Weighing the Concept of Early Weaning

Published on Tue, 06/27/2023 - 12:39pm

Weighing the Concept of Early Weaning.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

There are plenty of reasons to wean a calf early. Though it is very practical as a routine practice,  it also requires some additional needs from the farm personnel.

One of the biggest benefits of weaning a calf early is that it helps the cow regain optimal condition for rebreeding. Early weaning is also especially advantageous during seasons when pasture is poor and cannot sustain or  support long-term lactating cows. In this way, weaning can be part of pasture management to avoid overgrazing.

The common target age for weaning is usually around seven months of age. However, this is simply an industry target, but not based on necessity or development. When properly transitioned based on rumen development, calves can be weaned as early as two months of age.

Early Weaning Benefits for the Calf
Cows and herd management aren’t the only boons to early weaning. Calves can also benefit from the jumpstart.

“There are a variety of economic benefits to implementing early weaning strategies,” writes NT Cosby, PhD, of Purina Animal Nutrition, in his article, Three Reasons for Weaning Calves Early. “For the calf, we’re looking at feeding during a time in their lives when they are extremely efficient at converting feed to gain.”

According to Robert Wells, PhD, of the Noble Research Institute, when calves are weaned early, they should be placed on a high quality, nutritionally dense ration. Subsequently these calves can be more efficient at converting feed to gain.

From a biological perspective, the rumen has to build the microbial population over time. However, rumen development proceeds rapidly once solid food consumption begins. When transitioned properly, calves will adapt quickly to dietary and environmental changes.

No matter the age, weaning is still a stressful process and care needs to be given to successfully transition calves. A good pre-weaning program can alleviate the worst of the issues. A good program incorporates measures such as vaccinations, low-stress methods like fenceline weaning or nosering weaning, and avoidance of additional stressors like branding, dehorning or castrating shortly before or after weaning.

Early Weaning and the Cow
As mentioned before, one of the primary cow-based benefits of early earning is improved body condition score. This is especially useful for late spring calving. The additional time allows the cow to regain better condition going into the fall and winter, when feed may be more limited.

According to Wells, nutritional requirements drop 15-20% after lactation subsides. This can help the cow use those extra nutritional requirements to recover and improve  body condition score. As well, it can  reduce additional requirements later on.

Early weaning not only impacts body condition score after delivery of this calf, but the chances of conception for the next calf.

“The effects of early weaning can carry over into enhanced conception rates for the third calf by ensuring the female goes into the third breeding season in adequate body condition to support pregnancy,” writes Wells.

Early Weaning Pitfalls
With early weaning, there can be some additional requirements or concerns that may increase risks and inputs.

For example, weaning younger calves requires top notch attention to detail regarding the calf’s nutrition and management. This includes providing a high quality starter grain to promote rumen development more quickly, having the facilities to provide grain, and, depending on the weaning method, extra pasture or barn space.

Remember that early weaned calves will also be able to separate from the rest of the herd sooner, so having a place to put them with high quality pasture and/or supplemental forages is a consideration. This may also require additional labor upfront.

David Lalman, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist with Oklahoma State, writes in his bulletin, The Use of Early Weaning in Practical Cattle Management:

“Minimal health problems have been observed with university and producer cattle demonstrations, when the calves were maintained on the home ranch. However, serious problems have been encountered when early weaned calves were moved directly from the cow to commercial feeding or growing facilities. There must be some kind of prior preparation phase before exposing young, early weaned calves to the stresses of shipment, weaning and the numerous pathogens circulating around a feedlot.”

Overall Considerations
For many operations, early weaning may not be the most ideal option for  every season. However it is a powerful management tool, especially in  drought  or when feed is scarce. Ranchers who practice early weaning with care and intentionality can reap tremendous benefits.

Because all ranches and farms are different,  the benefits, risks, and extra labor and input costs must be considered to determine whether early weaning is a viable option.