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Have You Considered Early Weaning Your Beef Calves?

University of Minnesota Extension, Stearns County News
May 25, 2017        
Source:  Emily Wilmes, Extension Educator-Livestock
University of Minnesota Extension
Stearns, Benton & Morrison Counties

Have You Considered Early Weaning Your Beef Calves?
By Emily Wilmes, University of Minnesota Extension

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (5/17/2017) — For some cow/calf producers, early weaning has become a more common management practice in recent years.  Early weaning is generally defined as weaning calves when they are 3 to 5 months of age as compared to the more common 6 to 8 months. There are several advantages to weaning early, but also some disadvantages.

One advantage is improved pasture management.  When cows cease milk production their consumption decreases, providing less stress on pastures. During dry conditions this can create an opportunity to preserve what little forage remains or allow an increased stocking rate when it is not dry. Weaning calves can cut forage consumption by as much as 50%. However, if calves are not sold directly after weaning, there is a need for facilities where calves can be fed a concentrate.

There are also advantageous opportunities for cow reproduction with early weaning.  This is an area that can have the biggest economical returns, especially if cows are in poor condition or if you are trying to move up the calving season. Some studies have indicated that cows not being suckled will have increased fertility and that cows in good body condition will rebreed sooner.

With early weaning, there are some concerns related to calf health.  Calves weaned early will still have passive immunity from their dams, and studies have indicated that if early weaned calves are vaccinated one month prior to weaning and again at 6 months of age, they are healthier throughout the feeding period than conventionally weaned calves. Some studies have also shown that fenceline weaning decreases stress in young calves, which will help their immunity. Early weaned calves will only reach this potential by being intensively managed.

There is also a potential for an advantage at the feedlot with early weaned calves.  Calves weaned early have an improved feed efficiency and similar yield grades as conventionally weaned calves. Early weaned calves can also have improved meat quality, with a greater percentage grading low choice or better.

There are also other considerations to make when thinking about early weaning.  There is the option to early wean only part of the cow herd. Cows that make good candidates, such as thin cows, two and three year old cows, late calvers, and cows that will be culled in the fall, could be weaned while other calves remain on cows.

Early weaning does require more management and attention to the weaned calves. It also adds cost initially, so these costs need to be captured elsewhere to make it economical. These costs can be gained back by the decrease in pasture pressure, the increase in fertility of cows, the improvements in feedlot performance or the gains in selling cull cows earlier.


Emily Wilmes
Extension Educator, Ag Production Systems - Livestock
(320) 255-6169
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