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Early Weaning Considerations

As we enter the later part of the summer, many farms and ranches may find themselves short of grass.  In the upper plains, the main reason may be due to drought conditions and in other areas it may be due to stocking rate combined with weather issues.  I travel in areas of expensive farm ground where the availability of pasture land is still an issue.  Several producers have added cows more quickly than pasture has become available or available at a reasonable cost.  We have yet to see corn and bean ground going back into grassland at an appreciable rate.  Whatever the reason of forage shortage, the decision to early wean can benefit the cow by reducing the nutrient demand for lactation and allowing her to regain body condition.

Questions to answer when considering early weaning.

  1. Which animals to early wean?
  2. How do I reduce the stress on the calves?
  3. What to consider in feeding the calves?

Who to wean?

It may not be necessary to early wean the whole herd. Age and cow body condition should be the main determining factors for early weaning.  The goal of early weaning is to retain brood cows in the herd by reducing the nutrient demand of lactation which allows the limited nutrients to be used for restoring body condition and reproductive performance.  First calf heifers are still growing while milking for the current calf and developing their second calf in utero.  These animal by far have the highest nutrient demand and the most potential to benefit from early weaning.  Thinner mature cows and or heavy milking cows may be the next ones to consider for early weaning.  The economic considerations are both short term and long term.  In the short term, can I restore body condition cheaper by weaning now verses feeding the cow later in the fall and winter?  The long-term consideration is related to cow depreciation and long-term profitability.  Can I change management to keep some of these expensive young cows in the herd longer and see an economic return on her purchase price?

CRYSTALYX Beef Cow Body Condition Score App

CRYSTALYX Beef Cow Body Condition Score App

The CRYSTALYX® Beef Cow Body Condition Score App is a great tool to assist with managing reproduction in the cow herd and very useful in evaluating who needs to be weaned early.  The BCS App has reference photos and descriptions of each BCS.    If you have used the CRYSTALYX® BCS App in the past, you have a record of what your cow’s condition is like in years past at the time you took pictures.    Each BCS point is equivalent to 75-80 pounds of body weight.  If we assume the cow can gain 1 to 2 lb./day on the available forage, we need 40 to 80 days to add 1 BCS.  Thinner cows will need more time and possibly some supplementation to recover body condition before the winter.  CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplements offer a variety of protein formulas to fit various forage conditions and a self-fed supplement reduces the labor and equipment cost of feeding cows verses other feeding programs.   It will be less expensive to add condition now compared to when the winter weather increases maintenance requirements.

Reducing Stress on the Calves – Early Weaning Should Be a Prolonged Process

Early weaned calves will be lighter and more easily stressed.  Below is a list of items that can be done prior to early weaning that will help reduce stress at weaning.

  1. Vaccinate and castrate at least 2 weeks prior to weaning.
  2. Deworm calves prior to weaning.
  3. Creep feed calves so they have a chance to acclimate to dry feeds.
  4. Provide fly control measures such as fly tags or pour on products.
  5. Acclimate calves to water tanks and automatic waters.  Summer heat and dehydration are a concern with early weaning.
  6. Offer a CRYSTALYX® Brand stress block such as Battalion® or Brigade® prior to and during weaning.

Offering a stress tub prior to weaning can have several benefits.  First it acclimates the calves to consuming a low moisture block if they have not seen the product.  If you are using a low moisture mineral or protein product with the cows the calves will know what they are.  However, providing a stress block in the creep feeding area will benefit the calves.  Not all low moisture blocks are formulated the same.   Formulas for mature cows are typically put together assuming 0.75 to 1.0 lb./hd/day intake and early weaned calves will only consume 0.15 to 0.25 lb./hd/day.  The mineral density is formulated for the cow’s intake and not the calf on most protein type blocks.   Battalion® and Brigade® are more highly fortified with trace minerals and vitamins to account for the lower intake of the calf.   In addition, the stress blocks contain the BioPlex® trace minerals for increased availability and electrolytes to stimulate feed intake.  Battalion® has additional additives to support gut health and promote feed intake.   The calves are often at their lowest trace mineral status at weaning due to the fact they have been relying on body stores of trace minerals since birth.  Milk and grass have been the main feedstuffs for the calves, both are relatively low in trace minerals.  Providing a stress block prior to weaning and at least for 30 days during weaning will help the calves be in a higher mineral and vitamin status, resulting in improved health and performance.  Feed intake data on incoming calves has shown that it can be 2-3 weeks before all the calves are eating at the target dry matter intake of the formulated diet.  A stress block fills in the nutrition gap during this time and stimulated feed intake to help the slow starting calves catch up sooner.

Feeding Considerations – Plan and Facility Modifications

Feed intake of early weaned calves is much lower than fall weaned calves and any drop-in feed intake will reduce performance.  Work with your nutritionist and veterinarian to have a vaccination and feeding program in place prior to bringing the calves into the pen.  Next, look at the pen!!  Does it fit the calves?  Can they reach the water and feed?  Can they reach the feed all day long?

Calves will need a nutrient dense diet with adequate fiber to maintain rumen health.  Wet feeds and fermented feeds are not a good fit for early weaned calves.  A least-cost ration will pull wet feed and fermented feeds in every time based on cost of the diet, but these calves cannot consume enough of a wet diet due to their body size.  In addition, fermented feed can be less palatable and reduce feed intake.  Commercial starter feeds and grower pellets have palatability and consistency benefits over a commodity blend that can be dusty, inconsistent and often too high in starch for starting calves.

Early weaning may be a viable option for many operations to manage body condition of the cow and maintain herd size.  Evaluate your first calf heifers, younger cows and heavy milking cows to see if it will be more economical to early wean verses feeding later and risking some cows being open next breeding season.  Early weaning takes some planning.  Reducing stress on calves by doing some work in the pasture prior to weaning and making sure the weaning pen is set up for this size of calf will help make early weaning a success.  CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplement offers several programs and products that will help with managing cow body condition and reducing calf weaning stress.