Six-dollar corn changes a lot of things. What has not changed, though, is that the viability of any production system, such as early weaning or retaining ownership beyond weaning, depends on several factors within a given operation, such as forage resources, local feed prices and marketing options.

At first glance, the numbers seem stacked against early weaning, or any production system that replaces milk or forage with harvested feeds for a significant time.

Early weaning gained widespread attention and acceptance in recent years as long-term drought affected cow-calf production areas. Faced with severe forage shortages, some ranchers chose to wean their spring-born calves far earlier than usual, in some cases as early as May or June, and send them to feedlots. This allowed them to maintain cow condition, minimize purchased feed and protect their pastures from overgrazing.

They generally found that their calves performed well in the feedlot, with minimal health problems, adequate gains and good carcass quality. This took place during a time when corn cost less than $2 per bushel, but even today, producers could benefit from earlier weaning, especially if they can background calves on their own operations.  

Benefits of early weaning

Speaking at the 2007 Range Beef Cow Symposium in December, Trey Patterson, PhD, who serves as assistant manager of Padlock Ranch Company, Ranchester, Wyo., outlined some of the benefits and challenges of early weaning.

The term “early weaning,” he notes, could mean weaning calves prior to re-breeding, at 3 months of age or younger, or weaning any time during or after the breeding season, before the typical weaning time of 180 to 240 days. Weaning calves before the start of the breeding season can improve reproductive performance, and drought sometimes forces producers to wean that early. But a more typical strategy is to wean calves at 120 to 160 days to conserve forage and maintain cow condition.  

Patterson notes that spring-calving cows often lose some body condition during late summer and fall. Bringing gestating cows back into condition with supplemental feeding increases costs, so if early weaning allows cows to maintain or regain condition on forage, there should be some savings.

As part of a four-state ruminant consortium, Patterson says researchers from South Dakota State University, North Dakota State University and the University of Wyoming recently conducted a study comparing weaning systems at locations across the region. Over a two-year period they weaned groups of spring-born calves either in mid-August at about 140 days of age or in early-November at approximately 215 days of age. By November, the cows from the early weaned group had body condition scores averaging about one-half to a full score higher than the November-weaned group, depending on the location.

Also, the dry cows that weaned their calves in August removed only 28 percent of the volume of forage the cow-calf pairs in the later-weaned group removed, and the researchers estimated this could have allowed an additional 29 days of grazing for the dry cows.

Patterson emphasizes, however, that the cost-effectiveness of any weaning system can vary considerably depending on forage availability and the price of other feeds. “You cannot overlook the importance of evaluating the entire system when making these decisions,” he says.

University of Nebraska animal scientist Terry Klopfenstein, PhD, agrees, noting that if feed supplies are short and weaning calves early can help cows recover body condition, a producer might be willing to accept higher production costs for the calves. But he points out that in Nebraska, and many other areas, options such as grazing corn stalks or feeding distillers’ grains are relatively inexpensive. So for some producers, the cost of feeding cows back to condition might be less than that of feeding early weaned calves.

Capitalize on efficiency

University of Illinois animal scientist Dan Faulkner, PhD, says the ability of calves to convert feed efficiently on a high-energy diet contributes to the appeal of early weaning, even with high feed prices.

Faulkner says that as he watched feed prices escalate this year, his first instinct was to rule out early weaning. But after running the numbers, he believes producers still can make it pay. He says a system of weaning calves around breeding time, then creep-feeding to about 250 days of age and selling 600- to 700-pound calves into a calf-fed program that targets the April fed-cattle market can work economically in spite of high feed prices.

One key is the inherent efficiency of calves on a high-energy diet. Faulkner points out that early weaned calves, given access through creep-feeding to a high-grain ration, can convert feed at a 3:1 ratio or better. Even if the feed costs $250 per ton, he points out, cost of gain is under 50 cents per pound, which is hard to beat on forage, especially as land rents, fuel and hay prices climb higher.

And the benefits don’t end there. Moving into a finishing program, calves already adapted to a grain diet typically have a 15 to 20 percent feed-efficiency advantage over similar calves coming off forage, Faulkner says. On average, early grain feeding, with the calves going directly into the feedlot rather than into a grazing program, improves feedlot conversions from about 6-to-1 to about 5-to-1.

Research also shows that starch in a young calf’s diet allows it to develop the fat cells that lead to marbling later. Faulkner says research at Illinois indicates starch in the young calf’s diet could be more important for marbling than the finishing ration, with about a 15 percent improvement over an all-forage diet during the same period.  So, especially for producers who retain ownership or who market calves into programs that target premium-quality beef, grain in young calves’ rations helps add value.

Calf versus yearling

Klopfenstein stresses that the outlook for any management and marketing strategy changes from year to year. Producers need to consider a number of factors in deciding when to wean their calves and how long to retain them beyond weaning.

“We know grain prices will be high this fall and winter,” Klopfenstein says, but an unknown is how much those prices will affect the price slide between different weight classes of cattle. That price slide will play a major role in the relative benefits of selling calves after early weaning, at the usual weaning time, or well after weaning.        

Klopfenstein and a group of Nebraska researchers recently calculated returns from different production systems, looking at what a change from $2.50 corn to $3.50 and $4.50 does to calf values and overall returns. Higher corn prices favor putting more gain on cattle with forage, but the difference in returns is not as big as we might expect.

In the Nebraska study, researchers weaned calves in October at an average weight of 642 pounds for a calf-fed program, acclimated them to the feedlot for 20 to 40 days and placed them directly on feed. They fed the calves for 168 days and marketed them in May.

They placed lighter calves, averaging 526 pounds at receiving during October and November, in a forage-based yearling system. These calves went to corn stalks, then spring and summer grass, and to the feedlot the following September.    

With significantly more gain on forage, the yearling production system was more profitable than the calf-fed system. Surprisingly though, the advantage was about the same regardless of corn price. Once researchers factored in price slides, yardage and other costs associated with each system, the profit advantage for the yearling system was $46.66 per head with $2.50 corn, $46.43 with $3.50 corn and $47.41 with $4.50 corn. This is counterintuitive, Klopfenstein says, but the market tends to adjust. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “we don’t have any historical data with the kinds of corn prices we’re seeing this year.”

One take-home message, he says, is that October and November are the worst times to sell lightweight calves. Historically, the price slide narrows at that time because buyers want heavier calves for calf-fed programs targeting the May fed-cattle market. They’ll pay about as much per hundredweight for heavier calves at that time as they do for lighter calves that will go into grazing programs and be fed as yearlings. Lightweight calves also pose more health risk for the buyer. Producers who can market heavier calves early, such as in the creep-feeding program Faulkner describes, can meet the demand for calf-feds. Those with lighter calves should consider keeping them at least another 30 to 45 days to sell more weight and hit a better market in December or January.