Source: North Dakota State University
Traditionally, calves are weaned at six to seven months of age. In typical spring calving herds in the northern Great Plains, this is usually October or November. However, during drought, forage is generally limiting and early weaning should be considered as a management tool. Time of weaning will have impacts on cow and calf performance as well as health and productivity of the native range or pasture.
ADVANTAGES OF EARLY WEANING
- Improved cow body condition. Lactating cows can lose body condition due to the increased nutrient requirements associated with lactation. When drought conditions exist, this situation is usually made worse by lack of forage in drought stressed pastures. By weaning early, the cow’s nutrient requirements for lactation are eliminated and cows are able to maintain or increase body condition prior to the fall and winter feeding period.
- Improved calf performance. During a drought, calves may not be able to successfully compete with cows for adequate forage. By weaning early and providing a highly nutritious diet, calves can reach their growth potential. Early weaning, coupled with feeding a high concentrate diet, has resulted in increased quality grade a slaughter, according to research conducted at several universities.
- Improved pregnancy rates. Weaning early can result in improved pregnancy rates, provided the calves are weaned before or during the breeding season. This would require weaning calves at a very young age (calves need to be weaned at 45 to 105 days of age to allow increased conception rates). Limited feed resources can negatively impact reproductive performance and weaning before or during the breeding season can allow cows a greater opportunity to rebreed in an optimum time frame and an increase in pregnancy rate can be expected.
- Improved forage availability for the cow. Early weaning reduces the cows dry matter intake and also eliminates the demand on the forage from the calf. Consequently, the cows remaining on the pasture have access to more forage and demands on the pasture are reduced, which can enhance sustainability and forage production in the future.
DISADVANTAGES OF EARLY WEANING
- Increased attention to management is required. Early weaning requires greater attention to proper health, nutrition, and management practices.
- Increased cash costs. Weaning calves earlier will result in increased cash costs for the rancher or beef cattle producer. Instead of pasture and their mother’s milk, early weaned calves will eat high quality grains, hays, protein supplements and/or commercially prepared feeds. In addition, beef cattle producers must have facilities to feed calves or hire a custom backgrounder or feedlot to do this work.