Mid-summer can be a great time of year: grass is growing, cows are in good body condition due to lush forages this spring, and calves are old enough to be really growing and muscling-up. To me, there is nothing better than watching a calf who is old enough to be out grazing and growing on his own, and usually oblivious to where his mom is.

Often, because we like the look of those growing calves so much, the majority of beef cattle producers (53% to be exact), decide when to wean their calves primarily based on calf weight or age. Interestingly, according to USDA survey data (Figure 1), only 7% of producers consider cow body condition score as the primary factor to determine weaning time.

Click to view printable table (Word document).

I’ll be the first to admit it – it’s not very appealing to even look at young, small, and lightweight calves, never mind weaning them like that. We all love to see big, heavy, stout calves at weaning time. But, numerous studies have demonstrated that weaning calves early can be an effective tool to help improve reproduction and forage availability by reducing nutrient requirements of the cows.

Lactation drain: The case for early weaning

A typical beef cow requires about 10 megacalories of energy per day to maintain her body tissues. When she is lactating, the same cow requires approximately 3 to 6 additional megacalories per day, depending on how many days she has been lactating.

 

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When a calf is weaned earlier than normal, the cow’s overall nutritional requirements are reduced when her lactation stops. Non-lactating cows require about 20-35% fewer nutrients than lactating ones. Interestingly, Oklahoma researchers reported that cows consume about 1% of their body weight less after early weaning. Ultimately, fewer nutrients required per cow means more feed to go around for other more appropriate uses.

Among researchers, it is generally agreed that weaning early can offer these advantages:

  • Cows are able to improve their body condition score prior to winter feeding,
  • Reproductive performance can improve (as seen by more cows pregnant during the season and/or more cows pregnant earlier in the season) due to reduced nutritional demand and improved body condition scores,
  • Greater forage availability for cows or other livestock, including reduced demand on pastures,
  • Improved calf performance in drought situations, sometimes including more desirable carcass characteristics.