Why Would You Early Wean Calves, and How Should You Do It?

Management : Cow & Calf

Management : Weaned Calf

Nutrition : Supplements

Elizabeth Backes-Belew, Ph.D.

Nutritionist, Beef Technical Solutions

With drought impacting many farmers and ranchers across the country last year, early weaning calves was a common question on everyone’s minds. Many producers opt for early weaning when forage conditions are less than ideal to help spare forage during a drought or capture sale premiums by marketing lighter calves at an earlier date.

Take the following considerations into account when faced with the decision to wean early:

Positive impact on forage and cow condition

Use forage availability and cow body condition score (BCS) as your barometer to drive your decision-making on whether to wean calves early or hold off. Early weaning isn’t something to really consider when the grass is green, forage is abundant and the cows are holding their condition. If forage is running out or the body condition score average for the cows falls below 5, then it is probably time to implement early weaning.

Forage consumption drops by 27% when calves are early weaned, helping alleviate the grazing pressure.[1] So, for approximately every three calves weaned, you can save the forage requirements of one cow.

Additionally, body condition score is consistently higher for cows when their calves are early weaned because they have fewer nutritional requirements to produce milk. Body condition score tends to increase by at least 0.5 for early weaning cows versus normal weaning cows.1 Taking care of the cows to keep them closer to a BCS 6 benefits fetal programming, ensuring the next generation of calves has an ideal situation for fetal development.

Encourage early feed intake

It’s essential when early weaning to provide a quality starter to meet the calf’s requirements and help increase their rate of gain. All Purina® starters are designed to be palatable for calves to help promote feed intake, not overconsumption. The starters also meet the needs of calves by providing the optimal balance of nutrients paired with organic trace minerals.

An added benefit of Purina® starters is that they feature RX3® Immune Support Technology®, which helps optimize calves’ response to stress and common calf health challenges, an important factor for early weaned calves with immature immune systems.

Early weaning is a valuable management tool for many producers, but it must be done right to balance out the potential lost opportunity to put more weight onto calves while nursing on pasture. But, with a quality starter program, you can successfully implement an early weaning program to take pressure off your pasture and cows.

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[1] USDA Research, Education & Economic Information System. Four State Ruminant Nutrition Consortium. South Dakota State University. August 2011.