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If you’re thinking about early weaning for the first time, specialists advise doing some advance planning, and talk with your veterinarian and a nutritionist about the appropriate programs.
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.