Early weaning can help stretch resources and keep cows in better condition  

Producers in parts of the region stricken with drought conditions are already dipping into their winter hay reserves. The high cost of commodity feed stuffs, increased fertilizer costs thus fewer fertilized pastures and a potentially tight hay supply are forcing some producers to look for alternative management practices to get their herds through the winter months. Livestock extension specialists recommend producers consider weaning calves early to help stretch hay and forage resources and to keep cows in satisfactory body condition.

Age for Early Weaning

Livestock extension specialists separate early weaning parameters into two categories. The first is weaning before the breeding season which is weaning a calf typically before they are 90 days of age. “That is something we would only recommend in the most extreme of drought conditions because those wet navel calves are going to require a lot of management and it is going to be quite different than weaning you are used to,” Eric Bailey, Ph.D., state beef extension specialist with the University of Missouri, said.

The other category of early weaning typically occurs when the calf is around 120 days of age or between 90 and 160 days of age. Livestock extension specialists state during drought conditions there can be benefits to the cow and calf when the calf is weaned during this age interval. 

Conserving Resources

According to livestock extension specialists, early weaning calves significantly reduces nutrient requirements and feed intake for the momma cows. During a time when hay and forage are in short supply, weaning calves early will help to stretch resources until conditions improve. “Cow nutrient requirements drop by 40 percent when calves are weaned. For every 2 ½ days a calf is weaned, saves a day of feed for a cow,” Dr. Bailey stated. 

Early weaning will also improve the cow’s body condition score (BCS). This should be a consideration for herds where the cows are already in marginal body condition. Producers should evaluate if they are willing to allow their cows with already marginal or low body condition to go into winter where hay is in short supply and fescue forages may be down. 

Calf Management

There are benefits to early weaning for calves as well. “The early weaned calves will be equally as healthy as a calf weaned at normal ages as long has your management is solid,” Dr. Bailey said. In addition, some livestock extension specialists state that early weaning can improve calf performance because calves are put on a more nutritious diet when they are weaned.

For the best results, start preparing calves prior to early weaning. Providing creep feed three to four weeks before weaning helps calves get acclimated to the ration they will receive at weaning. Additionally, process calves 14 days prior to weaning. This includes vaccinations, tagging, branding, and castration. 

At weaning, create a ration and environment that will set up calves for success. For example, provide good quality hay to the calves the first three to five days after weaning to improve the calves’ diet consumption. Since freshly weaned calves walk the fence line, offer feed and water along the fence line to encourage calves to eat and drink during the stressful transition. 

The calves will need a palatable, dust-free diet designed to meet their nutritional requirements. Adding water or liquid supplements, such as molasses, reduce dust and sorting while improving palatability. Offering free choice access to mineral, trace mineral, and vitamin supplements is also critical to early weaned calves’ proper development. 

Producers will want to monitor the calves daily for any symptoms of illness. Providing proper internal and external parasite control along with fly control will also help the calves thrive. Livestock extension specialists encourage producers to work with their veterinarian for additional management strategies and treatment when needed for early weaned calves.


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