In the vicious domino-circle of nutrition, reproduction and feed cost, early weaning will never offer a sure-fire profit hedge. But, in the right situation and at the right time, it does offer powerful production and marketing potential.
"In a spring calving herd, I think early weaning is one of the greatest windows of opportunity there is to manipulate the cow herd," explains Don Adams, a range nutritionist at the University of Nebraska's (UN) West Central Research Extension Center at North Platte.
Specifically, Adams says early weaning can help some producers build cows' Body Condition Score (BCS) heading into winter and extend the use of available forage - at times enough to run a few more cows. And, he says, selling calves and fed cattle earlier and outside marketing windows can increase revenue.
"If people are pressuring cows where they rely on low-quality forages for winter grazing - stockpiled forage or winter grass - it's imperative to understand a cow is not likely to gain body condition, and early weaning is a powerful tool to do that," says Adams.
It doesn't matter whether drought is limiting the quality and quantity of late summer and early fall forage, or it's a matter of managing reproductive risk via BCS, especially in first-calf heifers. Adams says, "Once you shut milk production down, a cow's maintenance requirements immediately go down."
BCS Is Predictable For perspective, Adams says an additional dry cow can be fed for every 2.5 days a cow doesn't have to nurse a calf. Moreover, during late summer and early fall, he explains cows will lose 0.1 BCS every two weeks of lactation.
So, if a cow is a 5.5 BCS in the middle of August, Adams says you can predict when she'll be a 5.0. He believes 5.0 is the minimum BCS mature cows should be heading into winter if breeding rates following next spring's calving are to be maintained. For first-calf heifers, it's 5.5.
Of course, there's no free lunch. Dick Clark, a UN professor of economics at North Platte points out, "Early weaning is there to benefit the cow, and you might be able to reduce some feed costs, or at least some feed consumption by the cow. But, you might turn around and put it right back into the calves."
He says balancing savings on cow nutrition with the necessity of feeding their calves longer, either at home or in the feedlot, boils down to knowing production costs.
"What's it going to cost you to keep the calf growing to a similar weight on the cow? Or, should you go straight to the feedlot and potentially hit a little higher market (fed price)?" asks Clark. Even when producers sell calves or yearlings, he says early weaning offers marketing advantage. Sell calves lighter and the price per cwt. is higher. Sell them earlier, away from the typically lower October and November markets, and the price floor is also higher.
On the cost side of the equation, at least in Western Nebraska ( due in part to extraordinarily low grain prices and atypically high grass cost), Clark says, "The last couple of years you could put gain on calves more cheaply in the feedlot than on grass... It's just so doggone year-dependent."
At the same time, Clark explains there is extra net potential any time a producer can limit the necessity for harvested feeds, while still providing the cow herd adequate nutrition.
"Our experience is that if you can manage the cow so she does more of the work to harvest what she needs to keep going, you have an opportunity in most instances to improve your bottom line."
Clark adds, "We estimate it costs $10-$12/ton to feed hay." And, that's just the interest, equipment depreciation and fuel cost associated with delivery. Labor can add another $2-3/ton.
Of course, both Adams and Clark point out supplementing lactating cows can extend grazing and cushion BCS as well. But, they emphasize harvested feed costs usually run higher. And, Adams cautions producers not to confuse calf and cow supplementation.
"People need to understand that creep feeding calves doesn't help the cows. The calves will still take the milk first," he says. So, even if the calves have extra grub, the cows won't consume fewer groceries themselves.
Before ever diving into early weaning or any other ranch management strategy, Adams emphasizes, "One tool will not fit everyone. You do something because it will help the needs of the ranch and the profitability."
In the case of early weaning, he suggests, "First, identify if there is a resource on the ranch, in terms of management or marketing, that it can help."