Early weaning stretches forage supply and reduces winter feed needs for beef cattle

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Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, http://www.agric.gov.ab.ca/

One of the simplest ways to change the pasture requirements for beef cattle is early weaning. Not only does it reduce the quantity of pasture needed per cow, but it also reduces the amount of energy and protein (quality) required to get her by. Depending upon pasture quality, quantity and the time of the year, early weaning is an excellent management tool to stretch pasture resources and add body condition to your cows going into the winter months.

In an Alberta Beef Industry Development Fund supported research project, three stages of weaning were evaluated over a 3-year period to determine the effect on cow and calf performance and the implications on the economic bottom line. A total of 250 spring calving cows (avg. DOB – May 1st) were either very early weaned (VEW – 72 days), early weaned (EW – 132 days) or normal weaned (NW – 192 days). Calves were backgrounded
through various treatments and then all steers finished to slaughter and heifers sent to grass. So what did we find out?

Results:

  • Provided proper management and nutritional needs are met, early weaning will not increase morbidity and mortality rates in calves.
  • Early weaned calves learn to eat palatable rations quickly; introduction to creep feeders and stock tanks pre-weaning will get calves settled quicker. Stressful procedures like castration and dehorning should be performed well ahead of early weaning.
  • Management and feeding of very early weaned calves (less than120 days old) is best achieved in a dry lot/confined feeding situation.
  • The younger the weaning age of the calf the higher the energy and protein levels will need to be in the ration. Very young calves should get more grains than roughage because of issues concerning rumen capacity.
  • Early weaned calves greater than 120 days old can be backgrounded on pasture and have comparable performance to normal weaned (200 d) calves provided there is an abundance of forage quality and quantity.
  • Very early weaned calves, less than 120 days of age, backgrounded in a dry lot setting and fed to slaughter may have reduced carcass weights due to finishing sooner. There are however no adverse effects on carcass quality grades and/or yield.
  • Calves weaned at 120 days or more, will have comparable finished weights, carcass qualities and yields to that of normal weaned calves (200 days).
  • Provided very early weaned heifers less than 120 days of age are not on an energy restricted diet (<1.5 lbs /day) there will be no adverse effects on age of puberty and cyclicity.
  • Very early weaning (<90 days) and/or temporary weaning may improve conception rates by 25% in younger poor body conditioned (<2.0; scale 1 – 5) cows and heifers.
  • Very early weaning (<120 days) and early weaning (>120 days) will reduce grazing pressure and/or grazing needs for the cow herd by at least 25%.
  • Very early weaning (<120 days) and early weaning (>120 days) will reduce the nutritional needs for protein and energy by 30% or more and is an excellent management tool to better match cow requirements to what is provided by the forage resource.
  • Very early weaning (<120 days) and early weaning (>120 days) significantly improved cow body weight and cow body condition going into the winter feeding period. These increases reduced the cost of winter feed from $50 – $100/head wintered.
  • Using enterprise budget analysis that included pasture expenses, winter feed and conception rates; very early weaning (<120 days) did not generate as great a return as early weaning (>120 days) or normal weaning (200 days). When early weaning and normal weaning were compared, early weaning had a slightly greater return than normal weaning during normal precipitation years. If a factor like drought was added to the equation the economic advantages of early weaning were much greater than normal weaning.

Take home message:
Early weaning is a great tool for stretching pasture resources and reducing cow nutritional requirements. It is a simple way to add body condition to cows going into the winter months, and reduce the winter feed requirements. Provided the proper planning has been made there are little to no detrimental effects on the calf.

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