Feb. 9, 2012 - According to Texas AgriLife Extension Beef Cattle Specialist Dr. Jason Banta, cattle producers should be thinking seriously about early weaning this year due to the effects and stress of the drought on cattle, and the raised cost and scarcity of quality forages.
"Hopefully this past year, if you had some cows getting a little thin, you took a look at weaning those calves off at four or five months of age, instead of six or seven, so you could save some condition on those cows," Banta said. "Being where we are right now with nutrition, I think it is real critical right now that we talk about early weaning -- what kind of shape of some those calves are going to be in."
Banta realizes that producers are concerned with the bottomline -- needing to make more money and spend as little as possible. Banta knows this first-hand, being an owner of a cattle operation himself.
On a cow-calf operation such as his, he knows that the long-term condition and productivity are key, so anything he can do to ensure that he has high conception rates and equally high rates of healthy, desirable calves on the ground each year is important. In the current situation, Banta says early weaning may be a great tool.
"The big thing is increase pregnancy rates, provide that body condition score of a five or better -- the other thing is that we greatly improve nutritional efficiency," Banta explained. "It is much easier to keep that cow and calf separately (conditioned) than it is to keep them together."
On most beef cattle operations, calves are left on their mothers up to the age of six to seven months. But, Banta said, early weaning can bring down the cost to maintain the livestock. Since this not an excessively common practice, Banta turned to the dairy industry for information on early weaning as it is much more common for dairymen.
Some techniques used to be successful through early weaning include exposing calves to a feed and forage diet prior to weaning.
"We want them used to consuming some of that diet," Banta said. "We want to be eating some kind of feed for at least three weeks before weaning. We want them to be consuming a half-pound to a pound each day, early on, so we can start developing that rumen."
Calves should also be accustomed to the feeding system, so when weaning takes place, they know how to access feed bunks, water troughs, shelters and windbreaks.
Banta believes that these tough circumstances will actually make it easier than ever to early wean.
"So, what we need to do, is get some extra bunks out there, or get some barrels, since they are cheaper than bunks, and get them out there where you can spread them out and those calves can get up and eat a little bit of feed with those cows," Banta suggested. "They are not going to eat much, but we do want them to get used to the system."
Banta suggested, if possible, creating a separate area adjacent to the area where cows feed, that is only accessible by calves.
"The ways you can do that is on some kind of creep feeder system," he said. "I am not normally a fan of creep feeders, but anything that we can do to keep those calves consuming feed prior to weaning will help us tremendously."
The other thing producers can do is work with their veterinarian to implement a vaccination program before weaning calves. Banta pointed out that vaccinations being applied during the weaning process can actually cause more stress, making the weaning process more difficult.
"We definitely want to treat those calves, and we definitely want to treat external and internal parasites -- we don't want any additional stress," Banta said. "One thing that we normally think about doing, that is a good thing, is that we don't want any antibiotics in the feed. The reason we probably don't want any antibiotics in the feed in this situation is those antibiotics can actually slow the growth and development of that microbial population in the rumen."
Once calves are conditioned to be weaned, have been vaccinated and are consuming feed and using the water trough, shelters and windbreaks, cattlemen should select a good weaning day. Ideally, weather should be considered, avoiding extreme weather just before and after weaning. Then, they want to make sure that they have a weaning area of adequate size to turn the calves into.
"You don't want to turn those calves out into a 40-, 50- or 100-acre pasture, you want to keep them in a one- or two-acre grass trap, if you can," Banta said. "I know everybody doesn't have that, but if they can figure out some way to do that, it would be an advantage."
In this manner, calves can be easily monitored.
When done properly, early weaning can be done with minimal stress, helping to maintain the condition of the cows and calves, and minimize the expense on producers.