While recent rains have alleviated many of the concerns for feed supplies caused by drought, there still could be concerns with grass supply and with the body condition of cows this summer. Early weaning of beef calves can be a powerful management tool for dealing with drought and feed shortages. A lactating beef cow’s daily nutrient requirements are reduced by 25% or more when lactation is stopped through weaning of the calf, in some cases earlier than normal. While early weaning offers a lot of potential to improve performance and cut costs on the cow side, the disadvantage of weaning calves early is the choice between either selling a lighter than normal calf that will bring in less total dollars, or taking on the challenge of feeding 3 to 4 month old calves.
The good news is that early weaned calves can perform very well when fed high quality diets. Feed conversions around of about 5:1 (feed:gain) are certainly possible. Calves of this age will require a diet that contains about 16% crude protein and 70% TDN. That typically means diets containing about 60% grain, plus 10-20% of higher protein ingredients such as soybean meal, with the balance of the rations comprised of higher fiber/roughage feedstuffs, plus minerals. Early weaned calves require a balanced, energy dense ration because of their limited rumen size. Complete commercial creep feeds will also work well, and may end up being more economical if an operation isn’t set up to mix and deliver these types of rations.
Some producers have successfully weaned calves on pasture with a creep feeder. Once calves were consuming sufficient amounts of creep feed, the cows would be sorted off leaving the calves behind. This works particularly well for older cows that don’t milk very well and are going to be culled. Another option is to utilize feedstuffs such as small grain regrowth, cover crops, or crop residue as a way to cut costs.
Keeping these calves healthy is also a concern. In some respects, these calves transition through the weaning process fairly well as they don’t have to deal with the potential of cold, snowy weather, plus there is still some disease protection from maternal antibodies present. Producers should consult with their veterinarian for a vaccination plan for early weaned calves specific for their own operation.
Some other suggested management tips include:
- Make sure the facilities will handle light calves. Smaller calves may not be able to access water and feed as easily in pens designed for larger cattle. Small calves can also slip through small holes or gaps in fences and gates much more easily.
- Controlling dust in a dry lot during drought can be a significant challenge. Some options include keeping group sizes small to minimize the amount of dust kicked up in the air. Bedding the pens can also help, as well as sprinkling the pen surface with water.
Avoid feeding silages and other high moisture feeds until the calves weigh 400 to 450 pounds. Small calves don’t have enough rumen space to eat enough of those feedstuffs to meet their nutrient requirements.