Early Weaning

Early Weaning

By Heather Smith Thomas

Sometimes weaning calves early can be beneficial for both the cows and calves.

To do this efficiently, however, it’s important to plan ahead and be set up to do it properly.  Dr. Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University, says most producers who try early weaning are using it as a drought management tool, or in other situations where they may be facing a forage shortage.

“It can work effectively in those conditions because the big advantage of early weaning is reducing lactation demands on the cow.  A dry cow on drought-stressed forage has much lower nutrient demands than a cow hitting peak lactation.  Producers who have been able to utilize this option have made it a very effective tool in dealing with drought,” he says.

“The big issue is what to do with the calves.  Do you have facilities and feedstuffs to manage them effectively?  If you do early-wean calves, especially if they are only 2 to 3 months of age, they have relatively high nutrient requirements and need a high-quality diet,” he explains.  Some people may wean them that early, while others may be weaning at 4 to 5 months of age, rather than their traditional 8 to 9 months of age. 

“Another circumstance where I see this management tool used effectively is with calves from first-calf (2-year-old) heifers.  In addition to lactation demand, the 2-year-old is still trying to grow and reach mature size.  Even in a non-drought situation, it can help these young cows if you don’t leave calves on them too long.  You free up the cow’s nutrients to complete growth and have a healthy pregnancy.”

Lardy always recommends doing some planning if you decide to early wean.  “This is not something you just jump into.  You need to figure out how you want to do it and make sure you have facilities in place, feed for the calves, and work with your veterinarian to make sure you have the proper animal health program for those early-weaned calves,” he says.

Some people plan on feeding the calves while others just wean them on pasture.  “Many producers in my area are used to doing backgrounding or heifer development with their calves, so they already have facilities, and some experience handling calves post-weaning.  So handling calves that are a little younger—say 4 to 5 months old–is not a big stretch.  But if you get into a situation where you need to wean because of severe drought and decide to take them off the cow at 2 months of age, this is a different animal than most producers are comfortable with or used to handling.  Many people don’t know if they can properly care for the calves at that age,” says Lardy.

“But if you meet their nutritional requirements, you can successfully wean them that young.  Most people I’ve worked with on this are weaning at 4 to 5 months of age and the calves have a little more growth and can make the transition better.”  They are used to eating more forage and it’s not such an abrupt change.

“Some people wean them and if the markets are good they’ll go ahead and sell them as lightweight feeder calves early in the season.  They may weigh only 350 to 400 pounds and are sent to a stocker operation.  Other people have the facilities and feed to manage those calves and sell them later, at the time they normally would.  Some are working with a feedlot and maybe retain ownership on those calves,” he says.

“When working with really lightweight calves, the facilities you built to handle 500-600 pound calves when you wean in October aren’t going to work as well for a 250-pound calf weaned in July.  Those calves can find the tiniest hole in the fence and crawl out.  They may also have problems reaching over a bunk to eat, or reaching the water in a tank.  I tell people not to make the decision one day and go out and wean calves the next.  Make sure you think through some of these things and adjust the facilities,” he explains.

You may also have to deal with heat stress that time of year.  “With early weaning, especially in a drought, you are almost always dealing with hot, dry weather—higher temperatures than normal.  Heat stress can be factor, so take that into account when weaning and handling calves, and working the cows, as well.  Some years, even in our climate, there are severe heat loads on cattle, and some people actually lose cattle—due to high temperatures, high humidity and lack of a breeze,” says Lardy.

You might need to provide shade for the calves, instead of protection from fall and winter storms.  “With earlier weaning dates, make sure you can protect calves from heat.  Having plenty of fresh water is important, and some calves have no experience drinking from tanks or fountains.  They may have been drinking from a dugout, pond or stream,” he says.

Sometimes it helps to put the cows and calves into the weaning pen or pasture a few days ahead of time, so cows can show the calves where the feed and water is.  “Some people also have success with a trainer/babysitter cow, or even an older feeder calf as a role model.”  The older animal can teach the young ones, and act as security for them, in a leader/follower role.  That animal can have a calming influence on younger calves.

“It’s important to work with your veterinarian to make sure you have a good vaccination program in place that will work for early-weaned calves.  You need to plan this a little, but sometimes a person needs to take emergency action.  If your pastures had fire damage and you lost a lot of forage, you may not have time to do much planning.”

Weaning early can take some of the pressure off forage supplies and nutrients required by the lactating cow.  By the time a calf gets to be 4 to 5 months of age he is eating a significant amount of forage.  “The lactating cow is eating more forage than a dry cow.  The people I’ve worked with over the years who have weaned early tell me they can notice a difference in pastures, grazing dry cows rather than pairs.  This can aid recovery of pastures the following year, as well,” says Lardy.

When weaning early, producers should prepare facilities, taking behavioral issues into account.  When calves are weaned in pens, they circle the pen, trying to find a way out.  “If the water source is located in the fence line, calves will find it quicker.  If it’s in the center of the pen they will find it eventually, but it will take longer,” he explains.  Having feed bunks in the fence will also help them find the feed more readily.

