There are many areas that have suffered from drought this year which has limited the amount of forage that is available for grazing. During times like this, early weaning should be considered as a potential management tool. Some advantages of early weaning include improved cow body condition, more forage availability for the cow, greater calf performance, and better pregnancy rates.
Dry cows have much lower nutrient requirements compared to those that are lactating. When we eliminate the demands of lactation, nutrients are freed up for growth, maintenance of body condition and reproduction. This can be especially beneficial for first and second calf heifers that are still trying to grow as well as thin cows.
When calves are weaned early, not only does the cow’s intake decrease, but there is also less demand on the forage from the calf. Therefore, more grass is available to the cows and the demands on the pasture are also reduced enhancing the sustainability of the forage supply for the future.
Calves may have a difficult time competing with cows for forage during a drought. When provided a high quality ration, early weaned calves have the ability convert feed to gain very efficiently which allows them to reach their growth potential. The utilization of growth implants in non-replacement animals will also aid in weight gain.
Although an uncommon practice, weaning early in the breeding season when calves are 45-60 days of age can increase conception rates. Reproductive performance can be negatively impacted by limited feed resources so early weaning can allow cows a better chance to rebreed in an optimum time frame. This may be used as a last ditch effort if the cows are thin prior to even starting the breeding season.
There are also some disadvantages of early weaning and may include extra managment, increased costs and unrealized potential from the cow.
Calves weaned early will require optimal nutrition and management in order to ensure their health and growth. Attention to detail is a must and more labor will be needed.
Early weaned calves will now be eating grains, hays, supplements and other feeds instead of the cow’s milk and grass from the pasture. The facilities to feed smaller calves must also be made available. This could include changes to the bunks and waterers to accommodate a smaller calf or hiring a custom backgrounder or feedlot to feed them for you.
The potential increase in weaning weights from a cow herd with an above average milk production may not be realized. In addition, there will be less information on dam performance available for utilization in production records.
If you are considering early weaning as a potential management strategy, the following are some recommendations to follow to help ensure the health of your calves.
- Offer creep feed 3-4 weeks prior to weaning to help ease the transition to eating processed feeds from a feed bunk
- If not done at spring turnout, be sure to castrate, dehorn and brand calves at least 2 weeks prior to weaning.
- Vaccinate at minimum for clostridial and viral infections. Booster according to label directions.
- Treat for parasites and administer fly protection
- Provide good quality trace mineral and vitamin supplementation.
- Utilize growth implants to optimize calves’ growth potential and improve feed efficiency.
- Ensure access to adequate amounts of good, clean water
- Place waterers and feed bunks along the fenceline as newly weaned calves tend to walk the fence.
- Sort calves by weight if possible so the smaller calves don’t have to compete with large calves.
- Offer long stem grass hay initially which can be top dressed with a commercial feed or concentrate. Once they are eating these well, a mixed ration can be started.
- Fermented feedstuffs should be avoided initially as the flavor and smell can cause a feed aversion in newly weaned calves. These can be blended in once the calves are consuming the ration well.
- If it's dry and dusty, sprinklers can be used to help control dust.
- Monitor for sickness on a daily basis