Early weaning beef calves

Farm Forum

BROOKINGS, S.D. – Although spring and summer rains have relieved drought concerns for most of South Dakota, there still may be situations where forage is limited.

On cattle operations where forage is limited, Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist, said early weaning may be the most effective way to add body condition on cows.

“Between reduced nutrient requirements and feed intake for the cow, plus the forage that the calf would have consumed, early weaning results in a 28 percent reduction in daily forage demand,” Rusche said. “That difference could be enough to either avoid deeper culling during drought or extend the grazing season long enough to save significant amounts of winter feed.”

Rusche added that as long as they have high quality diets to eat, early-weaned calves generally are more efficient, compared to calves weaned at older ages. “Feed conversions around 5 pounds of feed to 1 pound of gain are certainly possible,” he said.

At weaning, calves require a diet that contains about 16 percent crude protein and 70 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN). “Typical diets are about 60 percent grain and 10 to 20 percent higher protein ingredients, with the balance of the ration comprised of higher fiber/roughage feedstuffs, as well as vitamins and minerals,” Rusche said.

Marketing early-weaned calves

Marketing early-weaned calves at weaning can be a major drawback to this system, Rusche explained. “Depending on the price slide in place at sale time, younger calves will obviously weigh less, and might bring fewer dollars to the ranch,” he said.

Finding buyers that want to feed and buy lightweight calves is another obstacle Rusche explained. “Not every feeder is set-up to handle and manage very young cattle, which can affect the number of potential buyers and how aggressively they bid on lightweight calves,” Rusche said.

If calves are retained on the ranch, the additional feed required must be considered when evaluating whether or not to wean early, he explained. “Early-weaned calves will spend more total days on harvested feed, but will usually reach slaughter weight at a younger age,” Rusche said. “The age difference could be a significant advantage if they are finished before seasonal market declines occur.”

Creep feed success

Some producers have successfully weaned calves on pasture with a creep feeder. Once calves were consuming sufficient amounts of creep feed, the cows are sorted off leaving the calves behind. “This works particularly well for older cows with lower milk production that are due to be culled,” Rusche said.

He added that using feedstuffs such as small grain regrowth, cover crops or crop residue is another strategy to cut costs.

Another concern is keeping calves healthy. Because these calves do not have to deal with colder, wetter weather, Rusche explained that they can transition through the weaning process relatively well, provided they consume enough feed during the receiving phase. They can also get the benefit of some disease protection from maternal antibodies.

Producers should consult with their veterinarian for a health plan specifically designed for their operation.

Like many management practices, Rusche said the decision to wean early should be based on the individual ranch circumstances. Early weaning is more likely to be economically viable when:

• Forage quantity limits performance, due to either growing conditions or stocking rate decisions.

• Cows are thin, especially if they are young.

• The ranch has the ability to manage young calves, or there are enough buyers willing to purchase early-weaned calves without discounts.

• The combination of reduced demands on pasture, improvements in body condition and reproduction, and the value of feed efficiency benefits are great enough to overcome the increased feed costs and management required.

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