Farming is all about timing. Whether it is getting the hay in right before a rain or putting the bull in the pasture to breed cows, picking the proper time to complete a task can heavily affect an operation’s efficiency and bottom line.
One task that requires good timing is weaning calves. To wean, by definition from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is to accustom to take food otherwise than by nursing; or to detach from a source of dependence. For a calf, this means being removed from its mother (and primary food source), which can be traumatizing for a young animal. But, with some forethought and good timing, you can make this stressful time on the farm be a little less so.
There are two aspects to consider when determining the right time to wean: the health of the calf, and the health of the cow. Author and rancher Heather Smith Thomas, suggests in her book, Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, that calves need to be weaned prior to pasture quality declining as the season progresses, since this natural process causes pastured cows to decrease their milk production, which can create a drain on both the cow and the calf that is difficult to reverse.
Thomas notes that calves gain more rapidly after weaning if a producer can put them on better feed than they left with cows in a pasture situation where feed is no longer green. Cows especially benefit from weaning early so they can regain body condition before cold weather.
If cows go into the winter thin and undernourished from poorly planned timing and from the drain of continuing to nurse a calf, it can drastically affect her performance for the following calving season and can create a vicious cycle that repeats itself. It is far better to have a plan in place to wean early to allow your cows to replace their groceries.
The University of Lincoln-Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources also recommends weaning early, at approximately 120 days (or 4 months of age). In their online article Benefits of Weaning Calves at Younger than Traditional Ages, the university suggests that weaning calves before the start of the breeding season has shown to improve reproductive performance of cattle during the year in which the calves are weaned. Cattle that are in marginal to thin body condition score at the start of breeding may benefit more than well- conditioned cattle. Weaning calves late in the breeding season likely will not yield any improvements in reproduction during the year in which the calves are weaned.
Once you determine when to wean, be sure to have a plan in place to make the selected date go smoothly. Eldon Cole, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, suggests the following system.
“A few days, ahead of weaning, place the cows and calves in a fresh, high-quality pasture that has water and feed bunks in it. Put feed and good hay out so the cows can lead the calves to it for a few days.
“On weaning day, separate the cows and calves leaving the calves where they were, and the cows are put just across the fence from the calves. Feed bunks may be located adjacent to the fence so the calves can’t help but bump into them as they walk the fence.”
Like with anything in farming, when weaning calves, the right timing is essential.
Thinking ahead will go a long way towards keeping up your herd’s performance for many breeding seasons to come.
Fenceline weaning: Fenceline weaning, which allows cows and calves to have several days of fenceline contact, but calves are unable to nurse through the fence. Fenceline weaning requires adequate facilities to allow for feeding and watering the calves, and the fence must be constructed well enough to prevent the calf from getting back in with the cow.
Early weaning: Early weaning is sometimes used during drought conditions or when forage quantity is undesirable. Early weaning is often used to improve cow condition for rebreeding, particularly when forage is limiting.
Extended weaning: Extended weaning may make sense in times when feed costs are high and when grazing forages aren’t a limiting factor. Studies show that fall-calving cows can nurse calves for up to two months beyond a standard weaning age of 7 to 8 months and significantly increase calf weaning weight without affecting cow reproduction.