Starting young calves out on fine, palatable long-stem forage is also a good idea, because this is the type of feed they are most familiar with.  “You also need to get them transitioned onto some energy-dense, nutritious feeds fairly quickly, since they can’t handle much volume of forage yet.  You might use a starter pellet from a commercial feed company or mix the diet yourself, but these calves need good-quality forage and nutritious concentrate to make sure they have adequate protein and energy levels and their vitamin/mineral requirements.  Avoid low-quality hay, or any hay with dust, mold or heat damage, as these will lead to problems in early-weaned calves,” he says.

“When you wean a calf that’s only 2 to 3 months old, the rumen volume is much less than that of a calf that’s 6 months old or older.  The young calves need a denser diet.  A nutritionist available through your extension service or a feed company can help you with the ration.  There are many ways you can do it, but you need to make sure you are providing the nutrition these calves need,” he says.

“If you have time, it pays to do any castration, dehoring, branding, etc. well ahead of weaning (at least a couple weeks) or a couple weeks after weaning.  If you compound the stress of weaning with these things, you are potentially setting yourself up for additional problems,” says Lardy.

If you wean in summer there will also be fly issues, as well as heat.  “If the calves are in a pen, there are some easy control measures to cut down on flies—whether it’s fly tags or a spray application of pesticide.  Some feedlots also use parasitic wasps to control flies that breed in manure.  Fly control should not be overlooked because flies are one more stress you don’t want,” he says.

“Another issue in a drought is that you often end up with dusty conditions in pens.  Finding a way to manage dust is a good idea because it’s an irritant to the eyes (opening the way for pinkeye) and to the nasal cavity and airways.  Irritation can contribute to additional respiratory issues.  If you can water down the pens periodically to keep dust down, this helps.  You typically have warmer temperatures than during fall weaning, and if there’s wind there will be dust blowing around,” he says. 

“If you are thinking about doing this for the first time, do some advance planning.  Sit down with your veterinarian, and a nutritionist if you have one, to work through the health and nutrition programs these calves will need, for successful early weaning.  Most of the time, early-weaned calves transition just fine, and in many cases easier than older calves in November when you get into cold stormy weather.  But it pays to work with animal health professionals and nutritionists ahead of time to make sure you are not overlooking something,” he says.

“Most of the time your veterinarian will know your herd well enough to give good advice on what to use and when to vaccinate, and whether you should do anything different than what you normally would have been doing.  If you get into a really early weaning situation, often you are still close enough to birth that you could run into interference problems when vaccinating, because the calf still has maternal antibodies from colostrum.  These are things that make it important to have a veterinarian involved because decisions may need to be made on a case-by-case basis.  We can’t give a blanket recommendation on vaccinations.  Every herd is different, which is why you need to consult with your veterinarian.”  It depends on the herd, the age of the calves, etc.

For producers whose pastures are drought-stressed, early weaning might be beneficial, according to Dr. Bart Lardner (Department of Animal & Poultry Science, College of Agriculture & Bio-Resources, University of Saskatchewan).  Last year he did some drought workshops for producers, and talked about early weaning.  “We need to make sure the calf’s rumen is functioning, and adjusted to a forage diet, and realize that we need to get calves weaned with least stress possible,” he explains.

If the calf weighs 300 to 400 pounds, what is your target for weight at sale time?  “What is your expected average daily gain?  Expected feed intake for those calves may vary; they need some forage, with enough energy and protein in the diet.  On the energy side, they need 56 to 60% TDN and on the protein side 11 to 13%,” he says.

Depending on the forage quality, a supplement may be needed—especially if forages are low-quality because of drought.  “What I’ve found over the years is that overall, calves that are 3 to 6 months of age on a typical grass-based pasture or native range will not gain more than 2 pounds per day, and in a drought year it will be less than 2 pounds.  It that’s not acceptable, you need to feed a supplement.”

This might be pellets or barley, or something else to provide the extra energy.  “These calves probably need 3 to 4 pounds per day because they are growing fast.  They also need the proper mineral balance.  Make sure the rumen is functional and they can handle various fiber sources,” says Lardner.

“We’ve looked at all kinds of different fiber sources for cows, other than a typical hay bale, and options might include salvage crops.  But with calves you want to make sure they can handle the feed and keep gaining and growing.  Basically you are just backgrounding them early.”  They need a ration appropriate to their stage of growth and development so they can hit whatever target weight you are shooting for at the time you sell them—maybe 600 to 700 pounds.


“In most cases calves won’t have experience with fermented feedstuffs or wet byproducts, unless their dams were being fed some of this in their ration before they went to pasture.  You need to start with feeds they are most familiar with, which is usually long-stemmed forages.  Then, if you want to use silages or by-products, introduce those gradually after you get the calves eating hay and they are well into the weaning process.  Then you can introduce them to these novel feeds,”
says Lardy.

Do the math and figure out how much daily gain is needed for those particular calves to reach your target.  “When you early-wean, you are basically starting a backgrounding program.  Have an objective, and make sure you have a market.  You might have an arrangement with a local feed yard or someone who is finishing calves, or perhaps just selling through an auction market,” says Lardner.  If the calves are already weaned and backgrounded, they are more saleable; they are ready to go anywhere and at any time.  These cattle are very flexible for marketing.

“This can be part of a drought plan—weaning calves early and timing the marketing as needed.  Each month have a plan for what to do if you don’t get rain.  You could move this group of animals, or that group of animals, when necessary.  You are destocking, but you have a plan in place.”  Calves that are already weaned are your most flexible group, and hopefully their body condition has not been jeopardized and they will be looking good. 

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