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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Cow-Calf Manager:
Early Weaning -- Should I Wean Now??

Livestock Update, July 1999

John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech

The extremely dry spring and early summer are not making things look particularly good for the rest of the summer. Some parts of Virginia have received as much as 2 inches of rain in the past two weeks. However, much of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in the piedmont areas is still extremely dry. In this situation, producers should ask themselves a few important questions:

  1. How can I most economically make it through the dry period?
  2. What are my feeding options?
  3. Even if I feed my cows, if I leave the calves on them what body condition score will they be when normal weaning time comes around?

Many cows in Virginia entered the calving season thinner than normal. The forage situation this spring and summer has not allowed many cows to improve body condition. The key things we want to achieve this summer is to keep cows in BCS 4 - 6 and have a decent calf to sell this fall or summer (if fall calving). The options are pretty simple either feed: 1) a lactating cow and let the cow feed the calf, or 2) creep feed the calf and minimal feed to the cow or 3) early wean the calves and feed the calves and dry cows or 4) sell calves and feed dry cows. For fall calving operations option 4 probably makes the most sense, but for spring calving herds option 4 would result in significantly reduced income.

Option 1. Feed the lactating cow and let the cow feed the calf. If you are in one of the areas of the state where adequate rainfall has occurred and the grass is coming back, this is a good option. You might also consider this option if you have hay fields to graze and your hay supply for this fall and winter looks good. To maximize calf growth, calves should be creep grazed in to high quality forage. If your pasture is limited, this is the most expensive and risky way to go. (See table 1 for diets).

Option 2. Creep feed the calf and minimal feed to the cow. If your pastures are in short supply, but you don't want to wean calves this is an option. Essentially, you are limit feeding the cow or feeding her more like a cow in late gestation rather than a lactating cow. Once the calves are worked up on a good creep feed you can begin changing the cow's diet to the limit fed diet. However, cows must be in good body condition because without weaning they will lose some body condition. "Creep Feeding Beef Calves" is a new publication that provides information on diets for creep feeding and managing creep fed calves.

Option 3. Wean and feed calves and dry cows. For many operations in Virginia, this is the best option if the drought continues as expected. Early weaning will keep cows from losing weight, improve value of the calf and help cows breed back faster next year. Perhaps, most importantly, early weaning will reduce your feed costs compared to trying to feed a lactating cow. In addition, early weaning will keep you from being forced to sell your calves when many other producers are selling their animals due to drought.

Table 1. Some examples of diets for 1200 lb cows with good milking ability Hay in the following table is 50% TDN and 10 % Crude protein and $40/ton.

Production stageDietCost
Dry cow, middle trimester of pregnancy26 lbs. hay + free choice mineral
55 /day
5 lbs hay + 19 lbs of a 80% poultry litter 20 % corn mix and minerals for use with poultry litter52 /day
Dry cow, last trimester of pregnancy22 lbs hay + 5.5 lbs soy hulls or barley and free choice mineral
65 /day
5 lbs hay + 22-24 lbs of a 80% poultry litter 20 % corn mix and minerals for use with poultry litter62 /day
Lactating cow, 1st 3 months of lactation 17.5 lbs hay + 14.5 lbs soy hulls or barley and free choice mineral
$ 1.19/day
16.5 lbs hay + 13.5 corn + 2.2 lbs soybean meal and free choice mineral
78 - 89 /day
5lbs hay + 24-28 lbs of a 80% poultry litter 20 % corn mix and minerals for use with poultry litter 71 /day
The diets in this table are examples. Actual feed analysis of hay and by-products are needed to calculate actual feed required for a specific herd. In addition, a good estimate of cow weight is also needed. Contact your extension agent or nutritionist for exact diets for your herd.

Research from Oklahoma, Illinois and North Carolina demonstrated that early weaned cows were in better body condition at the beginning of the winter than normal weaned cows. The increase in body condition was related to the age of the calf at weaning. The younger the calf was at weaning the fleshier his dam was at the start of winter. Depending on the study, calves were weaned anywhere from 65 days to 150 days old. Early weaned cows generally gained 0.5 to 1.5 body condition scores. If your cows are BCS 3 or less you should early wean the calves now. Herds with cows in BCS 4+ should consider early weaning soon before cows lose too much condition.

Thin cows that are early weaned have a better chance at breeding back this year. If you are have a March - April or April - May calving herd, weaning your calves now could give you a big boost in pregnancy rates this fall. The percentage of thin cows cycling increased steadily in the weeks after early weaning (Figure 1). By the end of the breeding season, just as many early weaned thin cows were pregnant as good body condition score cows.

Figure 1. Percentage of cows cycling at different time before and after early weaning

Overall in severe drought years, early weaning is a good option to keep cows in good body condition and increase pregnancy rates while lowering feed costs. Nutrition of the calf is very important in order to insure profitable weaning weights. Dr. Mark Wahlberg covers nutrition of early-weaned calves in a companion article in this livestock update.

Harvey, R. W. and J. C. Burns. 1988. Forage species, concentrate feeding level and cow management system in combination with early weaning. J. Anim. Sci. 66:2722-2727.

Myers, S E, et al. 1998. Comparison of three weaning ages on cow-calf performance and steer carcass traits. University of Illinois Beef Research Report. pp. 9-21.

Purvis II, H. T., C. R. Floyd, K. S. Lusby, and R. P. Wettemann. 1996. Effects of early weaning and body condition score at calving on performance of spring calving cows. Oklahoma Anim. Sci. Res. Report P-951. pp. 88-94.

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