Grass may be taller in more places this year, but weaning your calves 30 to 60 days earlier this fall still offers several benefits, says John Jaeger, a beef cattle scientist at the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center in Hays.
“A lot of people were amazed by how well their cows came through the winter, how much less supplement had to be fed and how well they bred back,” Jaeger says. “The benefits to the cow far outweigh lighter calf weaning weights and subsequent harvest weights. I think the biggest benefit is not having to feed the cow to get her back into a body condition score of 5.0 to 5.5. You can put that feed into the early-weaned calf much more efficiently.”
Removing a cow’s lactation requirement earlier via early weaning means she can carry more condition into fall and winter. That reduces cow maintenance cost because she needs less winter supplementation. If increased body condition is maintained through winter calving and breeding, there is potential for improved conception rates the following summer.
Jaeger, along with KSU Research and Extension colleagues KC Olson in Manhattan and Justin Waggoner in Garden City, conducted studies in 2007 and 2012 to determine the effect of weaning earlier than the conventional 180 to 210 days.
Calves weaned at 120 to 160 days (360 pounds average) gained as much weight and were just as healthy as calves that were weaned later. Health risks and death loss were no different in early-weaned calves than in those weaned at the more conventional ages of 180 to 210 days.
Jaeger explains that calves need to be weaned at least 30 days earlier than normal in order to begin seeing the positive effect on dam body condition, and subsequent cycling and conception.
In the KSU herd, Jaeger says conception rates have increased each year they’ve early-weaned. First-service conception last year was 71%, whereas it usually hovers around 60% to 65%.
“You look at the first 30 to 60 days after the calf is weaned and we usually see the cows’ body condition increase, even through it’s late-season grazing with the poorest forage quality,” Jaeger says. “She maintains her condition through the winter, and it sets her up for the next breeding season.”
Don't wean too early
Jaeger emphasizes there is no optimum weaning age. When it comes to early weaning, though, unless drought forces your hand, he would be reluctant to wean calves much younger than 140 to 150 days of age. In his experience, calves younger than that have a hard time consuming enough feed to preserve all the benefits of early weaning.
In the KSU study, calves were weaned at an average age of 130 days. That meant the youngest were about 100 days old, and Jaeger says the differences in consumption are striking.
“At 140 to 150 days, they more readily consume more feed, as long as you start out by top-dressing the weaning ration with hay typical to your region,” Jaeger says.
Rations for early-weaned calves in the KSU herd are top-dressed with hay for the first three days. The next few days, the hay is top-dressed with the ration. Then they start removing hay from the ration.
Jaeger recommends making the ration ingredients as familiar to the calves as possible — nutrient-dense and palatable. He adds that younger calves need higher levels of protein.
Although KSU rations have included both dried distillers grains (DDG) and wet distillers grains, Jaeger explains DDG works better for them. It’s moist enough to stick to the calf’s nose, so it has to lick it off — developing a taste for it — but far drier than a ration that includes silage and wet distillers grains, for instance.
“You have to have good facilities and adequate feedstuffs, because the most important thing is you have to get the calves eating as soon as possible,” Jaeger says. “You just have to get the calves eating; if they eat, they don’t get sick.”
Previous research also indicates that heifers fed higher-energy rations earlier in life can achieve puberty sooner.
More energy earlier in a calf’s life can also help increase carcass grade at harvest. The last set of early-weaned KSU calves graded 100% Choice with 18.9% Prime; only 2.7% were Yield Grade 4. Of course, genetics has something to do with that, as does overall management.
The KSU folks also shorten the pens by about half, with temporary panels. This keeps calves closer to water and feed and means they can’t do as much walking. In the dust of summer, it also means the pens stay damper. If calves are unfamiliar with automatic waterers, Jaeger suggests adjusting the float so the water trickles over (see “Early-weaned calf management tips” below).
“We’ve had good luck with calves coming to the bunk and staying at the bunk,” Jaeger says. “We’ve had little illness at weaning or receiving compared to the industry average.”
For anyone skittish about early weaning when drought isn’t forcing their hand, Jaeger recommends trying it with a group of cows and comparing the difference. For the sake of convenience, he says you might try it with a group that is already managed separately, like the wet 2-year-olds, which often need all the help they can get breeding back after the first calf anyway.
“For us, weaning at 140 to 150 days works well,” Jaeger says. “Weaning even 30 to 45 days earlier offers benefit.”
As pasture gets scarcer, another benefit of early weaning — heavier stocking rates — may shine even brighter. “Previous studies by other researchers have shown that early weaning reduces grazing pressure,” Jaeger says. He explains that a calf weighing 450 pounds at 120 days of age eats about 6.8 pounds of forage per day. So, for every 30 days that a calf is weaned early, there should be one week of additional grazing for the cow.
And that’s an advantage even when it rains.
Early-weaned calf management tips
“Newly weaned calves require management, regardless of the age at weaning. Producers should have a management plan and follow it,” says John Jaeger, a beef cattle scientist at the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center in Hays.
• Place an additional water tank and feed bunk in the pen with the calves. Remove floating covers from automatic water troughs.
• Pen calves based on their body size. Limit the weight range within a pen to no more than 50 pounds less or more than the average weight in the pen.
• Make sure each calf has at least 12 inches of linear bunk space. Make sure the feed bunk and water supply can be easily accessed by the calves.
• Consider airflow — especially in hot weather. Too little shade promotes crowding.
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