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Early Weaning in a Drought

Cattlemen can generally decrease winter feed costs 15%-20%
by early weaning.

Weaning calves early can be beneficial for cows and calves, especially during a dry year when forage resources are short. David Bohnert, Oregon State University beef extension specialist at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, says there can be advantages to weaning calves at 120-140 days of age.

“Our data show that cows will go into winter at least one body condition score higher than if you leave calves on them until fall,” he says. This is better for the cow, for next year’s calf crop and for rebreeding.

“When cows are in better shape coming into winter, this means less feed to get them to an optimum level. Maintaining them through winter is a lot easier that trying to increase their body condition,” he says.

There’s also an advantage to those who can feed the calves a high-concentrate ration and then retain ownership through a feedlot, says Bohnert. “The data on this type of feeding shows you will increase marbling in those carcasses, and those young calves are more efficient in handling grain than forages.”

Heifers to be kept as replacements, however, are a different story. They need to develop their rumens more fully for efficient forage utilization later in life, Bohnert recommends.

“If you are looking at that calf as a feedlot animal, it’s better to feed him what he needs versus trying to feed the cow to feed her calf through the milk. That’s not nearly as efficient as feeding the calf directly,” says Bohnert.

If it’s a choice between early weaning and trying to buy expensive (or nonexistent) hay for cow-calf pairs, you might be better off selling your calves, even at less money than usual.

Bohnert says some of the research done at the center evaluated weaning calves the first of August vs. late October.

“We saved one body condition score on the cows by doing that,” he reports, noting that cows weaned in October were at body condition score (BCS) 4, while cows in the early-weaned group maintained a BCS 5. “To get those condition score 4 cows back up to a 5 took about $30 per head (and this was when feed was less expensive). You can generally decrease your winter feed costs 15% to 20% by early weaning.”

Concludes Bohnert, “Without a calf at side, a mature cow that was raised in her environment and adapted to it can usually maintain body weight. Historically, our cows have gotten bigger, with more milk production, and they don’t do very well in harsh conditions if they are still lactating.”

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