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Management of Early-Weaned Calves

Livestock Update, July 1999

Mark L. Wahlberg, Extension Animal Scientist, Virginia Tech

Beef calves are normally weaned from 6 to 10 months of age. However, they can be weaned as early as 60 days of age. Early weaning may be a wise management practice because of

In a companion paper by Dr. John Hall the management of the cow in an early weaning program is discussed. In this article will be factors related to management of the early-weaned calf, including health and nutrition.

Cows require about twice as much protein and TDN (energy) in their feed when nursing a calf than when they are dry. As the calf grows he begins to supplement his milk diet with grazing. When feed resources are limited in either quality or quantity, the cow's milk production is reduced. Gains of the nursing calf can be greatly reduced because both pasture and milk supply are restricted. In this situation early weaning is a strategy that should be considered.

Creep Feeding is one alternative that is often considered. With creep feeding a supply of high quality feed or pasture is made available to the calves but the cows are prevented from accessing this feed. Calves are not weaned. If creep feed is made available beginning 2 or 3 months prior to normal weaning age, gains are increased 1/2 to almost 1 pound per day, resulting in 50 to 75 pounds more weaning weight. See the VCE publication, Creep Feeding of Beef Calves (publication number 400003) for more details about this management practice.

Although creep feeding may fix the problem with calf nutrition, the cows are still lactating and still have fairly high nutrient requirements. Creep feeding does not greatly reduce the nutrition problem in the cow, especially when drought conditions persist.

A second problem is forage quality. If grain type creep feeds are used, the pasture quality and supply shortage is not changed. Consequently, calves substitute grain (expensive) for forage (low-cost) in their total diet. In many experiments, it takes more than 8 or 10 pounds of creep feed to produce an additional pound of weight gain in the calf. Therefore, this practice is sometimes not cost effective, especially when feed is high and calves are low-priced. Of course, if creep grazing of high quality pasture is used, the extra pounds of calf gain are produced much more economically.

Early Weaning Health Concerns -- Calves can experience considerable stress due to weaning at a young age. They need to be properly vaccinated for the clostridial diseases (the typical 7-way vaccine) and perhaps for respiratory diseases. Consult your veterinary for recommendations. Calves can experience problems from coccidia and worms. A feed additive that controls coccidiosis should be included. Rumensin, Bovatec, Deccox, and CoRid are approved for such use. Deworming, especially if calves are 3-4 months or older, is highly recommended. Although not a health practice, at the time of weaning and processing all calves not kept for replacements should receive one of the approved implants to promote weight gain.

Starting on Feed -- Calves should be weaned in a fairly small pen with some type of shelter. Pens of less than 20 calves are best to reduce competition and allow good observation of all animals. Feed and water should be easily accessible and recognized. Because calves are still learning about feed and water, an older calf that is already weaned can be put with the new calves to serve as a teacher. The younger ones will follow the older one to feed and water and become adapted more quickly.

Rations for Early Weaning -- Calves will not eat much feed right after being removed from their dams. Consequently, the feed needs to be very palatable and highly nutritious. Quality is much more important than price when starting calves on feed. In Oklahoma a recommended starter ration is 64% rolled corn, 20% soybean meal, 10% cottonseed hulls, and 5% molasses, plus vitamins and minerals. A successful ration used in Illinois research is 30% chopped hay, 18% soybean meal, 50% cracked corn, plus vitamins and minerals. These rations contain roughage and are designed to be the only source of feed available. Consumption should reach 4 to 5 pounds per head per day within 10 to 14 days.

When offered long hay, some calves will fill up on it and not eat the grain mix. If long hay is the roughage source, it must be limit fed, and care must be given to assure consumption of the grain portion of the total feed offered. Chopping of the hay and making a total mixed ration solves this problem.

Young calves are still developing their rumen, and therefore cannot utilize some feeds as well as more mature cattle. Such feeds as urea or broiler litter that contain nonprotein nitrogen should not be used in starter rations for young calves.

Once calves are over the stress of weaning and are eating at least 1 1/2% of their body weight in the starter ration each day, they are ready for the next step. They can remain in the drylot and receive a growing ration based on harvested feeds, or go to pasture for a forage-based growing program.

If pasture is to be used, quality must be excellent. Calves will not gain well on lower-quality forages. In a North Carolina trial with early-weaned calves on pasture, the poorest gains were on a tall fescue-clover pasture, and the best gains came from grazing pearl millet. In this trial, calves were supplemented with either 1% of their body weight in ground ear corn, or corn was available at all times in self-feeders. Gains of the limit-fed calves ranged from 1 to 1.8 pounds per day, and the self-fed calves gained 1.5 to 2.2 pounds per day. Pastures used, ranked from lowest gain to highest gain, were tall fescue-clover (mostly fescue), bluegrass and orchardgrass with white clover, clover-fescue mix (50% white clover), and pearl millet. The calves, which weighed 330 pounds when weaned in July, were stocked at 4 head per acre, and pastures were rotationally grazed.

Effects Seen Later On -- Calves that are weaned at 2 to 5 months of age and put on feed should weigh at least as much at normal weaning time as they usually do. Gains of 3 pounds per day were recorded by researchers in Illinois on calves weaned at 150 days of age and fed a high grain ration. However, in Oklahoma, calves weaned at 65 days and grazing native range with a high protein supplement weighed 60 pounds less than those weaned at 7-8 months. This emphasizes the importance of feed quality to get early-weaned calves to gain weight rapidly.

Several trials in Illinois were run to compare calves place on high grain feedlot rations beginning at 5 months of age compared to calves that were older at the start of feeding. Cattle were fed to slaughter weight, killed at a similar backfat thickness, and carcass data was obtained. When compared to normal weaning age, early-weaned calves were heavier at slaughter, gained slower after 7 months of age but faster prior to 7 months, and had better feed efficiency. Carcass results showed early-weaned steers to have heavier carcasses, similar Yield Grades, and significantly higher marbling scores, with many more cattle grading high Choice and Prime.

The Bottom Line -- Early weaning (from 2 to 5 months of age) is a strategy to consider when cows are too thin or the feed situation is under pressure due to drought. High quality rations must be fed. If pasture is used, grain supplements must also be fed. When placed on high grain rations at this young age and fed to slaughter, finished weights are heavier, gains are more efficient, and carcass Quality grade is improved. Production costs are higher in intensively-fed early-weaned calves.

Disclaimer: Mention of specific product names is not an endorsement of those products, but is included for information purposes only.

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.

Lusby, Keith and Roger Fent. Early Weaning for the Beef Herd. Oklahoma State University Extension Facts No. 3264, pp 1-3.

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.

Myers, S E, et al. 1998. Performance and carcass traits of early weaned steers receiving either a pasture growing period or a finishing ration at weaning. University of Illinois Beef Research Report pp 22-45.

Myers, S E, et al. 1997. Beef production systems comparing early weaning to normal weaning with or without creep feeding for beef steers. University of Illinois Beef Research Report pp 55-66.

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