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Early Weaning

Producers across the country are using early weaning as a fast track to efficiency.

If you're after bragging rights on weaning weights, early weaning probably isn't for you. But if you're working toward cows with a higher pregnancy rate, and pastures that are in good shape, you might want to look at the practice.

“Reproductive efficiency is our number-one economic generator,” says Pat Pfeil, cowherd manager at the Carlton 2 × 4 Ranch. “More lightweight calves make us more money than fewer heavier calves.”

The Arcadia, FL, producer started easing toward early weaning in 1999. Now, calves come off the 1,000 head of fall-calving commercial Brangus at an average of four months of age.

“It is a cumulative effect,” Pfeil says. “The first year just gives the cows a break. The second year, the cows increase their body condition scores (BCS) the whole time. The third year, we supplemented less and the cows didn't fall below a BCS 5.”

She says the cows now average a BCS 5.5 at weaning and are at 6.5 by calving. That's with pasture and liquid supplement — no hay.

“Eventually the pregnancy rate goes up,” she says. The ranch now averages 90 to 95% pregnancy rates on the mature cowherd, even though it's shortening the breeding season from 90 to 75 days while moving to early weaning.

The cows aren't the only resource in better shape. Pfeil says, “My pastures are in better condition since we started early weaning.” She says that with fall calving, the calves were still on the cows in the spring. “That's our dry season and available grazing goes down. Now, we have fewer animal units grazing pastures at stress time,” she says.

“Since we early wean, I can put the herds together and use them as a mowing machine,” she adds. “We have 900 head in one group. They mow the pasture off, weeds and all. The herdsman likes it; the cows are easier to move without the calves.”

Pfeil adds that her pastures were so much better off that she was able to put 25% of the land into a sod enterprise and still maintain the economy of size on her cowherd.

An Ohio Convert

Kensington, OH, seedstock producer Earl McKarns is another convert to early weaning.

“It's a lot more efficient to wean the calves and run them on grass and a little supplement than to try to supplement the cows to get more milk,” he says. “Then the mother doesn't need as much energy. She'll go ahead and put on weight to get ready for the winter and the next calving season. The herd will rebreed better and quicker.”

McKarns and his son Dan have been practicing early weaning on their spring-calving Angus herd for four years. He says the better cow condition at breeding particularly pays since they're 100% A.I. He says they usually get 70% of the 225-head herd pregnant on first service. By the third service, all but eight to 10 cows and heifers are pregnant to A.I. sires.

Like Pfeil and McKarns, animal scientist Nevil Speer has been weaning the Angus and Angus-cross calves from the Western Kentucky University (WKU) herd when they're around 120 to 150 days old.

“We started four or five years ago because of a drought situation; we were out of grass,” Speer explains. “But we liked the results and continued from there.”

He lets the calves tell him when they're ready to wean by putting out creep feed. “At first they won't eat it, but all of a sudden they take off eating,” he says.

At weaning, self-feeders are added. They continue with the same commercial self-limiting feed through weaning, then use it as a supplement after weaning. In addition, the weaned calves also make use of the farm's rye-sudan grass rotation.

Speer adds, “The beauty of this with the fall calvers is that about the time you wean, the fescue is coming on.”

As for WKU's cows, they're kicked out on fescue. “It's made all the difference,” says Speer. “We've increased our stocking rates 40-50% in the last five years.”

Death Loss Minimal

Pfeil claims the calves don't suffer from being separated from their dams at such a tender age. After calves are confined for seven to 14 days, she turns them out on a rye field, if it's available, with a 24% protein self-limited feed. In the 60 days they stay on the ranch, the steers and heifers gain around 1.4 lbs./day, culls included. In a good year, they'll gain 2 lbs./day.

For vaccinations, Pfeil gives the first series at 30 to 90 days of age, then waits until 30 days after weaning to give the second set. Even with the 30-hour haul to a grow yard in Kansas, she's had zero death loss the past two years. Death loss at the Kansas feedyard, where they also retain ownership, has only been .05% the last five years.

