In July, it might seem premature to be thinking about weaning your calves. But maybe not  —   weaning during July, August or September can benefit your cows, calves and pastures. Greg Lardy, an extension beef specialist at North Dakota State University, says widespread drought in recent years forced many producers to wean their calves much earlier than usual. Positive results have encouraged some of those producers to continue the practice even as forage conditions improve.

Harlow Hill, ranch manager for Maddux Cattle Co. of Wauneta, Neb., is one of those who has adopted early weaning as a standard management practice. In response to shrinking forage supplies, Mr. Hill says the Maddux operation weaned calves during June and July in 2001 and moved the dates even earlier in subsequent years.

The rains returned to western Nebraska this year, but Mr. Hill stuck with the program, weaning their last batch of calves on June 17. He cites several ways early weaning benefits the operation.

  • Pasture management: Full recovery from drought can take several years. Early weaning helps the operation work toward long-term range-management goals by reducing grazing pressure.
  • Better calf health:   Mild summer weather makes the transition much easier for calves, com-pared with the traditional autumn weaning season. Also, calves weaned at 2 to 4 months of age retain much of their passive immunity. Mr. Hill typically delays vaccination until the calves move to the feedyard later in the summer.
  • Better reproduction: The weaning season at Maddux Cattle Co. begins in mid-May with calves from first-calf heifers, prior to breeding. This, Mr. Hill says, helps improve conception rates among the younger females. Next, the crew moves on to calves from older cows, weaning a total of 2,400 calves in four groups by mid-June.
  • Timely marketing: Maddux Cattle Co. includes a feedlot that finishes all of the operation’s calves. Early weaning allows them to market finished cattle in April, at about 13 months of age, Mr. Hill says.
  • Feed utilization: Even when moisture is sufficient, early weaning helps stretch forage resources further and allows the operation to run more cows.

Timing matters
Early weaning typically means weaning calves at 3 to 5 months of age rather than the more typical 6 to 8 months. The practical limit is around 40 days, before which calves need milk replacements and have difficulty eating dry feeds. In selecting weaning dates, Dr. Lardy says, producers need to carefully consider their goals and their ability to manage calves at a particular age.

Using early weaning to improve conception rates, for example, requires removing calves from their dams prior to rebreeding. This means weaning at 80 days or less to maintain a 365-day calving interval. If the goal is to improve cow condition going into winter or conserve forage supplies during drought, the ideal weaning time will depend on environmental conditions.

A good option for some producers is to wean calves just a little earlier than they have traditionally, Dr. Lardy says. In many areas, forage supplies and quality often begin to decline a month or so before typical weaning dates, and cows can lose condition rapidly. Weaning 30 days earlier leaves more forage for the cow herd without giving up much in terms of weaning weights.

Early-weaned replacement heifers have different management requirements than feeder calves, Dr. Lardy warns. They need to be managed for moderate growth rates, and early weaning could affect subsequent performance if mismanaged. Producers might want to sort off a group of pairs from which they will select replacements and delay weaning for those calves.

Management pays
A 500-pound calf selling for $120 per hundredweight in October is worth $600. A 300-pound calf in July, even at $150 per hundredweight, is worth just $450. So producers face a decision on how to cost-effectively grow the calves to market weights. Options include backgrounding on the ranch, retaining ownership through a backgrounding facility or sending them to a feedyard and retaining ownership through finishing.

Dr. Lardy stresses that producers need to pay attention to nutrition for early-weaned calves, especially during the 90- to 120-day period. These calves need a well-balanced ration containing adequate energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. At Maddux Cattle Co., Mr. Hill runs early-weaned calves on irrigated pasture supplemented with distillers grains and corn gluten feed. He manages all of the calves in one pasture, adding groups as they are weaned. The earlier groups help teach later arrivals how to find the feedbunks.

Dr. Lardy suggests starting calves on long-stem grass hay, top-dressed with commercial feed or concentrate mix for the first three to five days. As the calves adjust to consuming these feeds from a bunk, gradually increase the level of concentrates.

Good management is critical for protecting the health of early-weaned calves. Mr. Hill uses a fenceline weaning system, and his crew members all have undergone training in the Bud Williams methods of low-stress handling. Minimizing stress helps assure that calves eat well and stay healthy, he says. Passive immunity might allow a delay in vaccination, but eventually, vaccination is necessary to protect the calves against the typical diseases prior to backgrounding or finishing. Dr. Lardy recommends working with your veterinarian to design a health program based on your weaning system and marketing schedule.

On to the feedyard
Speaking of marketing, early-weaned calves marketed in the fall sometimes earn discounts due to heavier weights and fleshy appearance. For some producers such as Mr. Hill, early weaning fits best with retaining ownership through the finishing stage. Producers selling early-weaned calves in the fall might need to seek out buyers who recognize their value. Studies typically show that early-weaned calves can perform efficiently in the feedyard.

In a trial using 160 crossbred steers, animal scientist Dan Faulkner and his colleagues at the University of Illinois compared three groups, weaned at an average of 90 days, 152 days or 215 days, then placed in a feedlot. Not surprisingly, the calves in the earlier-weaned groups required more time on feed and consumed more total feed through the feeding period. Daily gains and feed efficiency, however, were better for the early-weaned calves. The researchers found no significant differences in carcass weights, yield grades or marbling scores.

The cow herd benefits
Some of the greatest benefits to early weaning are in the cow herd. In Dr. Faulkner’s study, cow body-condition scores improved as weaning age decreased, and pregnancy rates improved by 18 percent for cows on the 90-day weaning treatment.

Lactation represents a huge nutrient demand for the cow. Also, Dr. Lardy says 4- to 5-month-old calves consume enough forage to compete with the cow herd when supplies are short. Removing the calves at weaning leaves more forage for the cows while reducing cow nutritional requirements. Studies have shown that early weaning can reduce grazing pressure on a pasture by as much as 35 percent, often allowing operations to increase stocking rates.

Early weaning initially adds to the production costs for each calf. To make the practice pay, producers need to capitalize on lower cow-maintenance costs and, potentially, feedyard performance and added value for calves at slaughter.