Early Weaning Calves During Drought Conditions
February 14, 2017
Drought conditions are nothing new for western cattle ranchers, but it makes it tough to keep cows fed and run a profitable ranch without enough grass.
Controlling the rain and subsequent grass growth is not something any farmer or rancher can control. However, ranchers can control how they manage their herds and pastures to maximize the efficiency of their resources.
By utilizing a management tool known as early weaning, some ranchers, such as Dean Peterson of Judith Gap, Montana, have figured out a way to make it work while still staying profitable.
Peterson has been utilizing early weaning as a management tool for over 20 years on his ranch and says he currently weans his calves at around 170 days of age, which is about 60 days sooner than other ranchers in the area.
From 2005 through 2006, Peterson worked with Richard Waterman, a rangeland beef cattle nutritionist at the Agricultural Research Service's Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory (LARRL) in Miles City, Montana, to research and test the benefits of early weaning.
Waterman defines early weaning as weaning before 205 days post calving, but his study tested the benefits of ranchers weaning their calves at 80 days of age.
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He says the earliest most studies have looked at weaning has been between 70 and 80 days of age, but what age works best for a producer will depend on the operation, their available resources, and environmental influences, such as drought.
One of the main concerns with drought is limited grass and maintaining cows at an adequate weight and body condition score. Without adequate grass, producers typically have to reduce the size of their cow herd.
"In our study we looked at it as if we were in a prolonged drought [following a drought in 2004], so it was more of an opportunity to provide [cattle ranchers] with an alternative to liquidating their cow herd," Waterman says.
Specifically, the study Waterman conducted evaluated the effects early weaning had on cow, heifer, and steer performance.
According to Waterman, removing the calves earlier allows the cows to redistribute nutrients towards increasing body weight and condition instead of producing milk so that they transition into winter in a better body condition score and maintain that condition over the cold winter months.
Additionally, Waterman says that early weaning allows for the opportunity of quicker rebreeding, allowing cows to calve sooner in the following season, and subsequently shortens the producer's calving season.
That's why the benefits of early weaning are intensified during drought conditions where grass resources are limited, Waterman says.
Through early weaning protocols, some ranchers may even be able to graze more cows on their pastures and increase their herd size, he says. This is because research shows that lactating cows require more energy than gestating cows.
Peterson says early weaning has freed up a lot of grass for his cows to consume instead of the calves consuming it, allowing him to run substantially more cows on the same amount of acreage.
According to Waterman, the benefits for first calf heifers are even greater than for mature cows.
This is because cows do not reach mature weight until they are around 5 years old, so anytime ranchers can reduce the demand of lactation on their first calf heifers and allow nutrients to go back towards growth and development, it improves the opportunity to increase pregnancy rates and retain that first calf heifer in the herd, Waterman says.
The benefits of early weaning also continue once calves are shipped to the feedlot.
Waterman says that when it comes to steers, early weaning makes it a little more difficult to manage them, but the benefits outweigh the costs when properly managed.
He says that by starting them earlier on a more concentrated ration, calf growth is accelerated and can essentially surpass the backgrounding that normal weaned calves go through before being sent to the feedlot.
Early weaned calves reach a mature weight sooner than normal weaned calves and it is important that the feed yard recognizes that and harvests them earlier than normal weaned calves, Waterman says. If this isn't recognized and they're harvested as a group, often times the early weaned calves are discounted because they are over-mature.
However, Peterson says that this is not an issue for his ranch because all of his calves are early weaned as a group and that they retain 100 percent ownership of the calves through the feedlot process.
He says that after weaning, he feeds his calves a concentrated ration for about two months they are shipped to the feed lot or sold.
"The feedback from the feedlot was that they fed better, they marbled better, and they moved them ahead in the slaughter process," Peterson says.
Waterman says that even though drought years are unpredictable, early weaning is still a tool that producer's can use during non-drought years to increase pregnancy rates, improve cow body condition scores, and shorten their calving season.
According to Waterman, early weaning also has a positive impact on pasture health and the environment.
"You can extend the use of a pasture for a longer period of time by early weaning," he says.
Additionally, Waterman says it is a lot easier to move cows without calves and it allows for the opportunity to move cattle to different locations because they don't have to worry about the calves.
"We're saving grass because that's really what we're doing…we're harvesting grass in the long run," Peterson says. "Grass is a premium."