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The Cattle Connection

Is Early Weaning the Right Decision for You?

Early weaning (EW) is a management strategy that can alleviate grazing pressure on pastures. EW can be a management decision to keep from feeding cows to maintain body condition. Young, growing calves will more efficiently convert feed to pounds. Thus, money budgeted for feed may be more wisely spent on a calf ration instead of feeding cows trying to support lactation demands.

Maddox (1965) suggested that by the time a calf reaches 120 days of age, more than half of the calf's energy requirement comes from sources other than milk. This means that calves are consuming forage in no other supplement is provided. In spring calving herds, grass quality is declining at a corresponding time to when milk production plateaus. This results in calves needing other sources of nutrition. Boggs et al. (1980) showed that milk intake of calves declined 93% from April to August. This results in calves eating forage to compensate for the gap in nutrition, which can take available forage away from the cow.

Removing the calf will not only eliminate their forage intake, but also eliminate the nutritional demand of lactation on the cow. Cow intakes have been shown to decrease by as much as 40% when calves are early weaned. This intake reduction could be the needed decrease to deal with poor pasture conditions and limited hay supplies.

Disadvantages to EW:

  • Increased management
  • Need for facilities
  • Increased labor
  • Increased feed costs
  • Calves can become fleshy

Advantages to EW:

  • Decrease forage intake of cows
  • Cows tend to have better BCS at calving
  • EW calves have better quality grades
  • EW calves have higher % Choice grade carcasses
  • EW calves have higher ADG than counter parts on creep or just pasture

Early weaning calves from first calf heifers and young cows can improve reproductive performance along with decreasing intake. Young cows are still devoting energy to growth and thus negative energy balance occurs more frequently. EW the calf decreases the energy requirement of the cow. Young cows are good candidates for EW.

Although not the ideal scenario for most cattlemen, EW can be a management decision that aids situations with low forage availability, poor first-calf cow breed-back, and premiums for higher quality grading carcasses.