This is the time of year in which nitrogen fertilization that was applied a couple weeks combined with adequate moisture provides beef cattle producers an opportunity to reduce their cow feed costs. The fall has so far has been near idealistic for stockpiling tall fescue for late fall/early winter grazing. Though this is perhaps often considered with respect to the cow herd, don’t overlook it is a way of reducing expenses for preconditioning calves.

Fenceline weaning received a great deal of publicity following an article published by California researchers Price and colleagues in 2003. Their work summarized in Figure 1 documented that when calves were fenceline weaned, two week cumulative weight gains were similar to the calves that were not weaned and remained on the cows while having higher gains than those calves either weaned on pasture, weaned in a drylot or weaned following a 10-d preconditioning period to alfalfa hay. This weight advantage persisted until 10 weeks post-weaning. What I found particularly interesting was the gain advantage calves that were separated and maintained on pasture had over those that were placed in the drylot.

Figure 1. Post-weaning cumulative 2- and 10-week gains for various weaning managements (Price et al., 2003 JAS).

Stock Pile Grass,  Not Just For Cows

In 2003, while at Wisconsin, we conducted a weaning demonstration with half our research herd beef calves weaned on pasture with supplement using fenceline techniques and the rest of the calves placed in a small grass lot with hay and supplement removed from the sight of the cows a few hundred meters away. In this demonstration it was observed that calves remaining on grass with some supplementation gained near 3.0 lbs/d the first 9-days post-weaning. Too good to be true!?! There was really not a strong advantage observed for fenceline over calves that were some distance from the cows on pasture. However, Buskirk and co-workers at Michigan State University observed daily gains of 4.5 lb/d the first 5 days post-weaning for fenceline weaned calves versus 1.7 lb for calves that were more weaned and moved to remote pastures. By the end of a 42-day backgrounding period the total weight gain was similar for the weaning management system and this was similar to what we observed in our demonstration.

In 2007, we repeated this with two of the university’s herds. The same herd used in 2003 was used and again followed very similar conditions in 2007 with the calf crop (65 calves) split into two groups both remaining on stockpiled grass with up to 4 lbs of supplement of a 2/3 soyhull 1/3 dried distiller grains blended pellet. One group again was fenceline weaned while the other was moved out of sight of the cows but remained on pasture. These calves again performed exceptionally well on stockpiled grass gaining close to 4.5 lb/d the first seven days post-weaning. At the other farm, the calf crop was split into two groups (39 and 37 calves per group) and placed in drylots with access to grass hay and supplement. Again, one group had fenceline access with dams and the other group was out of sight of the dams. These calves were younger than the other farm as well as being of a different genetic base, weaned one week later, and were not on pasture during the weaning period. These two groups of calves being in the drylots had average daily gains of only 1.1 lb/d during the first week post-weaning. After the first week, calves were then comingled and managed as a single group. After a 28-d backgrounding period, there was no difference in calf weight gain supporting our previous findings and Buskirk’s.

Stock Pile Grass,  Not Just For Cows

Granted neither of these were replicated research trials. However, each calf crop (54, 65 and 76 calves) when split into half had a number of calves representative or larger than many of our calf crops found on Kentucky operations. Many folks indicate that calves simply do not gain during the first week post weaning due to the stress of weaning. Looking at 1.1 lb/d gain during the first week after weaning in our work, I’d have to agree as I don’t think folks would be able to visualize a calf that was only 5-10 lbs heavier. However, consider what management is being applied to calves at weaning and its impact on subsequent gains. In the demonstrations above, bull calves were castrated at 3-4 months of age, calves were vaccinated pre-weaning and boostered at weaning, not hauled, had access to clean, fresh water and weaned at a time the long range forecast presented dry weather.

What can we take away from all this? Weaning management certainly can impact the immediate, early performance of calves and under certain conditions calves can gain quite well immediately after weaning. Using high quality stock-piled forage can support rates of gain that should not be overlooked as an opportunity to reduce preconditioning expenses especially those considering short post-weaning periods prior to selling calves. Lastly, even though there appears to be some advantage to immediate post-weaning gains from fenceline weaning, this benefit appears to be lost with longer feeding periods. Here’s to tipping the scales at weaning.

Dr. Jeff Lehmkuhler, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky