Successfully managing drought conditions requires balancing the amount of forage demanded by grazing livestock with the amount produced. Early weaning can be a very effective tool for accomplishing that objective in the right circumstances.
Why Consider Early Weaning?
There is an excellent reason why ranchers use early weaning as a drought management tool; weaning calves early reduces the amount of feed required to maintain the cow. Ending lactation reduces the cow’s nutrient requirements and dry matter intake compared to when she is nursing a calf, even during late lactation. Calves consume approximately 2.0 to 2.5% of bodyweight of dry forage; weaning early eliminates that forage demand as well. The combination of these two factors results in 30 to 40% less daily forage consumption.
Research conducted by SDSU demonstrated that weaning calves 90 days earlier cut forage disappearance by 36%, or 18.9 pounds per head per day. That equates to an additional 1.1 AUM in additional grazing available which should help ranchers reduce the number of cows that need to be moved off grass and reduce the risk of over-grazing.
Early weaned calves generally are more efficient compared to calves weaned at older ages, as long as they have high quality diets to eat. Feed conversions around 5:1 (feed:gain) are certainly possible. Calves of this age (100 to 150 d of age) require a diet that contains about 16% crude protein and 70% TDN. Typical diets are about 60% grain, 10-20% higher protein ingredients, with the balance of the ration comprised of higher fiber/roughage feedstuffs, as well as vitamins and minerals.
Some producers have successfully weaned calves on pasture with a creep feeder. Once calves were consuming sufficient amounts of creep feed, the cows are sorted off leaving the calves behind. Using feedstuffs such as small grain regrowth, cover crops, or crop residue (if available) is another strategy to cut costs.
If the drought and the trend for more cow/calf pairs being shipped to auction markets continues, it is very likely that we will see increased numbers of pairs being split and sold as light-weight feeder calves. Handling very light calves in a feedlot or grow yard setting can be challenging. Depending on available facilities and management, there is an opportunity to grow calves very economically at a lower initial investment compared to buying heavier calves in the fall.
For the rancher, selling early-weaned calves at weaning can be a major drawback to this system. Younger calves will obviously weigh less, and bring fewer dollars to the ranch. Because they do represent additional challenges, light-weight weaned calves may face some price pressure, depending on how many are being sold at one time and the eagerness of cattle buyers to take on these cattle. Early weaning works best for ranchers who have the feed, facilities, and management ability to hang on to their calf crop until they reach a more traditional sale weight.
Calf health can be another concern. Summer conditions let us avoid the cold, wet weather that causes problems in the fall; the trade-off is dust and possible heat stress. Feeders should take steps to reduce these stressors such as shade, sprinklers, or bedding. They should also consult with their veterinarian for a vaccination and health plan specifically designed for their operation.