Factors to consider before pulling calves off cows

Whether or not producers should wean calves early falls into a category of debate among livestock experts. While there are long-term benefits for the cow, those advantages must be weighed against the long-term performance of her calf and with future financial impacts to the operation. 

First, in general terms, it’s important to define what constitutes early weaning. 

“I consider early weaning a viable option when the calves are 100 to 120 days old,” Eldon Cole, University of Missouri-Extension livestock field specialist, stated. 

For beef producers, experts recommend waiting until a calf is at least more than 3 months old before early weaning. 

“I’d usually not early wean calves under 100 days of age,” Cole explained. “However, we know dairymen routinely do it after a few days, but most beef cow owners don’t want to raise bottle babies.”

Advantages to Early Weaning

Producers wanting to improve the conception rate for first-calf heifers may want to consider weaning her calf early, reducing the lactation demands on the cow.

“One big reason to early wean is to help the heifer conceive the next calf,” Cole stated. “We know the lack of nursing stimulus helps bring her into heat.”

 Early weaning can also benefit first-calf heifers because as a 2-year-old, they are still working to grow themselves to maturity. Early weaning gives the young cow a chance to hold on to more of the nutrients she is consuming, therefore, helping her to continue her own growth. 

In other cases, some producers choose to wean the calves at about 4 months to give the cow a chance to maintain her body condition. This is especially true in a drought season when forage is scarce. 

Research indicates early weaning can also assist with forage management. Studies show early weaning contributed to reducing forage use in pastures due to the fact non-lactating females consumed less forage than the cow/calf pairs. 

 Challenges to Early Weaning

Producers who choose early weaning should keep in mind the younger calves will require extra care, nutrition and attention. 

“Anytime you early wean you do need almost a nursery-type setting to keep the calves healthy and happy,” Cole said.  

One of the first steps is preparing the calves for a smooth transition when they are separated from their mothers 

“I’d recommend fence line weaning and hopefully keep the dust to a minimum,” Cole suggested. Dust can be an irritant to the calves’ eyes, creating a gateway for pinkeye or irritating the nasal cavity and airways, causing respiratory issues.

 Heat stress and flies are other considerations if weaning young calves in pens during the summer. In addition, a facility created to handle bigger animals may not be conducive for younger calves. Therefore, properly prepare pens and lots for the smaller calves. 

Four to five weeks prior to weaning, providing limited creep for the calves will help them with the transition away from their momma’s milk. The small amount of creep leading up to weaning helps precondition calves for the stressors involved with weaning. This is true for early weaned and traditionally weaned calves alike. 

Cole added creep rations don’t have to be corn or grain by-product based, instead, producers could allow calves to forward graze a high-quality grass-legume mix pasture, or eat alfalfa hay or haylage. 

Additionally, producers should weigh the costs of feeding the calf over a longer period of time. Farmers may want to consult with a veterinarian on the best practices for developing a proper health and nutrition program for early weaned calves.


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