Early weaning of calves
August 12, 2009
Even though most of the intermountain high plains area has been blessed with rain, producing a lot of forage for the summer and fall doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider early weaning. Before discussing early weaning most are preparing for preconditioning, at least giving pre-weaning vaccinations at this time. This is an area that has progressed over the years but was very slow in being adopted by many cow-calf producers. Many comments were made that indicated that even though it was the best for the industry it was often followed with “I will do it when they pay me for it,” which is understandable.
Fortunately that situation has changed as many surveys – specifically data from Superior Livestock Auction – indicated that the calves with pre-weaning vaccinations bring enough of a premium to reward the cow-calf producer for their efforts. Preconditioning can be many different programs. It is important to work with your buyer of calves, if known and your veterinarian to develop a program that will meet specifications and add value to the calves. It is important to document your program. Now is also the time to age and source verify your calves.
Early weaning offers several advantages. First, cows that have weaned their calves will gain considerable more condition than those still nursing calves. The amount of added body condition will vary depending on weaning date and forage availability but at least one body condition score should be gained or 75-80 pounds. This brings several benefits as the cows going into the winter in good body condition will winter much easier plus will save on winter feed and supplement cost which is more costly to feed in the winter in comparison to late summer and fall grazing. Cost savings vary but data would indicate perhaps wintering cost could be lowered $40-50 and if improved reproduction efficiency is achieved the value could be higher.
The second advantage that early weaning provides is that early weaned calves wean very easy with less health problems. Most report a very low level of morbidity during the weaning period. If health problems occur they usually happen during the fall when they would have been weaned normally and when there are large temperature variations. If sickness occurs at this time they usually respond well to treatment as they do not have weaning stress and have been immunized against major diseases.
The third area that favors early weaning is improved carcass quality especially in the upper level of choice and prime grades when the calves are placed on a high concentrate diet at weaning and finished. This benefit is easily realized in a retained ownership situation or when early weaned feeders are priced at a premium. Calves that are weaned at a younger age are very efficient in the feedlot producing a low cost of gain. The lower price of corn will produce some very economical gains.
Perhaps the most logical place to early wean calves is with first calf heifers or older thin cows. They are usually a challenge to get through the winter in excellent body condition. Many calve heifers ahead of the cowherd and if the calves are left on the two-year-olds until calves from the mature cows are weaned, they have been left on the heifers longer and tend to be thinner because of the lengthened lactation period.
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One key element of early weaned calves is to be sure they are offered high quality feeds when weaned. This can be achieved on high quality pastures with supplements high in protein and energy. Many use commercial supplements designed for early weaned calves which provides excellent performance.
Distillers grains can also be used to some degree. Many will want to wean in the dry lot or perhaps small paddocks where the calves are placed on high energy feeds. Again the feed industry offers many products that are very palatable and balanced for all the needed nutrients, some self fed, which produces excellent performance.
Many nutritionists can offer advice on ration formulation that can produce excellent gains. Of course if the calves are weaned in a commercial feedlot those services will be available.
In summary, yes, most people have plentiful forages this year but early weaning offers several advantages and may in fact be the most economical alternative when all factors are considered.