Sometimes weaning calves early can benefit both the pasture and cattle. Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University Animal Science Department head and professor, says early weaning can be an effective drought-management tool, as well as a way to save feed costs.

“Early weaning’s big advantage is reducing lactation demands. A dry cow on drought-stressed forage has lower nutrient requirements. Early weaning can also help first-calf heifers, because two-year olds are still trying to grow. By weaning their calves early, nutrients are freed up for heifers to complete growth and have a healthy pregnancy,” Lardy says.

Trey Patterson, chief operations officer for Padlock Ranch, Ranchester, WY, says they sometimes wean calves as early as four months old, mainly on first-calf heifers, but sometimes cows. “It can be a strategy to manage body condition,” he explains, allowing females a chance to regain or not lose weight in the fall – especially in a dry year.

Of course, the big issue with early weaning is what to do with the calves, Lardy says. Do you have the facilities and feeds to manage them? Early-weaned calves, especially those under three months, have high nutrient requirements. The best bet, he says, is to consult with your veterinarian on a good health program.

Some people feed the calves while others just wean them on pasture. Calves 4-5 months of age transition better, as they’re used to eating forage. Younger calves are trickier, but if you can meet the nutrient requirements of calves just 2-3 months old, they can be successfully weaned that young, Lardy adds.

“If markets are good, some people sell 350- to 400-lb. calves as lightweight stockers early in the season. Others have the facilities to feed those calves and sell them at the normal marketing time. Some work with a feedlot and retain ownership,” Lardy explains.

“When working with really lightweight calves, facilities built to handle 500- to 600-lb. calves weaned in October won’t work as well for a 250-lb. calf weaned in June or July. Those calves can find a tiny hole in the fence. They may also have problems reaching over the bunk to eat, or a tank to drink. You may need to adjust the facilities,” he explains.

“Most of the time, early-weaned calves transition just fine; in many cases, easier than older calves in November’s cold, stormy weather. But it pays to work with animal health and nutrition professionals ahead of time to ensure you’re not overlooking something,” Lardy says.

Ron Gill, Texas A&M University Extension livestock specialist, thinks more producers in his area will consider early weaning this spring, because cows finished winter in poor shape.

“In Texas, there’s more talk about early weaning this breeding season than last. Everyone was so behind last year; most producers didn’t get to plan far enough out. They didn’t realize conditions were going to get as bad as they did and were behind from the start,” he says.

“People need to talk with their local dealer and ensure they can get adequate feed, which will be limited until after our next harvest. Some people may not be able to wean calves early just because they can’t find the feed resources they’ll need,” Gill says.

Summer issues

Early weaning, particularly in a drought, usually entails hot dry weather. Heat stress must be taken into account when weaning and handling calves, as well as working the cows, Lardy says. That might mean shade for the calves, and plenty of fresh water is also important. Since some calves haven’t drunk from tanks or fountains, they need to learn how, he adds.

If you wean in summer, flies may be an issue. “If calves are penned, there are some control measures to reduce flies – whether it’s fly tags or a spray application. Some feedlots also use parasitic wasps to control flies that breed in manure. Flies are a stress you don’t want,” Lardy says.

Gill says last year was a bad year for flies in Texas. Horn flies can be controlled with tags or pour-ons, but cattle in pens (such as early-weaned calves) were also bothered by stable flies and face flies – and pinkeye was sometimes a problem.

“Another issue in drought is dusty pens,” Lardy says. “Find a way to manage dust because it’s an irritant to eyes (opening the way for pinkeye) and to nasal cavity and airways (contributing to respiratory issues). If you can, water pens periodically to keep dust down.”

Behavioral issues

If you’re early weaning, it helps to put cows and calves into a weaning pen or pasture a couple days ahead of time, so cows can show the calves where feed and water is, Lardy suggests. Some people use a trainer cow, or an older feeder calf, as a role model. The older animal teaches the young ones, and provides security in a leader/follower role.

When calves are weaned in pens, they circle the pen, trying to find a way out. “If the water source and feed bunks are located in the fence line, calves find them more readily,” Lardy explains.

“And, if you have time, it pays to castrate, dehorn, brand, etc., at least a couple of weeks ahead of, or after, weaning. Otherwise, you can compound the stress of weaning and potentially set yourself up for additional problems,” Lardy says.

Feeding the calves

Starting young calves on fine, palatable, long-stem forage is best because they’re likely more familiar with it. “You also need to get them transitioned onto energy-dense, nutritious feeds quickly, since they can’t handle much volume of forage yet,” Lardy says. He recommends top-dressing hay with the concentrate until calves start eating it.

“You might use a starter pellet from a commercial feed company or mix the diet yourself, but these calves need good-quality forage and nutritious concentrate to ensure they have adequate protein and energy levels and meet their vitamin/mineral requirements. Avoid low-quality hay, or hay with dust, mold or heat damage; these will lead to problems in early-weaned calves,” he says.

In Texas, Gill says he’s using the dairy model with some of the really young calves, feeding a complete feed for the first month and then gradually increasing the roughage portion of their diet.

Rumen volume in a three-month-old calf is much less than that of a six-month-old calf. Young calves need a denser diet. Patterson says they’re very efficient feed converters and can eat more percent of body weight (dry-matter basis) than a bigger calf; they’re also efficient at converting that to gain.

“When we wean a younger calf here at the Padlock Ranch, we provide a higher concentration of energy, protein and minerals and a little less roughage,” Patterson explains. “Later-weaned calves can go right on grass and do well, but early-weaned light calves need a higher level of nutrition to keep growing and gaining.”

Padlock Ranch weans calves in a feedlot facility with concrete pads and bunks; calves are fed a total-mixed, milled ration that contains hay and concentrate. The hay helps the calves adjust and keeps the rumen healthy.

“For rumen safety, we also use some fiber-based energy products – wheat mids and distillers grains, along with corn or barley, to get energy levels up without having a diet too high in starch,” Patterson says. Wheat-mid pellets are very palatable and calves start eating those fairly quickly in a mixed ration. The more stressed they are and the lower their feed intake, the higher the nutrient concentration necessary; every bite needs to be nutritious, he adds.

“On lighter calves, we don’t use a wet ration like silage or haylage. After they get a little more size, over 400-450 lbs., we start working more silage into their diet and they can be managed like older-weaned calves,” Patterson says.

“With bigger calves, if you feed a wetter ration, they just eat more. But small calves don’t have enough rumen space to eat enough to get adequate nutrients to meet their requirements for growth,” Patterson explains. 

Sidebar: Early weaning stretches forage

 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.