Ask most cattle producers about weaning programs, and you'll get a number. Usually, it's the age of the calves when they wean them; sometimes, it's a weight range. But weaning decisions, Ron Gill says, should be about the cow.
"We stress using the cow's body condition as the key on when to wean. Calves should be weaned with the cow and rebreeding in mind," says Gill, a rancher and long-time Extension livestock specialist at Texas A&M, College Station.
The goal of any cow/calf operation is rebreeding and calf production. Producers who watch the body condition of their cows are more likely to see strong conception rates in herds. Research has shown conception becomes compromised once cows move into the 4s on body condition. Body Condition Scores (BCSs) range from 1 to 9, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese.
Findings across six research herds showed percent of cows rebred at three BCS ratings: 4 or less, 5 and 6 or greater. The cows at the low end of the score rebred at a rate of 60%. Those with a 5 BCS rebred at 81%. Those with a 6 or greater BCS rebred at 92%. That research was reported by Oklahoma State University's Glenn Selk. He concluded cows should have a BCS of 5 or 6, and first-calf heifers a BCS of 6 at the time of calving.
DEFINING EARLY WEANING
Maintaining body condition on cows and first-calf heifers can help make a case for a management program focused on early weaning. Cows improve their BCS more quickly when calves are weaned early, and conception rates are higher. If conditions are droughty, nonlactating cows also help preserve forages.
New Mexico State University researchers estimated selling calves and cull cows 45 days earlier saved 175,000 pounds of forage on a 100-head operation. In this study, that was equivalent to the nutritional needs of about a quarter of the herd.
When considering early weaning, there is a difference between an early-weaning management program and weaning early as a reaction to a situation in the herd. Texas' Gill explains: "To me, early weaning means those calves that are 60 to 120 days of age. You can do a better job of getting cows rebred without a calf on them. We see this used a lot on first-calf heifers; it's not as common on mature cows."
He says for producers who plan for early weaning and manage it correctly, it can work. Two- to three-month-old calves are efficient gainers but require good nutrition and a high-quality diet. It's a good idea to work with a nutritionist to develop the right ration for these young calves.
Weaning early, on the other hand, is something a producer will opt to do when a cow's body condition is slipping, and lactation is pulling it down. Gill explains: "That means you are put into a situation where it's a good decision to go ahead and wean them at 4 to 6 months of age versus the 7 to 10 months you might normally hold them."
LOW STRESS, BETTER RETURNS
Having taken stock of what's in the cow's best interest, it's just as important to make the weaning process as low stress as possible. Managing calves' first separation from their dams sets the stage for health, gains, shrink and ultimately, profitability.
Stress leads to expensive losses in today's calf market. Truck weaning, where calves are pulled off their dams and loaded onto trucks, is the most stressful way to wean any calf. In today's market, Gill says it will cost producers money in terms of additional shrink.
Shrink is the weight calves lose during transportation and while becoming acclimated to new surroundings. A good weaning program minimizes shrink and allows calves to recover more quickly after being moved. Weaned calves also have fewer health issues.
"If you can control 5% shrink in cattle by getting them weaned, you can make quite a bit at $2.50 per pound," Gill says. "Shrink right now is very valuable. That means there's more incentive to retain these calves if you have a good system and a place to handle them."
Two low-stress weaning methods make the cut with Gill. The first, his favorite, is the time-proven use of a fenceline to separate calves from dams. Calves are placed in a small pasture or trap adjacent to their mothers, with access to grazing and hay. Calves as young as 3 months of age can be weaned this way. Make sure there is clean water, and consider some type of supplement.
In a Noble Foundation demonstration at the D. Joyce Coffey Ranch, in Oklahoma, calves removed from their dams and dry-lotted were compared to those fenceline weaned. Both groups received high-quality hay (12% crude protein/58% total digestible nutrients), but the fenceline calves also had access to stockpiled bermudagrass. Fenceline-weaned calves showed a higher overall daily gain of 1.25 pounds per head per day compared to 0.7 pounds for the dry-lotted calves.
Another method of low-stress weaning, the two-step method, has gained converts in recent years. This entails use of weaning nose flaps. There are a wide variety of these flaps on the market, most reusable and starting at about $2 apiece. The devices make it difficult for calves to nurse but not to graze. Calves remain with dams for one or two weeks until cows stop lactating. At that point, calves and cows are separated, and nose flaps are removed. Gill says this method requires handling calves at least twice as they are moved through the chute.
"If you don't have good working facilities, this could cause more stress than regular fenceline weaning," he cautions. "But if it's done right, I don't see it as being too stressful for them."
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