Animal Health Notebook
Thin cow nursing calf Alan Newport
Big cows ultimately produce big calves, and those calves aren't the ideal product for the industry when they are weaned, the author suggests.

Reconsider weaning weight emphasis

Our industry needs healthy yearlings with a work ethic and a highly functional immune system, not "big calves."

For many years, bunches of producers and “experts” have placed lots of emphasis on big, heavy weaning weights.

I really do not understand this as most everyone has always known that early-born, big calves out of big cows that give lots of milk and persist through a long lactation will wean a big, soggy calf at 210 days of age. I’ve had clients with cows that gave so much milk that they worked to calve them in mid-winter so they didn’t scour the baby.

“But when the grass greens up the calf will really boogie,” I’ve heard them say.

Fall calving cows were run in pastures with creep feeders to take some pressure off the cow and give the calf a boost thru the winter. “They’ll sure be ready for spring grass and cheap gains,” was taught.

I have spent the vast majority of my career in production agriculture, but several of my opinions have made quite dramatic changes as we have learned more about the natural model. I attempt to keep exiting any part of agriculture that chooses to fight nature, and the big-calves scenario is one of them.

I recently read the magic figure for weaning is a minimum of 43% of the cow’s mature weight. I do not believe in magic, and we were talking about weaning 50% of the cow’s weight 35 years ago. I often wonder how much progress we have actually made and which direction we’ve gone.

Around our place big milking cows cull themselves for a bunch of reasons which include:

  • Breeding (reproduction) inefficiency.
  • High carrying cost/hard keeping
  • Ease of selling - lots of folks like big cows
  • More foot problems
  • Handling and equipment issues – they tend to tear up everything!
  • But the No. 1 reason I don’t keep big pretty cows is lack of profitability.

I figure profitability on a per acre basis and big cows always figure themselves out when we are totally honest and don’t forget a thing. With that kind of talk, I guess many of ya’ll consider me prejudiced. I’ll just say that we don’t do nothing for looks.

In my opinion weaning weights are likely the worst method ever invented to evaluate cattle profitability and are generally a poor way to evaluate individual cow performance. Get rid of cows that raise dink calves and go on to something else that is rewarding and fun.

I’ll regress a little and say that I have no problem at all with an enterprise that raises multiple calves on nurse cows. I’ve seen high animal husbandry women raise 40 calves annually on a single nurse cow. Five or maybe ten of these nurse cows can make for a specialized, full-time job. It is fun to view but is a very detailed routine work that requires lots of skill to pull off successfully. I’ve never seen anyone stay with it long term. Procurement of the right calves is now near impossible in most areas.

At any rate, it's likely everyone can agree that few pretty calves are ever prettier than they are the day of their seven-month birthday and are jumped onto a trailer, headed for the sale barn after having just nursed mama for the last time. This is the worst time to sell the calf as far as the industry is concerned, but the calf sure is pretty.

Most serious cow-calf producers do not sell calves with milk on their breath. So what is the big deal about weaning weight? Why not profits, health, markets, reputation, forage efficiency, reproduction, and longevity, since these are important to our livelihood. Don’t forget profit per acre as a measuring stick.

Further, our industry needs cattle that do not get sick. These are not calves, but they are healthy yearlings with a work ethic and a highly functional immune system. Hanging a Choice carcass that eats real good and easy and heals consumer bodies will help everyone. We should be able to do all of this before the animal is 30 months of age, with only a little feed and very little attention to big weaning weights.

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