Editor's note: This story on early weaning is a nice primer for anyone considering the practice. We've put the three pieces together for a single read. The longer series is available at in the archives at www.cabpartners.com/news/press/index.php.
With a few key management tweaks, beef producers already weaning at home can reap the rewards of calves that gain faster, convert cheaper, perform better and reduce cow costs.
"We started weaning calves early because of drought," says ruminant nutritionist Jeff Heldt. "Now we do it because it makes sense from a cow feed-cost and grass-availability standpoint."
Heldt, a field consultant for Land O'Lakes Purina Feed, works with cattlemen in the western portions of Nebraska and South Dakota who have moved their weaning date toward a 90-day target.
He says they have average savings of $40 per cow in feed costs and 25% increase in forage availability.
"You can't feed a more efficient beef animal than one that is 100 to 200 days of age," Heldt says. "If you're feeding calves clear out to finish, you can really take advantage of this in the areas of feed efficiency and carcass quality. In an early-weaning program, these two things are going to be money makers."
Meet nutritional needs
Weaning at 90 to 120 days of age has proved to be an effective tool to maximize feed efficiency and stimulate marbling development, but that comes with added nutritional responsibility.
Cargill Animal Nutrition beef specialist Bryan McMurry says early weaned calves have smaller rumens, less intake capacity and fewer microbes to digest feed than older weanlings. That means feeds must be high quality and highly digestible.
Getting calves on a decent creep feed 30 days before will make the process a lot easier, McMurry says.
Brush, Colorado, rancher Justin Curtis transitioned from creep feeding to feeding a 90-day-old weaned calf. He focused on using readily available feeds and facilities.
Three weeks before weaning, he set up electric fence in the irrigated pasture his pairs were grazing. With a wire just tall enough for calves to walk under but hot enough to keep cows out, he offered a 50/50 combination of ground hay and corn in tire feeders.
"When it came time to wean, we didn't have any trouble getting them to the bunk," Curtis says. "Once they know what feed is, those young calves fill up just like an older one would."
Generally good health
Pulling calves from the cow at half the conventional age changes the timeline of health protocols.
"You would think these younger calves would require more attention, but my experience is that the health on them is outstanding," Heldt says. "The number we doctor and the amount we have to monitor on a day-to-day basis is much less than your typical 600-pound calf weaned in October."
Calves at that age will have fully functioning immune systems but it will not be as efficient in responding to antigens as an older calf. Yet calves from well-vaccinated cows will still carry some maternal antibodies, and they can be effectively vaccinated and later given booster shots.
Early weaned calves are often ready for an earlier market, which is another pay-off from good health.
Nelson is industry information specialist for Certified Angus Beef.