At the height of the drought, when feed supplies were tight, many producers were taking a hard look at their weaning plan. And although the intensity of the drought is easing in some areas, early weaning may still be a viable option for producers looking for another herd management tool.
Warren Rusche, South Dakota State University cow/calf field specialist, says early weaning can be a powerful tool, because a lactating beef cow's daily nutrient requirement can be significantly reduced – by 25% or more – when lactation is stopped by weaning.
Though there can be a disadvantage in early weaning due to lower selling weights for the calf or feeding 3-4 month-old calves, there is good news, Rusche says.
"The good news is that early weaned calves can perform very well when fed high quality diets. Feed conversions around of about 5:1 (feed:gain) are certainly possible," he explains.
Calves at 3-4 months will require a diet that contains about 16% crude protein and 70% TDN. That typically means diets should contain 60% grain and other ingredients higher in protein, like soybean meal. The ration requirements are largely due to the calves' rumen size.
If producers are considering and early weaning arrangement, but lack the tools to mix rations, creep feeds may also suffice, Rusche notes.
"Some producers have successfully weaned calves on pasture with a creep feeder. Once calves were consuming sufficient amounts of creep feed, the cows would be sorted off leaving the calves behind," he says. "This works particularly well for older cows that don’t milk very well and are going to be culled."
Rusche says aside from feeding requirements, there are a few more considerations:
-Consult with a veterinarian to develop an antibody and health plan for early-weaned calves.
-Make sure facilities can accommodate lighter calves by ensuring water and feed are accessible and gaps in fences are secure.
-Control dust in drylots with bedding or a water system
-Avoid feeding silages until calves are 400-450 pounds, again due to limited rumen space.
For more information, view SDSU's Early Weaning Beef Calves paper.