Ranchers experiencing significant reductions in forage production because of dry weather conditions should consider early weaning as a management tool, says a North Dakota State University (NDSU) cattle expert.

"Early weaning also should be considered as a management tool to improve or manipulate body condition, especially in young or thin cows," says Greg Lardy, NDSU Extension Service beef cattle specialist. "Time of weaning will have impacts on cow and calf performance, as well as health and productivity of the native range or pasture."

Producers will need to consider the advantages and disadvantages of early weaning to see if that option will work for them.

The advantages include:

  • Improved cow body condition. By weaning early, the cow's nutrient requirements for lactation are eliminated and cows are able to maintain or increase body condition prior to the fall and winter feeding period.
  • Improved calf performance. In some cases, calves may not be able to compete successfully with cows for adequate forage. By weaning early and providing a highly nutritious diet, calves can reach their growth potential. Early weaning, coupled with feeding a high-concentrate diet, has resulted in increased quality grade at slaughter, according to research conducted at several universities.
  • Improved forage availability for the cow. Early weaning reduces the cow's dry-matter intake and eliminates the calf's demand on the forage. Consequently, the cows remaining on the pasture have access to more forage and demands on the pasture are reduced, which can enhance sustainability and forage production in the future.
The disadvantages of early weaning are:
  • Increased attention to management is required. Early weaning requires greater attention to proper health, nutrition and management practices.
  • Increased labor requirement. Early weaning will require additional labor to feed and manage the calves. Another option is to ship them to a custom feedlot; however, this will add to the cash costs incurred.
  • Increased cash costs. Weaning calves earlier will result in increased cash costs for the rancher or beef cattle producer. Instead of pasture and their mother's milk, early-weaned calves will be fed high-quality grains, hays, protein supplements and/or commercially prepared feeds. In addition, beef-cattle producers must have facilities to feed calves or hire a custom backgrounder or feedlot to do this work.
"Early weaning is one management option that should be considered as a means to manage cow body condition," Lardy says. "Early weaning will be more successful and less stressful when adequate attention to nutrition, health, management and facilities is considered."

Go to www.ag.ndsu.edu/disaster/drought/earlyweeningcalves.html for more info.
-- NDSU release