the cow's daily nutrient requirements by 25% or more. While early weaning offers a lot of potential to improve performance and cut costs on the cow side, the disadvantage of weaning calves early is that we're faced with the choice of either selling a lighter than normal calf that will bring in less total dollars, or taking on the challenge of feeding 4 to 6 month old calves.
The good news is that early weaned calves can perform very well when fed high quality diets. Feed conversions around of about 5:1 (feed:gain) are certainly possible. Calves of this age will require a diet that contains about 16% crude protein and 70% TDN. That typically means diets containing about 60% grain, plus 10-20% of higher protein ingredients such as soybean meal, with the balance of the rations comprised of higher fiber/roughage feedstuffs, plus minerals. Complete commercial creep feeds will also work well, and may end up being more economical if an operation isn't set up to mix and deliver these types of rations.
It's no secret that grain and all feedstuffs are expensive. So the question is can we make money by putting additional inputs into these calves versus selling them right off the cow? The final outcome will depend on feed costs in your area as well as the strength of the market for lightweight calves. But as an example, let's see what the costs would be if creep feed were costing $400 per ton and excellent grass hay was worth $150 per ton. If a 300 pound calf consumed 7 pounds of creep and 2 pounds of hay, the feed cost per day would be about $1.55 and the feed cost per pound of gain would be $0.86 if the calf gained 1.8 pounds per day.
There are a number of research and producer reports that indicate that a 1.8 ADG is conservative of calves fed that kind of ration. Based on USDA market reports from South Dakota, the value of gain on light weight calves is about $1.25 to $1.40 per pound, suggesting that there is profit potential in feeding these lightweight feeder calves, whether they are purchased or home raised. An added benefit to this system would be that these calves would fit very well into one of the several pre-conditioning programs in the industry today. In some situations, allowing calves to graze fall grass or small grain regrowth, cover crops, or crop residue after the calves have adjusted to being weaned could further reduce the cost of gain, as long as there weren't excessively high levels of nitrate accumulation.