Give early weaned calves a good start

June 21, 2022
Early weaning can be an effective strategy to manage forage supply for beef herds during drought conditions. CHS Animal Nutritionist Cory Parsons shares recommendations to reduce stress and get calves off to a good start when weaning day comes early.  

More beef producers are relying on early weaning to manage herd performance and pastures during times of drought. Animal nutritionist Cory Parsons with CHS says early weaning can be an effective strategy to balance forage demand with production if managed properly.

Benefits of early weaning

According to Parsons, a cow’s nutrient requirements can be reduced by as much as 30% to 50% with early weaning. Ending lactation early typically reduces a cow’s forage consumption, which can be critical when pasture regrowth is limited due to drought conditions.

“During a drought, forage quality is generally poor and is not conducive to adequate calf body weight gain. When calves are weaned early, producers can supplement with high-quality, nutrient-dense feedstuffs to help them meet their genetic growth potential,” explains Parsons.

Reduce stress during weaning

While weaning calves as early as 3 to 5 months of age can be effective, it’s not always practical for commercial cow-calf operations. Parsons says infrastructure limitations can create challenges from an operational perspective. “Producers are always used to weaning 250- to 300-pound calves. The ranch infrastructure, including fences, bunks and water sources, must be in place to support early weaning,” explains Parsons.

Reducing calf stress is critical for early weaning success. “I encourage producers to work with their veterinarians to design health programs that will work on their ranches. Plan to vaccinate, castrate, dehorn and brand calves at least 14 days before weaning, if not sooner, to limit stress. Producers should also treat calves for internal and external parasites, which can compete for the nutrients the calves consume,” explains Parsons.

Bunk management strategies

Calves must have access to plenty of clean water, nutrient-dense feed and vitamins and minerals following weaning, Parsons advises. Producers should provide a highly palatable, nutrient-dense feed to maintain calf health and promote growth. “Nutritious rations won’t work effectively if calves don’t consume them. Calves need to consume from 2.5% to 3.25% of their body weight in dry feed daily.”

Adequate bunk space is another requirement to ensure calves have access to feedstuffs. Parsons recommends starting calves on long-stem hay or pasture forage, which they are used to consuming. Eventually, commercial feed can be added to promote healthy growth. “For the first three to five days after weaning, encourage calves to eat as fast and as efficiently as possible,” recommends Parsons.

Promote early weaning success

Weaning is a stressful time for calves. Parsons offers these tips to help calves perform well postweaning:

  • Provide highly palatable, nutrient-dense feeds
  • Focus on health and nutrition programs that work for the operation
  • Implement effective bunk management
    • Keep feed fresh and accessible
    • Provide free access to clean water
  • Practice good facility hygiene