July 2007
Feeding Facts

Can Early Weaning Calves Help Reduce Effects of Drought

What producers had hoped could not happen two years in a row has happened, as we find ourselves in the middle of another extreme drought. The only difference this year is there is nothing for us to compare this to. Having a dry spell in the summer would not be historic, but going so long in the spring without rain is a whole different ballgame.

While there is little that we can do to increase rain, there are options that cattle producers should consider to help reduce the effects of a severe drought. With the dry spring, poor pasture conditions and a below average hay cutting, many producers might consider early weaning of their calf crop.

Weaning beef calves early can stretch the grazing time for existing supplies. Dry and gestating beef cows can use lower quality forages because they need less protein and energy than lactating cows. A producer should consider early weaning of calves as a management practice when there are drought conditions, forage quality is short and of poor quality, hay is expensive, cows are in thin body condition or calf prices merit early weaning of the calf crop.

There are several university studies on early weaning calves that can be researched to determine the overall benefits of this management practice. The results of some of these studies will provide some "food for thought" as we make decisions concerning ways to cope with drought.

One recent study utilized heifers in severe drought conditions so that there was a major impact on the body condition score of the dams. At the time of weaning of the longer nursing group, only 29% of the dams had a body condition score of 5 compared to 77% of the dams of the early weaned calves. This difference in condition of the dams continued throughout the winter in spite of feeding a supplement with free choice hay. Researchers estimated it would have cost $125 per head more in additional supplement to bring the nursing cows into equal condition with the cows from which calves were weaned early.

Other studies have shown a weight gain advantage of .5 to 1 pound per day for early weaned calves over calves which were left on the dam during periods of severe drought. Differences in calf weights would be expected to be greater the more serious the drought.

Yet another study focused on weight differences in cows based upon early weaning of calves. The nursing cows in this study lost an average of 7.9 pounds and the cows in the early weaned group gained an average of 33.1 pounds. This is a total net difference of 41 pounds per cow in the two groups researched.

Most studies conclude that early weaning did not result in an increased rate of illness or in a lack of gain. Calves need to be observed carefully and fed properly whenever they are weaned. Early weaning can also have a beneficial effect on the dams.

While these studies do look impressive, there are still considerations that a producer must make before deciding if this is a viable option for their operation. The two biggest concerns with early weaning calves will be controlling health issues and implementing a cost effective proper nutrition program.

Studies indicate that the primary disease problem would be bovine respiratory disease and close to 10% of the weaned calves will be treated individually for it. A complete vaccination program should be included in any early weaning program.

The second area of concern will be a proper nutrition program. The feeds that will be offered to calves should be palatable and balanced to meet the calves’ nutritional requirements during periods of low intake. I would recommend a feed from the Quality Co-op feed lines. Preconditioning Ration, T.P. Cattle Ration, Bull & Steer Feed, Calf Starter or 13% with Bovatec would all be viable feed choices for an early weaned calf.

Another option for a nutrition program would be to include a supplement tub. These molasses based tubs are very palatable and calves will readily consume the product. Your local Co-op will carry supplement tubs manufactured by both Crystalyx and Sweetlix.

Place feed bunks so the animals have to walk around them to pace the fence line. This stumbling over the feeder concept will help calves find the feed. Daily feeding or stirring of the feed may also help calves to find the feed.

Good quality grass or hay is an ideal forage source for calves. If neither is available, feed containing roughage products, such as cottonseed hulls, can be substituted for a percentage of the forage. Keep in mind that the hay requirements for a weaned calf will be much lower than the forage requirements of a nursing cow. Even if you provide hay to the calves, the net gain in forage will be positive.

Also, remember to provide clean water and a free choice mineral to your calves. Calves should have easy access to water and minerals to reduce dehydration during the first few days of weaning.

You, as an individual producer, should consider the extra labor and feed cost, potential differences in market price, feed resources available, nutritional adequacy of feeds available to the nursing calf and the body condition of the cow herd before deciding on the feasibility of early weaning. Leaving a calf on its mother when her milk production has drastically declined is of little benefit, especially when feed quality is poor. This results in a light weight calf and a dam that will go into the winter feeding period in poor body condition.

While we hope the drought ends soon, your local Co-op is ready to assist you with any feed or equipment you might need during this time. As always, I am available to visit with you at any time. I can be reached at jimmyh@alafarm. com.

Jimmy Hughes is AFC’s animal nutritionist.