That doesn't surprise Ohio State University (OSU) animal scientist Francis Fluharty. “The early-weaned calves still have colostral immunity,” he explains. “Our treatment for respiratory problems is less than 1%.”

He warns that both early-weaned and traditionally weaned calves will get sick if they are commingled with calves from another source. However, he says the early-weaned cattle that do get sick usually don't show the resulting drop in marbling scores that tends to affect other cattle that get sick in the growing and finishing phase.

Marbling Enhancement

Back to the South Florida calves, Pfeil says her steers gain 3 lbs./day in the grow yard and feedlot and are harvested at 1,150 lbs., usually by the time they're 18 months old. Even with their Brahman influence, more than 70% grade Choice.

Speer says they also have a similarly positive post-weaning experience with the WKU calves. “The calves weigh 350 lbs. at weaning. At eight months, they weigh 550 lbs. At 12 months and 1,150 lbs., they're harvested.”

He says, “We provide all the feedlot cattle for the National FFA judging contest. The last set graded 82% Choice, all USDA Yield Grade 2s and 3s.”

Once again, Fluharty is not surprised. “We use early weaning to enhance marbling,” he reports.

When the majority of OSU's Angus and Angus-Simmental calves are 105 to 115 days old, they're weaned and put on an 18% protein, 60% concentrate ration for the first two weeks. Next, the ration is dropped to around 16% protein until the calves are 205 days old, when Fluharty starts easing the concentrate up to 80%.

“The early-weaned, lighter weight calves require a higher percentage of protein,” he emphasizes. “If you go down to 12-14% protein, you'll reduce carcass weight and make them smaller and fatter.” He's also stingy with the forage on early-weaned cattle.

“We keep the amount of forage down to around 30% or below. We try to get them eating protein and concentrate,” he says. The result is calves that weigh, on average, 100 to 150 lbs. more at 205 days than conventionally weaned calves.

By following the concentrate feeding program through finishing, along with using implants, the calves gain more than 3 lbs./day and grade 90% Choice at harvest.

Fluharty also emphasizes, “Early weaning isn't the thing to do with smaller framed cattle unless you are going to implant and feed enough protein.”

He also says there's a higher risk of YG 4s with smaller-framed cattle, adding, “We can control those 4s with an aggressive implant program. It depends on genetics, too.”

He comments, “With early weaning, you do reduce the final weight and carcass weight. Even by hitting a higher grade, you don't make up for that. We still sell by the pound.”

Replacement Benefits, Too

Potential replacement heifers also can benefit from early weaning, even on a similar early program with a concentrate ration. Fluharty reports, “At 205 days, they're 125 lbs. heavier than conventionally weaned calves. But 80% of them are cycling at 7½ months of age.”

Fluharty says that at around 205 days, they put them the cattle on a traditional forage-based heifer program and shoot for gains of 1¾ to 2 lbs./head/day. “At a year of age, their hip heights are not shorter than the calves that are traditionally weaned,” he says. “They don't go into anestrus when their gains slow down. They keep cycling.”

McKarns grows his heifers, along with the steers, on orchard grass and timothy pasture with around 5 lbs./head/day of a grain supplement until they're around 205 days old. Then, the heifers go on stockpiled fescue or hay and continue the 5 lbs./head/day of supplement, usually soybean hull pellets, until they weigh around 800 lbs., or two-thirds of their mature body weight.

Pfeil keeps her early-weaned replacement heifers gaining more than 1 lb./day with a 16% natural protein supplement on pasture. She says the conception rates on the yearling heifers continue to climb, albeit slowly. That's no small feat in South Florida, considering the low quality of grass, high humidity and higher percentage of Brahman blood. Many ranchers in the region don't even try to breed heifers until they're two years old.

Overall, Pfeil is sold on early weaning. “If I had the forage, I'd go to 90 days,” she says. “Higher weaning weights don't always mean you make money. You have to find a balance.”

Becky Mills is a freelance agricultural writer based in Cuthbert, GA.