With the hot, dry summer currently being experienced throughout the Midwest, traditional weaning plans may need to be significantly
altered. Cows are out of grass in many areas, and grass is extremely short in others. Early weaning of calves should be strongly considered.
Considerable research has shown that it is a much better use of resources to wean the calf early and either sell or feed the calf rather than try to feed the cow enough to sustain lactation through a drought. It will hold feed costs down both now and this winter when producers are trying to get cows in condition to survive the winter, calve successfully, and be in reasonable body condition score (BCS) to breed back next year. Many cows may be close to drying up on their own because of the lack of feed, so the primary thing they may be providing is merely companionship for the calf!
Early weaning means lighter weights, a change in management, extra planning, perhaps additional facilities, feedstuffs, health concerns, etc. The calf is drawing nutrients from the cow, and drawing down her body condition during a time when the range is incapable of providing nutrients to replace body condition. Supplemental feed is expensive to use to replace those stores.
Pulling the calf off early will allow the cow to dry off and use what little nutrition is available through range and supplement to replace precious lost stores. There is abundant time to regain
body condition prior to spring calving, and supplementation can be adjusted based on range conditions and winter weather.
If calves are at least 90 days of age, they can be removed from the cow and survive — even thrive — in a feedlot environment. If facilities and feedstuffs are available, three scenarios are available: calves can be cost-effectively grown to a similar weight this fall as would be expected during a “normal” weaning situation; the calves can be retained through the fall and sold as feeders in the spring; or the calves can even be retained through finish.
One common concern is that of immune function of the calves. The health of early-weaned calves is at least equal to their normally weaned counterparts. In some cases, immune function may actually be improved due to residual circulating maternal antibodies from colostrum and improved weather conditions during summer instead of during a cold, wet, fall. Granted, weaning during extremely hot, dusty conditions can also contribute to stress and health challenges, but the risk is no greater than during normal fall weaning. Proper preparation of the calves two to three weeks prior to weaning can minimize some of the risk. These procedures may include:
Creep feeding in order to shore up areas of potential under-nutrition, including energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
“Soft” weaning may also be considered, which can be accomplished by either (1) use of nose clips which prevent the calf from nursing or (2) by fence line weaning where cows and calves may continue nose-to-nose contact but the calf cannot nurse. This removes the nutrient drain on the cow by the nursing calf but eliminates the added stress of abrupt and complete separation.
We can’t escape an occasional drought, but we can manage our way around the drought and reduce the negative impact. With a little advanced planning, early weaning can be accomplished and the herd set up to recover more quickly once it finally starts raining again!
Source: Feedlot Facts & Beef Tips, Reinhardt, Hollis