December 2006
Feeding Facts

As we go into a winter with reduced hay crops and increased feed cost, I continue to be concerned about maintaining proper body condition for rebreeding. As a cattle producer, it is very important to maintain body condition so that your cattle will cycle and breed. A cow that will not breed due to lack of condition could be a large problem this spring. There are several options to consider that will assist your cattle in maintaining body condition.

One option that I am asked about is early weaning of calves. Early weaning is often used to improve cattle condition when forage is limited. The nutrient requirements for a dry cow can be up to 40% less than for a nursing cow. Early weaning can also initiate postpartum estrus in cows leading to improved pregnancy rates.

There are several advantages of early weaning your calf crop. One advantage is that it will allow more efficient feed utilization during extreme forage situations. Early weaning will also allow you to reduce the feed demands of your cowherd while gaining the benefit of excellent feed conversion of early-weaned calves.

Another advantage is the fact that early weaning will allow you to carry more cows on a limited feed supply and will improve rebreeding rates throughout your herd.

While the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of early weaning, there are still some considerations that must be planned for when early weaning. These include the labor, facilities and feed for small calves.

It also increases the management on the producer’s part to make sure that the cattle are healthy and on a high nutritional plane. Before making the final decision on whether to early wean your calves, implement a management plan to assure your success. This plan would include an evaluation of current facilities, your ability to spend time monitoring the health and performance of the calves, and your desire to spend the extra money required to purchase a high energy, high protein diet designed for early weaning. Once the decision is made to early wean, you can now look at the management that must be implemented for a successful early weaning program.

The biggest consideration is in selecting the proper feed for early-weaned calves. You should select a feed that is highly palatable and highly digestible with at least 70% total digestible nutrients (TDN) and 15% protein. You will see early in the process that one of your biggest challenges will be getting these calves to eat and drink. These calves are highly stressed from weaning and it is important to get them trained to a feed bunk and water trough as quickly as possible. A highly palatable feed and a clean water source will help you in this process.

I would also recommend that you hand feed these calves for the first two weeks until they are consuming 6 to 8 pounds of feed per day. Hand feeding will also allow you to more closely monitor the overall health of the cattle and will allow you to find sick calves more quickly.

Alabama Farmers Cooperative offers several feeds that can assist you in early weaning your calves. These include AFC Calf Starter, AFC Preconditioning Pellets, AFC Bull and Steer and AFC Creep Feed. We also offer highly palatable blocks from both Crystalyx and Sweetlix that calves will readily accept and consume. On a good diet, you can expect one pound of gain to every 6 pounds of fed. Also remember to provide hay free choice along with a good mineral supplement for peak performance.

Another critical consideration is controlling health problems that will arise in these early-weaned calves. To lower the risk of disease and other health issues, it is important to implement a proper vaccination program. A proper program will consist of deworming, Respitory, and Blackleg Vaccinations. These shots should be modified live and should be boostered in 14 days. Your local Quality Co-op will have these vaccines available and can help you in selecting the proper vaccines to reduce sickness and poor performing calves. It is also important that you manage scours and coccidosis, using a coccidiostat if you have this problem.

Increased labor and cost will be associated with early weaning. This extra cost can easily be justified during a year with reduced hay and increased feed cost. Remember it is cheaper to feed a 300-pound calf than a 1200-pound cow nursing a calf. Early weaning is just another example of a way to stretch your forage.

I have had the opportunity to speak at several producer meetings this fall with a common theme of reduced hay, increased feed cost, and lower calf prices. As we enter into the winter, please do not hesitate to contact me or any other representative of Alabama Farmers Cooperative. We are here to assist you in making decisions for this fall and winter feeding season. I wish each of you a blessed holiday season and hope that next year will bring plentiful crops with good prices.

Jimmy Hughes is AFC’s animal nutritionist.