Reducing impact on pastures: wean calves early

  From the September 10, 2018 issue of Agri-News
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 Weaning calves early is one strategy that producers can use to lessen the impact on struggling pastures. Andrea Hanson, livestock extension specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, outlines the options.

“Weaning calves early - just over 120 days - reduces and changes the requirements on the cows,” says Hanson. “They need less feed to maintain their pregnancy and to maintain or increase their body condition score going into winter.”

A three year study funded by the Alberta Beef Industry Development Fund evaluated three stages of weaning to determine the effects on cow and calf performance and economic implications. For this study, very early weaned was 72 days, early weaned was 132 days, and normal weaned was 192 days.

Hanson says that the study found:

    • Early weaning did not increase the morbidity or mortality rates in the calves as long as proper management and the nutritional needs of the calves were met.
    • Adopting a “preconditioning” mindset prior to weaning, settled the calves quicker and reduced health issues.
    • Management and feeding of very early weaned calves was best done in a confined feeding situation.
    • The younger the weaning age, the higher the energy and protein levels were required in the ration. Due to rumen capacity, very early weaned calves needed more grains to meet their nutritional requirements.
    • If there is adequate high quality pasture available, early weaned calves - over 120 days old - could be run on pasture and have comparable performance to normal weaned calves.
    • Preconditioning protocol should be considered to reduce the stress on the weaned calves.
“The study followed the calves through to harvest. What it found was calves weaned at 120 days or more had comparable finished weights, carcass qualities, and yields to normal weaned calves. The very early weaned calves may have reduced carcass weights because they finished sooner, and there was no adverse effects on carcass quality grades or yield,” adds Hanson.

“Of more importance was how early weaning affected the cow herd,” explains Hanson. “The very early and early weaning of calves reduced the grazing pressure and needs of the cow herd by 25 per cent and reduced the nutritional needs for energy and protein by more than 30 per cent. The current growing conditions are causing a reduction of pasture quality and quantity. Those pastures may not be providing the level of nutrition the cows need to feed their calves and maintain or improve their body condition score while sustaining a healthy pregnancy.”

Weaning the calves early also gives the cows a chance to improve their body condition scores for winter. “Higher body condition scores going into winter can reduce the cost of winter feed by $50 to $100 per cow, and that’s using moderate feed costs,” says Hanson.

Hanson adds that when an enterprise budget analysis was calculated using pasture expenses, winter feed and conception rates, early weaning had a slightly higher return than normal weaning during average rainfall years. “When dry conditions are factored in, early weaning is certainly an option to consider this growing season.”

Find more information about Early Weaning Stretches Forage Supply and Reduces Winter Feed Needs for Beef Cattle or contact the Alberta Ag-Info Centre at 310-FARM (3276).

Andrea Hanson

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For more information about the content of this document, contact Andrea Hanson.
This document is maintained by Christine Chomiak.
This information published to the web on September 6, 2018.