Weaning calves early can take pressure off forage supplies, specialists say.

“People I’ve worked with who wean early tell me they notice a difference in the pastures when grazing dry cows rather than pairs. This helps pasture recovery in the following year, as well,” says Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Animal Science Department head and professor.

Trey Patterson, of the Padlock Ranch in Ranchester, WY, did some research while on faculty at South Dakota State University (SDSU), teaming up with range scientists from SDSU and NDSU. He says that, comparing spring-calving cows weaning in August with cows weaning in November, they found that the dry cow from August through November used 76% the amount of forage that the cow-calf pair did.

“When we early-weaned, we saved 24% of forage that otherwise would have been used during that time. Early weaning can help when trying to manage body condition score on cows and/or forage use.

“If it’s a forage-availability question, calculate whether you’re ahead to leave the calf on the cow (assuming body condition score is adequate) and feed the cow more during the extra time she’s lactating, or cheaper to wean the calf and feed it, and not have to feed the cow as soon or as much,” he explains. 

Sidebar: Vaccination points

Thinking about early weaning? Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University Animal Science Department head and professor, says to look to your veterinarian for advice on health products and timing.

“In a really early-weaning situation, you’re still close enough to birth that you could run into interference problems when vaccinating, because the calf still has maternal antibodies from the colostrum,” he says. Vaccination decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the herd, age of the calves, etc.

Often, really young calves are easier to manage healthwise than some of the 500-lb. calves being weaned, adds Ron Gill, Texas A&M University Extension beef cattle specialist. “Passive immunity is still strong in young calves, whereas immunity in five-weight calves is waning. The health on small calves is usually pretty good, unless you stress them a lot in the weaning process,” he says.

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, ID.