Early weaning can be a strategic benefit to your herd, giving cows a quicker rebound and earlier breedback. Research shows, too, that calves fed earlier in their life have increased carcass quality.
In simple terms, early weaning beef calves is a management practice that removes calves from the dam and replaces her with direct feed. This allows cows to scavenge to meet their reduced nutrient needs with the intent of maintaining, if not increasing, body condition.
Recent research on early-weaned beef calves has focused on the carcass quality of calves following early weaning (at about 90 to 150 days). Results indicate that more rapid growth in early-weaned calves results in higher marbling scores compared to calves weaned at 205 days. Early-weaned calves will be slaughtered at a younger age. And, aside from higher carcass quality, they tend to have better feed-to-gain ratio.
Marbling development in calves is influenced by management and nutrition. Given that fat cell development is influenced by nutrient intake, intramuscular fat formation may be stimulated during periods in which nutrient intake exceeds what can be used for muscle growth. This is likely the cause for increased marbling scores in early-weaned and well-fed calves.
When I mention these results to producers, I get the question: “With these benefits, why not always wean calves early? If the practice saves feed in a drought, then in a normal year, I could run more cows, right?”
I remind producers that the benefits of early weaning are accompanied by some challenges.
Removing calves from the dam early, coupled with nutrient-dense diets can result in lighter carcass weights, greater number of days on feed and increased feed costs. This is particularly the case for medium- to smaller-framed cattle. In light of the dramatic increase in feed costs from about 2008 to 2013, producers actually went the other direction. They sought to use forage and by-products during a post-weaning growing/backgrounding/stocker phase before putting the cattle in a feedlot.
The goal in that case was to exploit slower growth rates and decreased inputs. Producers wanted to be able to afford the feed bill. Feed costs, at least for now, have realigned, and early weaning may fit more operations.
To use early weaning as a management strategy, you should focus on a few objectives. In your forage-based cow/calf production plan, you want to 1) increase marbling; 2) achieve desired replacement animal growth and development; 3) improve mature cow reproductive efficiency.
To achieve these goals consider these management practices:
- Early weaning must occur before the start of the breeding season to achieve all possible reproductive benefits for the dam.
- Calves should be at least seven weeks of age when weaned.
- Aim for breeding the yearling heifers 30 days before the mature cows. That way their calves will be old enough to early wean at the start of the regular breeding season the next year.
Early-weaned cows will voluntarily consume about 30 percent less dry matter after the calf has been removed. Their decrease in dry matter intake coupled with their concurrent decrease in nutrient demands translates to a 45 percent increase in nutrient efficiency.
Early-weaned calves grow well on forages. Forage should be readily available, of high quality and combined with concentrate supplementation at 1 percent of body weight per day. MFA Cadence is a good option. When high quality, grazable pastures are not available, consider using Cadence 25C or 50C to provide the required intake of energy and protein.
Keep in mind that early-weaned calves are vulnerable to parasites. You need to provide adequate fly control and treat for parasites.
Depending on conditions, it might be advantageous to move the early-weaned calves to a drylot and feed them. And implating is beneficial.
When received into the feedlot at the time of normal weaning, early weaned calves will be heavier and have greater feed efficiency compared to their normal-weaned herd mates. This is an important factor if you are considering whether to retain ownership through finish.
Here are specific feeding guidelines offered by Oklahoma State University’s David Lalman.
- Follow the 10 percent rule. Never increase or decrease the amount of feed offered by more than 5 to 10 percent.
- Always allow one day between increases or decreases in feed offered to allow animals an adjustment period.
- If the bunk stays empty more than an hour for two consecutive days, increase the amount of feed by 5-10 percent.
- Dry feeds may be fed once daily.
- High moisture feeds may need to be fed twice daily to avoid spoiling in hot weather and freezing in cold weather.
- Animals not being fed enough will engorge when fed. This leads to acidosis and the “yoyo” effect of overeating and under-eating. This dramatically decreases animal performance and animal health.
- Before cold fronts, animal feed intake increases dramatically and decreases after the front passes.
- Feed should be fresh!
- If animals rush the bunk when fed, they are probably being underfed.
- If animals have no interest in coming to the bunk when they are fed, they are probably being overfed. Same if the bunk contains spoiled feed.
- Bunks containing spoiled feed or “fines” should be cleaned out.
- If fines are constantly a problem, consider adding molasses, silage or other wet feeds to the diet to decrease the sorting of mineral and vitamin supplements.
- Clean waterers are necessary to maximize feed intake.
- Many of these rules also apply to self-feeders.