Weaning is one of the most critical times in a calf’s life. That means you have to get it right, right from the start.
Perfect the plan
Ranch resources, the cost of feed, marketing method and environment are important elements to consider in deciding when to wean.
A cow’s ability to meet the growing demands of her calf declines after 60 days of age (DOA). This age coincides with the calf’s ability to consume and digest feed and forage. Weaning around breeding (60-90 DOA) increases reproductive performance of cows while increasing future beef quality in the calves. However, weaning at this young age presents some challenges for many and is used only in drought conditions.
Often a “drought strategy,” early weaning can be an effective approach any time pastures are limiting calf growth potential. Just watch out for the little guys.
Here are some tips from Kansas State University:
- Place a temporary length of feedbunk perpendicular to the usual fence-line arrangement to encourage the calves to break their normal circular pattern and address what’s inside.
- Add an open-top stock tank or wire up the float to create a little overflow that may naturally lead calves to the source.
- Think about size. Building up the apron of the pen or the watering area might allow smaller calves to access feed and water more comfortably.
Early weaning might be a drastic departure from what you’ve always done. Sometimes a subtle schedule switch does the trick. Simply weaning calves earlier as pasture availability declines offers the best compromise between deciding to creep feed and what many consider early weaning (150 DOA).
With today’s powerhouse genetics, the industry standard of weaning at 205 days may be too late to keep meeting energy requirements without supplementation. Those making investments in genetics may not realize the benefits because the environment is limiting growth. Weaning should be a dynamic decision based on forage availability, cow condition and the calf’s genetic potential.
Wean when the calf has reached approximately 45% of its expected finished weight. For example, a steer that finishes at 1,300 lb. should be weaned at 585 lb.
Belly up to the bunk
Water and feed intake are the biggest keys to keeping cattle healthy during the weaning process. Make sure they have easy access to both.
Dietary starch contributes to marbling development over time so include starch, such as corn, in the weaning diet. Distillers grains or corn gluten feed are excellent protein sources, but not high in starch. Since marbling matters, those co-products of corn processing shouldn’t make up more than 20% of a diet to continue laying down more of that intramuscular fat.
Nutrient amount is as important as the source. The surest way to put the brakes on marbling is to move calves from a high-energy diet to a lower energy growing diet. Instead, target 2 to 2.5 lb. of gain per day during the 45-day preconditioning period.
Consult your nutritionist and veterinarian to determine if feed additives (ionophores, antibiotics, direct-fed microbials) are a good fit for maintaining health in your postweaning ration.
Whether it’s at 60 days or 6 months, weaning is a whole new world to your calves. Make it a smooth transition with planning and preparation in the before and after.