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Early Weaning may Help Winter-worn Cows and New Calves

April 25, 2014
Spring Calving Snow
Long winters can be hard on cows, but early weaning can help them get back in condition for breeding.  
 
 

Long winters can be hard on cows, but early weaning can help them get back in condition for breeding.
By: Mary Hightower, University of Arkansas

Early weaning may help beef cows worn thin by the hard 2013-14 winter and may help calves be ready for market sooner, say extension cattle experts with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

A relatively wet 2013 allowed cattle producers to harvest a generous hay crop, ensuring "cattle producers had the hay supplies to begin feeding early and continue feeding hay into April," said Tom Troxel, associate head-animal sciences for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. With the long-lived winter, "most cattle producers found themselves running out of hay, spring grass was late, and threats of freeze lingered into mid-April."

Troxel said that even though cattle producers fed extra hay and supplemental feed this past winter, many fall and spring calving cows are not in as desirable body condition.

"Hopefully, the fall calving cows are already bred, but ranchers may find getting spring calving cows bred back a difficult task over the next few months," he said. "There are a couple of intervention strategies that may help jump start the estrous cycle for these cows and hopefully improve conception for next year’s calf crop."

Weaning the calf at an early age reduces the cow’s nutritional requirement, making it easier to maintain or build body condition.

"The last thing a beef cow needs, especially a thin cow, is to be in a negative energy balance going into the breeding season," said Shane Gadberry, associate professor-ruminant nutrition for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

"Once the decision to wean early has been determined, the next question asked is, ‘What do I do with the calf?’"

Gadberry said there are two basic options for managing the weaned calf: 1) sell the calf immediately and 2) background the calf until normal weaning or longer.

Selling the calf immediately eliminates risk.

"There is a lot of talk among cattlemen about the number of three-weight calves currently being sold, so it appears that many are already taking this approach," he said. "Currently a 350-pound steer calf is selling for approximately $242 per hundredweight or $847 per head.

"Despite bringing a higher price per pound, the value of the early weaned calf is less than its value if weaned at the typical age of six to seven months," Gadberry said. "Selling the calf will eliminate the additional labor required for managing the calf until marketing later."

Backgrounding the calf can provided additional value from the weight gained from early weaning until normal weaning time.

"This option will require fencing that is capable of keeping young calves separated from their mothers," he said. "During this period, care must be taken to vaccinate, control internal and external parasites, and provide a diet that will result in positive weight gains."

Most likely, early weaned calves will be managed in a drylot setting until there is sufficient spring and early summer grass. The diet of the early weaned calf will be dependent upon the age at weaning. Very young cattle -- those younger than three months old -- have not developed a functional rumen. The diet of these cattle should focus on supplying a higher level of concentrate and low level of fiber. Weaning at two to three months of age may be necessary for herds with a 90-day breeding season. Early weaning may require weaning in phases to avoid weaning extremely young calves that will be more of a challenge to manage nutritionally.

"It is important that forages included in the calf’s diet are very good quality," Gadberry said. "Young calves will require at least a 16 to 20 percent protein diet and ranchers should anticipate the calves eating 3 percent of their body weight in combined forage and concentrate dry matter."

"As long as the cost to put on a pound of gain is less than the value of added weight gain, these calves can be retained and developed to a heavier weight," he said.

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