Wean Calves Early to Reduce Pasture Demands



AMES, Iowa – Cow-calf producers should consider weaning calves now to help reduce the demand on pastures and get cows in better condition prior to winter, according to Denise Schwab, beef specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “Calves as young as 90 days old can successfully be weaned, however most early weaning programs focus on calves 100-120 days of age,” Schwab said. “Early weaning has advantages for both the calf and the cow.”

Removing calves reduces the nutrient requirements on the cow by 30 to 50 percent, allowing the cows to maintain their body condition on less feed. If cows aren’t already cycling, early weaning can make them return to estrus sooner and improve pregnancy rates. Cows also have more time to increase their body condition prior to the cold winter weather.

“Early weaned calves are no more prone to health, nutritional or environmental problems than calves in conventional weaning programs,” Schwab said. “Calves weaned early and started on a high concentrate ration may have higher marbling at harvest.”

Early weaning does require good weaning management. Producers need to focus on their facilities, nutrition, health and management with young calves.

  • Early weaning requires a well-drained, excellent fenced lot with at least 100 square feet per head at weaning time, and 400 square feet per head after the weaning period has ended.  
  • Bunks and water tanks should have an 18-inch throat height.  
  • It helps to wet down dusty lots prior to weaning and during the days that the calves are walking the fences to reduce the dust irritation to the respiratory tract.  
  • Butting feed bunks against the fence line will help reduce the amount of fence walking calves do.  
  • Remember to start calves on feed slowly and spread the feed out so all calves can eat at the same time.  
  • Adequate clean, fresh water is also critical for success.

Schwab encourages monitoring young weaned calves closely and checking temperatures of lethargic ones as needed. Early diagnosis of sickness and treatment is important to reduce serious health problems. Calves should be vaccinated at least 14 days prior to weaning to allow time for immunities to develop. Fly control is also important.

Feeding early-weaned calves

Young calves can handle a simple diet provided it is of high quality and palatable. Hay alone is not adequate to meet their nutrient requirements. Light calves weighing 200-300 pounds need a ration that contains 14 to17 percent crude protein and 70 to 80 percent total digestible nutrients. Within seven to 10 days after weaning, calves should be consuming 2.5 to 3 percent of their body weight daily. But remember, keep them slightly hungry so sickness is easier to detect at feeding time. Creep feeding the calves for a couple weeks prior to weaning will help with the transition to dry feed.

By-product feeds such as corn gluten or soy hulls can be incorporated into starting rations. Both provide highly digestible fiber. Corn gluten also adds protein to the ration. Soy hulls ad bulk to the ration similar to oats. It is suggested to limit soy hulls to 15 to 20 percent of the grain mix or corn gluten to no more than 30 to 50 percent of the ration so that energy is not diluted.

Many producers assume that early-weaned calves are lighter in weight and not as marketable, but numerous studies have shown that early-weaned calves fed concentrate diets in confinement have body weights equal to or greater than those of conventionally-weaned animals at the normal weaning time. Early weaning may not work for all producers, but in years with drought stressed pastures and short feed supplies, early weaning is one management tool to control feed requirements and costs.

For more information on early weaning calves contact your county extension office or an extension beef specialist. More information on cow management and weaning during droughts can be found on the Iowa Beef Center web site at http://www.iowabeefcenter.org/ or the ISU Extension and Outreach drought page at www.extension.iastate.edu/topic/recovering-disasters.

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