The conventional wisdom is that early weaning of calves  allows their dams to gain condition, resulting in feed savings and better rebreeding rates. Preliminary results of new research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), however, seem to contradict that.
“It’s just one year’s worth of data, but the preliminary indication is that there may be no advantage to early weaning as a way to save feed. We’ll see how it plays out over the next few years,” says Terry Klopfenstein, UNL professor of ruminant nutrition.
Klopfenstein’s research is part of cow-efficiency work being conducted at UNL, Texas A&M University and Oklahoma State University under a $2-million endowment from the Dr. Kenneth and Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation . Klopfenstein’s work and that of other researchers from the three institutions will be detailed at a symposium set for Sept. 12-13 in the Johnny Carson Center on the UNL campus. (Learn more about the symposium here.) 
What sets Klopfenstein’s cow-calf research apart is that it’s conducted in a confinement  situation, which allows a level of control and analysis not allowed in a pasture situation.
“I’ve been at this (cow-efficiency research) for 50 years and we haven’t yet figured out how to measure how much a cow eats in a grazing situation. We can talk about saved forage, but it’s an estimated value. In a feedlot, you can measure the feed every day and totally control the diet,” he says.
UNL’s cow confinement research consists of 84 cows split evenly between two facilities at opposite ends of the state. One group is located at UNL’s research facility near Mead, 35 miles north of Lincoln. The second group is based in the more arid environment of UNL’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center  near Scottsbluff.
Klopfenstein and his UNL colleagues’ first year of research focused on evaluating in a total confinement production system the impact of early weaning  at 90 days, vs. normal weaning at 205 days. The researchers also studied cow reproduction and performance, calf growth and health, and the energy efficiency of producing a weaned calf to 205 days of age. A second objective was to compare the efficiencies between range and confinement-based cow-calf production systems.
After calving last summer, the cows and calves remained together until half of the calves were weaned at 90 days, with the rest weaned at 205 days. Researchers wanted to study whether it’s more efficient to feed the cow to produce the milk for the calf, or to wean the calf  and feed it directly.
A diet of 60% wet distillers grains  and 40% crop residue was fed to all cows, with cows whose calves were weaned at 90 days limited to 15 lbs. of dry matter. “It was probably half of what those cows would have eaten free-choice,” Klopfenstein says, but it was sufficient for the cows “to maintain their weight and gain a little bit.”
The calves weaned at 90 days received the same diet. “So all we had to do was measure the amount fed to each group to see which was more efficient. I don’t think anyone has tried to do it this way before, but we think it’s a valid way to try to answer the question. And our first year’s data indicates it’s just as efficient to leave the calf on the cow, as it is to wean the calf and feed it,” he says.
Meanwhile, ultrasound for pregnancy was conducted in early March on both groups of cows, and no statistical difference in settling rate was found. “A higher percentage of cows were determined bred among the early-weaned group, but it wasn’t statistically significant. Again, this is only one year’s data.”
Klopfenstein says one of the project’s surprises was the health of the calves. Calving was conducted last summer in the feedlot, and researchers used individual pens to mimic the progression of calving pastures used in the Sandhills Calving System.  Thus, groups of close-up cows move through a succession of pens in order to maximize a clean calving environment.
“Calf health was one of our concerns, but we had no cases of scours among the calves. Of course, sunshine is a great sterilizer,” he says.
Klopfenstein says he sees the potential in Nebraska for confining and calving cows in the summer, followed by grazing cornstalks  in fall and winter months.
“Cornstalks are a tremendous resource and the feeding economics are very favorable. I could perceive a system with calving in the feedlot in June or July, a turn-out on cornstalks  in October, natural breeding on cornstalks, with the calves left on the cows and weaned in February or March when the pairs come off of cornstalks. We would then just drylot the cows until the following October.”
Klopfenstein says what makes such a system feasible is Nebraska’s abundance of corn residue, which is a seriously underutilized feed resource for cattle. “It isn’t very well utilized from a grazing standpoint; what we’re short on in Nebraska is green grass in the summer. Thus putting the cows in drylot in summer makes some sense to me,” he says.
Not without challenges
Eng, who is regarded an icon of ruminant nutrition, says Klopfenstein’s research is exactly the kind of work he hoped to foster with the founding of the Eng Foundation .
“The goal of the Eng Foundation is to improve the long-term economic sustainability of the cow-calf sector of the U.S. beef industry through the development and adoption of technologies to reduce costs of feed inputs by 25%, while maintaining productivity and beef product quality ,” Eng says.
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And a specific focus of research under the endowment is confinement cow-calf production. Eng says he’s used cow confinement or semi-confinement as a drought strategy for more than a decade.
“It’s a great strategy. The cattle are easy to feed what’s required, and you can provide a balanced diet based on least-cost rations. The program really cuts costs and maintenance costs, but it’s not a panacea by any means, and it’s not without its challenges,” he says.
Eng adds that he developed the Eng Foundation concept to honor the memory of his late wife, Caroline, who passed away in June 2010. She had served as chief financial officer of Eng Ranches, the Engs’ land business, cattle research and consulting operations.
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