Early weaning and its impact on cows, calves, and producers

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With what looks like another dry fall in many parts of the country, producers are looking for alternative management practices to help their cows, calves and pastures succeed in these tough conditions. Weaning calves early is an option to consider to support that success, but should be paired with other practices such as implementing vaccination protocols early, and reducing stocking rates.

Early weaning typically refers to calves weaned at 90 to 120 days of age, which is earlier than the traditional weaning period of October or November for spring calving herds. Producers that look to early weaning as a management practice need to make sure they’re making adjustments in other areas of the operation to accommodate for caring for the special needs of these earlier-weaned calves. Dr. Travis Van Anne is a Professional Services Veterinarian for Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica. Inc. He advises producers to take a look at their facilities, pasture quality, water availability and vaccinations for both cows and calves to ensure the greatest success.

Operational Impacts of Early Weaning

Cows

“When calves are weaned early, the nutrient requirement for the cow is reduced by about 50%,” says Dr. Van Anne. This is most important in younger cows, as they are still growing, and may need these nutrients to maintain an appropriate body condition score (BCS) and get pregnant again. “If these cows were to keep nursing [as opposed to early weaning], and lose body condition, they end up in the open pen and culled,” he advises.

If a producer anticipates early weaning, setting calves up for success starts with a proper vaccination program in their mother cows. Dr. Van Anne continues, “Cows that have been fed and vaccinated properly offer higher quality colostrum to their calves. A product like Express® FP pre-breeding, or Triangle® at seven months of pregnancy is ideal to boost colostrum immunity in the calf.”

Calves
Once calves are born, there are many things a producer can do to help calves thrive despite early weaning, starting with vaccinating. “Using a product like Pyramid® 5 + Presponse® SQ can work great on calves 30 or more days old,” says Dr. Van Anne. “When we use this protocol, we’re trying to prime the calf’s immune system for future exposures; even though we might not get a complete immune response, at least the calf has been exposed so protection can start, especially for those calves that did not receive adequate colostrum.”

Following that initial branding vaccination with a second dose of PYRAMID 5 + PRESPONSE SQ about 30 days prior to the calf entering the feed yard, no matter what the age of the calf will be at that time, is an important way to help the calf develop a total immune response. Calves that are sent to the feed yard at 90 days old will not have the same volume or kind of white blood cells (WBC) as calves weaned later; in some cases, the early-weaned calves will have only about 70 percent of the volume of neutrophils (WBC). Since the early-weaned calves may not have the same ability to respond to infections as calves older than 90 days, the second vaccination is an important step to protect their health and your returns.

Pastures and Facilities
“Another major thing to think about when considering early weaning is pasture quality,” Dr. Van Anne shares. “If we don’t wean early, the nutritional demands the nursing cows will put on the pasture can end up hurting the growth bud of the plants, especially when the top grazing level gets worn down farther and farther.” This can also lead to more winterkill in pastures, because root beds are more exposed when pastures are worn thin from cow-calf pairs grazing more than dry cows would. With less residual plant mass, there is also the danger of increased runoff, since less moisture from the winter’s snowfall is trapped in the soil by healthy plants and their root systems.

Additionally, if supplemental hay must be fed to cows on pasture because nutritional value of the pasture itself are low, there is a threat of new toxic plants and invasive species that could be introduced with the hay, wreaking havoc on the pasture health over the long term.

When it comes to facilities, make sure the smaller calves won’t get out, that they can reach water tanks and feed bunks, and that the crew and health programs are adjusted for dust control and pre-ruminating calves’ additional needs.

If you are unable to early-wean calves at home, be sure to carefully consider an alternative location. Dr. Van Anne cautions producers about simply selecting the cheapest place, and recommends choosing a feed yard that has a reputation for trust and success.

Available Water Supply
Another reason to consider early weaning could be water availability and location. In areas where needed water must be stored, whether it’s in a pond or using a windmill, early weaning lowers the water requirements for the cow herd, as a nursing cow drinks significantly more water than her dry herdmate. Lactating cows drink about 26 gallons of water per day; that number reduces to 17 gallons when the calves get weaned and the cow can dry off. “If you’re hauling water to the cows, it gets expensive and time consuming, so every gallon saved makes a big difference,” shares Dr. Van Anne. “Dry cows will also tend to travel further for water and feed than a nursing cow will, reducing the transit burden for the producer.”

Like many things associated with raising beef cattle, the ripple effect of one choice can impact many parts of the operation for months and even years to come. Taking advantage of all these tools in the context of planning can help you make a drought management program that keeps your herd not only healthy, but also profitable.

Sources:
Rick J. Rasby, Troy M. Walz, “Water Requirements for Beef Cattle,” Neb Guide, http://www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/live/g2060/build/g2060.pdf

Express, Triangle, Pyramid and Presponse are registered trademarks of Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc. ©2013 Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc.


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