Early weaning as a herd-management practice continues to be a viable alternative for cattle ranchers across a big chunk of the U.S. Certainly for producers in drought-prone regions of the West and Great Plains, it's a tool that can be used to avoid culling cows and maintaining high levels of reproductive performance among young cows.

Researchers continue to explore the practicalities and economics of various early-weaning systems. Richard Waterman, range nutritionist, and Tom Geary, reproductive physiologist, both working at USDA's Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory, Miles City, MT, have been leading an extensive early-weaning research effort.

They emphasize that weaning beef calves at or before breeding will increase initial cash costs and increase management responsibilities for production. But, they say, early weaning may prove to be a valuable alternative to traditional management practices once all facets of production have been fully assessed (Table 1).

“The increased value of early-weaned calves alone at time of normal weaning may not offset the cost of early-weaning diets as we've used them,” Waterman says. “The value of early weaning may, however, come from improved feedlot gain and carcass improvements. Ranchers may also see increased conception rates for not only the year early weaning occurred, but for the subsequent year as well.”

Early-weaning considerations

Fort Keogh research indicates herd sustainability may be optimized by early-weaning calves:

  • During times when forage quantity and/or quality are insufficient to meet cow requirements (e.g., drought).

  • When there is concern about cow body condition going into winter and reproductive success for the subsequent year (especially, two- and three-year-old cows).

  • When consequences of extended drought may lead to extensive liquidation of cowherds, which may result in loss of genetic diversity and recent herd advancements.

  • Easing the pressure to liquidate, simply by reducing the nutritional demands of lactation, thereby reducing forage consumption and optimizing the opportunity for a cow to rebreed.

The Fort Keogh study on two groups of early-weaned calves also shows weaning at the start of a synchronized breeding season increased artificial insemination (AI) pregnancy rates (Figure 1). Early weaning also increased breeding season pregnancy rates and increased cow weight at the time of normal weaning. The greatest increase in weight gain was among two-year-old cows.

“Improvements in pregnancy rates were observed across all age groups,” Geary says. The magnitude of improvement in AI pregnancy rate is greater than has been reported with temporary calf removal.

“We know that suckling delays the onset of estrus in beef cows,” Geary explains. “And weaning before the breeding season has been reported to shorten the postpartum anestrous period and increase conception rates.”

As noted, early weaning increases the initial cost of producing beef steers and heifers and intensifies management obligations to construct facilities or make accommodations to manage young calves.

“But calves weaned at 70-150 days of age often exhibit improved average daily gain (ADG) and are subsequently heavier at time of traditional weaning or 205 days of age,” Waterman says. “In addition, early-weaned steer calves have been shown to grade higher than traditionally weaned calves on similar diets.”

Therefore, he adds, livestock producers may be able to recover the initial cash cost due to early weaning, and possibly receive a premium for their calves.

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“However, the extra value from early-weaned calves in our study was not sufficient to overcome the initial cost for the early-weaning diets,” Waterman says. “Therefore, the additional expenses need to be recovered from other facets of production.”

The other “facets…?”

Waterman and Geary say the “other facets” which can add value to an early-weaning program and enhance productivity include earlier date of conception, higher pregnancy rates and better cow body condition.

In their work, they found that date of conception was seven days earlier for cows from the early-weaned groups compared to normal-weaned cows. And pregnancy rates from AI were higher for early-weaned cows (63%) compared to normal-weaned cows (54%).

Pregnancy rates from the entire 50-day breeding season were slightly greater for cows that were early-weaned (95%) compared to normal weaned (91%).

“It's possible that the synchronization protocol used in cows in the present study masked some of the beneficial effects because these protocols have been reported to induce estrous cycles,” Geary explains.

Early-weaned cows gained more weight during the grazing period — coming out of grazing 122 lbs. heavier than normal-weaned cows at the time of normal weaning. The difference in weight gain between early- and normal-weaned cows was greatest among two-year-olds and decreased with increased age.

Early-weaned cows consumed one-third animal unit month (AUM) less forage than normal-weaned cows during the grazing period. A 75-lb. weight difference in cattle of similar genetics is equivalent to one full body condition score.

Dean Peterson, rancher from Judith Gap, MT, participated in the Fort Keogh study, and says early-weaning can be a valuable management tool. He weaned a set of calves at about 80 days of age, weighing about 270 lbs. and placed them in his ranch feedlot.

“Early weaning definitely increases the management obligations,” Peterson says. “They take more time.”

Would he wean early again if conditions warranted?

“Yeah, I'd do it again,” Peterson answers. “Now I know a little more about and how to handle early-weaned calves. Plus, I think the ration can be designed to be lower cost than what we worked with on this study.”

He adds that his early-weaned calves performed very well in the feedyard.

“And, health management wasn't any different with the early-weaned calves than with the normally weaned group.”

Clint Peck is a BEEF Contributing Editor based in Billings, MT.

Early weaning and drought

Early weaning can mitigate the consequences of extended drought that often leads to extensive liquidation of cowherds.

This can have major effects on cash flow, tax liability, efficient use of labor and resource management, as well as potential loss of genetic improvements. Lactation places additional nutritional demands on beef cows, which becomes especially evident during drought conditions and when forage availability is limiting.

Table 1. Estimated financial return of early weaning (EW) compared to normal weaning (NW) for cows grazing summer pasture in the Northern Great Plains.
Item Early weaning Normal weaning Value
Grazing cost1 $4,177 $7,049 $2,872
Older calves at subsequent weaning2 $70,846 $68,861 $1,985
Replacement heifer cost3 $0 $6,000 $6,000
Winter feed required to calve in same BCS $0 $1,171 $1,171
Total $12,028
1Grazing cost calculated at average lease value per AUM.
2Estimated additional weaning weight in subsequent year due to 7 days earlier conception date. Calf-gain estimated at 2.7 lbs./day of age and price estimated at $1.05/lbs.
3Purchase of five additional pregnant replacement heifers valued at $1,200/hd.