Early weaning is a technique beef cattle producers do not often use on cattle operations. However, drought conditions may necessitate the implementation of non-traditional practices to continue normal and productive operations.
“In some areas of Alabama that were hard hit by drought last year, forages are not growing well,” Dr. Lisa Kriese-Anderson, an Alabama Extension animal scientist, said. “Producers may need to look at weaning calves early to take the pressure off of forages and cows. Also realize early weaning does not mean at three months of age—it can be one to two months earlier than usual.”
How Early is Early Weaning?
Weaning can happen as early as 45 days of age early weaning at 60 to 90 days is preferable. However, depending on calving season and when drought conditions begin, early weaning may only be one to two months earlier than usual.
Depending on calving season and when drought conditions begin, early weaning may only be one to two months earlier than usual. Early weaned calves accustomed to creep feeding will prevent added stress. It may require additional management, but the benefits of early weaning during drought can be beneficial to the overall operation.
Advantages of Early Weaning
- Nutritional requirements for dams of early-weaned calves could be reduced by half. By weaning early, the cow’s nutrient requirements for lactation are eliminated. This enables cows to maintain or increase body condition prior to fall and winter feeding periods.
- With reduced nutritional needs, more cows can be kept on available forages.
- Dams of early-weaned calves should have adequate body condition scores at subsequent calving, which will be beneficial for rebreeding.
- Poorer quality roughages can be provided to dams of early-weaned calves because their daily nutritional requirements are reduced.
- During drought, calves may not be able to compete with cows for adequate forages. By weaning early and providing a nutritious diet, calves can reach their growth potential. These calves are very efficient in converting feed to gain. Early weaning, coupled with feeding a high concentrate diet, has resulted in increased quality grade at slaughter without a decrease in finish weight.
Disadvantages of Early Weaning
- Management increase is necessary. Farmers should pay close attention to early-weaned calf health status, nutritional needs and overall management.
- Costs will increase. Instead of pasture and milk, early-weaned calves will eat high quality rations of stored forages and supplemental feed.
- Adequate facilities to drylot early-weaned calves are necessary.
- If the cow herd has high milk expected progeny difference values, the potential increase in weaning weight is not realized through increased milk production.
Herd Management Prior to Early Weaning
Several management practices must be complete prior to weaning early.
- Castrate bull calves a minimum of 14 days before weaning. Dehorning should also occur at this time.
- Early weaned beef calves have variable levels of colostrum-derived antibodies at 2-4 months of age. These calves could benefit from vaccination prior to the stress of weaning. Farmers should consult herd veterinarians to create a health plan for early-weaned calves.
- Calves should know how to eat solid feeds and drink from a water trough. Calves that are unable to eat or drink will encounter additional stress and are more susceptible to illness.
Herd Management at Weaning
At weaning, producers should de-worm calves and provide fly control if flies are an issue. Flies can reduce weights by as much as 30 pounds if not controlled. At this time, producers can also implant steer calves and non-replacement heifers with a low-dose, growth-promoting product. Ensure calf access to a high quality trace mineral and give a vitamin A, D and E injection.
Alabama Extension veterinarian Dr. Soren Rodning, said producers should closely observe calves to be sure they are eating and drinking regularly.
“Watch for symptoms of illness, such as not eating, not chewing cud, listlessness, drooping heads or ears, coughing, bloat, scours or diarrhea,” Rodning said. “It is important to consult the herd veterinarian to determine the best management strategies at the earliest signs of potential health problems.”
Diets for Early-Weaned Calves
Calves will eat sparingly after weaning. Therefore, the feed for early-weaned calves must be palatable and nutritious. Producers should consider quality over price.
Dr. Kim Mullenix, an Alabama Extension beef specialist, said early-weaned calves have high nutritional requirements because they are maturing.
“A high energy-protein diet (≥ 70 percent total digestible nutrients and 15 to 16 percent crude protein) is needed for calves less than 450 pounds,” Mullenix said. “Protein requirements decrease as calves reach weights above 450 pounds. However, producers should maintain the energy levels of the diet.”
Starting young calves on a development ration takes time. Calves tend to be more selective about feed texture than mature cows. Slowly acclimating calves to high energy diets is important for rumen health and animal production.
Expected Performance for Early Weaned Calves
Nursing calves usually gain 2.1 to 2.3 pounds per day. Early weaned calves placed on a high quality diet should be able to grow at this rate.
It is economically advantageous to maintain ownership of early-weaned calves until they reach the traditional weaning age. Market prices and prices for lightweight calves will not be equivalent when calves are able to mature and put on weight. Early-weaned, lightweight calves have a much higher efficiency of gain.
Find more information on dietary restrictions and suggestions and specific early weaning strategies in the Timely Information – Early Weaned Calves sheet. This sheet is authored by Alabama Cooperative Extension System Animal Science team members Dr. Lisa Kriese-Anderson, Dr. Kim Mullenix and Dr. Soren Rodning.
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