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Early Weaning Management

15 September 2009

Weaning time is a stressful time for the cow, the calf and the rancher, writes TheCattleSite Junior Editor Charlotte Johnston. It is critical to business success deciding when and where to wean, particularly with last year calf prices plummeting between September and December. Research suggests that early weaning can in the long-run save time and money.

USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) reports that the average weaning age of beef calves in the US is a little over seven months of age at an average weight of 515 pounds ( 233 kg). However, the report suggested that cow condition, forage availability or market prices did not affect producers decision regarding the time of weaning.

Why wean early?

Drought in areas of the US reoccurs yearly, but has perphaps been harsher this season, leaving farmers with little forage. With this in mind, early weaning may be a serious consideration. Typically calves weaned at less than 150 days of age would be considered early-weaned. Research has shown that calves can be weaned successfully as young as four weeks of age.

Research by Iowa State University showed that the earlier calves were weaned the heavier they would be and carcase quality was better than later weaned calves.

By weaning calves early, nutritional requirements of beef cows are significantly reduced allowing forage quantity and quality to be matched. It also allows cows to regain body condition before winter and has been proved to improve cow reproductive performance, ensuring one calf per cow every 12 months. For younger cows, weaning early reduces the stress of rearing the calf.

Management and feeding of early weaned calves

The success of an early weaning programme depends on maintaining a high level of management, caring for and feeding of calves.

By minimising stress to calves and cows, weaning will be more efficient. The University of Minnesota's Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, explains that stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol - a catabolic steroid that has negative effects on the immune system.
This makes a calf more susceptible to respiratory disease and decreases the calf's ability to respond to a vaccine. It is therefore important to get the first dose of vaccine into the calves while they're still nursing, when stress levels are low. There are two major groups of vaccines that should be considered to assist weaning - those for clostridial diseases and those for respiratory diseases. Because of the effects of stress on the immune system it is important that only healthy calves are weaned and put into group housing - where a wider variety of pathogens may affect them.

Extension beef specialists recommend castrating, dehorning and branding being done 10-14 days prior to weaning to reduce stress.

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"Early weaned calves should be consuming 2.75 per cent to 3.25 per cent of their body weight in dry feed daily"
Brian Palichuk, Livestock Production Specialist with United Farmers of Alberta




Without early rumen development, early weaning would not be successful. If the rumen is unprepared to handle dry feeds, the calf will suffer a growth slump for up to three weeks at any age or weight post weaning. Consumption of calf starter and water will lead to the production of volatile fatty acids in the rumen, which in turn stimulates rumen development allowing digestibility and greater energy conversion rates. Rumen development will take 21 days to occur, so to wean as early as four weeks of age, grain and water must be consumed within the first week of life.


It may be advantageous to creep feed prior to weaning, this will aid in starting calves on feed and reduce calf stress. It could also potentially reduce labour spent on ensuring calves are eating enough once weaned. Creep feeding also reduces the stress on cows prior to weaning as less energy to convert milk is demanded - forage requirements are also reduced.

High quality fodder should be fed between weaning and six months of age, fine-stemmed, mould-free hay is preferred. Silage and other fermented forages should not be fed to calves immediately but after a couple of months of being weaned and it must be good quality.

Labour demand in the early days will increase, some calves may need to be hand fed, or time spent encouraging them to eat the grain. In order for this system to work, the correct facilities must be in place to house and feed young calves.

Conclusion

Weaning early allows costs to be cut which is particularly relevant in times when producers are finding it difficult to make a profit. Weaning early may allow calves to be sold sooner at a good weight when the markets are seasonally higher. Early weaning is particularly useful when feed and forage are limited, particularly in drought, providing a practical means of efficiently using feed resources, while still obtaining a heavy sale weight of the calves produced.

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