Early Weaning Aids During Drought

Practice Helps Cows, Calves and Forage Supply

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Drought over nearly two-thirds of Kansas is pushing cow/calf producers there to alter their management practices. Managed correctly, early weaning of calves is one such practice. DTN photo by Jim Patrico

OMAHA (DTN) -- With nearly two-thirds of the state of Kansas already in some sort of drought designation, the state's cow/calf producers should be prepared to alter their management. One management practice during drought that should be considered is early weaning of calves.

In a webinar last week titled "Drought Preparedness for Cow/Calf Producers" presented by Kansas State University (KSU) Beef Extension, extension specialists detailed how to properly use these strategies. While there are some common misconceptions about this practice, early weaning can help cattle producers efficiently manage their herds, their forage supply and their bottom lines.

BENEFITS OF EARLY WEANING

The practice of weaning calves early has some major misconceptions, according to Justin Waggoner, a KSU beef systems specialist for the Southwest Research and Extension Center in Garden City. For many, they often think of lightweight calves as being at a higher risk of disease and as low performers in the feedlot.

In an intensely managed system, research has shown there many benefits to this practice, he said. From limiting dry forage intake by the cows to calves performing well in the feedlot, this system can help a cow/calf producer during drought.

Waggoner said normally calves are weaned between 180 to 220 days of age. In early weaning, calves are weaned anywhere from 100 to 150 days of age.

"Early weaning may be implemented as early as 45 days of age," Waggoner said.

There are several benefits to implementing early weaning, he said.

Among the most obvious reason to wean calves early would be to reduce grazing pressure. Calves do eat some grass, so removing them would allow more forage for the cows, he said.

Waggoner said a recent KSU study showed that a 120-day old, 450-pound calf can eat almost 7 lbs. of dry forage a day.

A lactating 1,400 lb. cow can consume 30 lbs. of dry forage a day. However, a dry 1,400 lb. cow eats only 27.3 lbs. of dry forage a day.

"Every four days that a calf is not grazing is one grazing day for the cow," he said. "If you do the math, weaning even 30 days early allows for one more week of grazing."

IMPROVE BCS

Waggoner said another advantage of early weaning is allowing more time for the cows to regain body condition score (BCS).

A recent KSU study weaned calves from 100 to 160 days of age showed that by weaning at 100 days, cattle can regain a quarter to a half of BCS, he said. Another study showed calves weaned at 113 to 117 days, lead to cattle picking up a quarter to a half BCS in the second year.

Once calves are weaned and put in a dry lot situation, there are certain practices that should be implemented to assure the calves can succeed, Waggoner said.

Facilities will need to be alternated some with younger calves, specifically calves should be grouped together in roughly 50 lb. increments or even segregated by steers and heifers to assure even feed consumption. Twelve inches of bunk space is needed per calf and pen maintenance such as filling in low space around bunks and water tanks are important as the younger calves may not be able to reach bunks and tanks.

Waggoner said at the research farm they will reduce the pen space for early weaned calves. This is done to keep the calves closer to the bunks and to reduce excessive walking, which uses more energy and can also create dust issues, he said.

Performance data of early weaned calves show they can do well once they go to the feedlot.

Waggoner said a KSU study showed calves weaned at 100 to 160 days of age had an average daily gain (ADG) of 1.5 to 2.0 lbs. per day. Another study showed a 360 lb. weaned calf had an ADG of 2.0 lbs. a day, he said.

HEALTH CONSIDERATIONS

When early weaning occurs, there are some important calf health considerations that need to be considered.

A.J. Tarpoff, KSU Extension beef veterinarian, said calves are born completely naive in terms of immune function. The calf's own immune system begins to take over and maternal antibody declines by two to four months and begins to have full immune function by five to eight months.

The question he gets quite often is about how early can calves be vaccinated, he said.

Tarpoff said producers can see a reliable response to vaccines in calves by two to four months old. Some producers can see a response as early as one month old, he said.

"Work with your local veterinarian for recommendations," Tarpoff said.

Tarpoff said the general guidelines to vaccinating early weaned calves is they need to have a functional immune system to get adequate response. The biggest concern for these calves would be Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD), he said.

Producers need to vaccinate against BRD as well as clostridial diseases, respiratory viruses and respiratory bacteria. In addition, a tetanus vaccine is also recommended, he said.

"Most animals produce an immune response, which confers adequate protection, but there are a few animals that produce a very good immune response and a few animals which produce a poor immune response," Tarpoff said.

OTHER FACTORS

Weaning is the most stressful period in the life cycle of beef cattle, he said. There are ways to decrease the stress to the calves, such as handling them before weaning and using soft weaning practices such as fence-line or a two-stage weaning.

Tarpoff said having bull calves castrated before arriving in the feed yard can also help in lessening the stress on early weaned calves. Research shows bulls have a 140% higher morbidity (sickness) rate than steers and 142% higher mortality (death) rate than steers.

Another factor to consider with early weaned calves is parasite control, he said. Areas to be watched are GI nematodes, coccidiosis and external parasites.

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

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Russ Quinn