The majority of US cattle producers wean calves at around 205 days of age, or roughly 7 months, and typically make the decision on weaning time based on calf age, calf weight or because ‘it’s what they’ve always done.’ But, there are certain scenarios where weaning earlier makes sense from both a cow and calf health standpoint and from an economic perspective.
"There are a variety of economic benefits to implementing early weaning strategies," says N.T. Cosby, Ph.D., senior consulting nutritionist with Purina Animal Nutrition. "For the calf, we're looking at feeding during a time in their lives when they are extremely efficient at converting feed to gain." "For the cow, we're able to give her some forage resources that would typically go to the calf, thus allowing her to pick up condition score going into the winter months. Putting on that extra condition means we can save on some winter supplementation by not having to play nutritional catch-up," adds Cosby.
Here are three scenarios where implementing early weaning might make sense:
Drought or low forage situations
"One of the most common reasons for a producer to consider early weaning would be if they're in a summer drought situation," says Cosby. "Considering early weaning in this scenario would save some of your valuable forages for the cow." According to Cosby, each day an early weaning strategy is implemented saves 10 pounds of forage for the cow. Implementing an early weaning programme 2 to 3 months earlier than the industry average means that a significant amount of forage could be saved for the cow. Those extra pounds of forage may go a long way towards increasing the condition score on the cow herd going into the winter months, as cows are likely either late in the second stage of pregnancy or early in the third stage. Early weaning also means the nutritional requirements of the cow decrease as she no longer needs to put resources towards milk production, allowing her to shift those energy resources to gaining condition.
To hit your marketing window
"Early weaning may help producers hit a more lucrative calf marketing time, given what the cattle markets are signalling to customers," says Cosby. There are some scenarios where selling lighter calves means a higher price per hundredweight. There are also scenarios where selling calves earlier than the typical months when calves are marketed (typically mid- to late-fall) means a higher price floor. "If the marketing scenario is right, it's always good to consider options to capitalise," adds Cosby.
When stocking density is increased
"A reason to wean early that's becoming more prevalent is land cost, and subsequently increased stocking density," says Cosby. "Some cattle producers today are trying to run more cows on the same acreage to potentially increase profit." More cows on the same acreage means that the forage resources are limited, and that both cows and calves could potentially be short-changed on nutrients. "If we're short on forage, either quantity or quality-wise, it's often a good plan to start calves on a higher plane of nutrition by going ahead and weaning them," adds Cosby.
Quality nutrition programme key
With any of these three scenarios, it's critical to get early-weaned calves on a quality nutrition programme. "These early weaned calves can't hold a lot of feed because of their small rumen size," says Cosby. "At the same time, the calf's requirements per pound of body weight are quite high. You need a high-quality, nutrient dense, complete feed to get them off to the best start." Nutrition lays the foundation for a successful starting programme, getting calves on feed quickly and keeping them healthy. The Purina® Great Starts® calf feeding programme has customisable feeding options designed to fit a producers given forage availability, feed type and feeding facilities.
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