Early weaning could be profitable for producers

For ranchers, calving is winding down and for farmers planting is starting up. But for either it is the end result which is important-the money made from a quality product.

For ranchers, calving is winding down and for farmers planting is starting up. But for either it is the end result which is important-the money made from a quality product.

Also important for both are cutting costs and improving the product, which is why studies are constantly being done to find alternative ways of doing things.

One such alternative is an investigation being conducted by North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Center Animal Scientist Doug Landblom and his colleagues from South Dakota State University (SDSU) and the University of Wyoming. They are collectively studying early weaning as a drought management strategy.

"Basically these are systems management studies," Landblom said; adding that each two year study focuses on different issues that were identified after completion of the first study. The first study established a baseline when calves were weaned either the second week of August or the first week of November in 2002.

According to the first study's progress report, the objective was to look at the impact of early weaning and retained ownership decisions on the relationship between weaning date, herbage availability, cow and calf performance through finishing and economic returns.


In the report, it states that the majority of costs in the cow-calf business are for harvested feed and systems that rely more on grazing and less on harvested or purchased feedstuffs which have a greater potential to be profitable. At each of the three state locations, spring-born calves were weaned from cows at approximately 140 days in mid-August or 215 days of age in early-November.

Calves from the DREC and the SDSU - Antelope Station, Buffalo, S.D., were back grounded in North Dakota before being sent to a feed yard in Kansas, he added.

The cattle were tracked from when they were weaned to when they were harvested.

The systems study was to look at how to develop something that lowers production costs while adding value to calves, which would benefit producers struggling to be profitable in a drought situation.

Landblom said early weaning was initially considered as a form of crisis management, but has changed his mind and is now looking at early weaning as a strategical management tool that may become a beneficial alternative to traditional systems.

"We began early weaning management studies to investigate drought management in such a way that it wasn't about crisis management, but a strategical management plan to make the best of a difficult situation," Landblom said.

Early weaning has its disadvantages, he added.

"When calves are weaned early and not sold, net return can be impacted negatively," Landblom said. "However, retaining ownership at least until calves weigh 750 to 800 pounds can be a positive economic move, especially since early weaned calves grow rapidly and convert feed efficiently, but require special dietary considerations and increased focus on health programs and vaccinations for Clostridial and virus diseases."


Another disadvantage is that early weaning of spring-born calves often occurs during the harvest season and many cattlemen also raise cash crops, he added.

Several benefits were found with early weaning including improved cow body condition going into the winter, reduced forage needs, and due to the improved body condition, cow rebreed was better for the next breeding season.

"The Beef Cattle NRC (1996) predicts a spring calving cow lactating in August will have a 9 percent greater daily intake of range forage than a dry cow," stated the report.

Landblom and his colleagues reported that weaning calves early allowed standing forage to be spared.

"Saving forage by reducing its demand on the pastures is one of the major benefits attributed to weaning calves early," said Landblom.

When cows that have been previously identified to be sold after weaning, are weaned early and sold later in the fall, they will weigh 80 to 100 pounds more and generally sell on a higher market due to the improved body condition, he added.

"When calves are weaned early, milk production stops and the cow's nutrient requirement drops by nearly 30 percent and extra forage energy is then stored instead of being used to produce milk," Landblom said.

According to an article by NDSU Extension Beef Cattle Specialist Greg Lardy, dry cows consume less forage and by the time calves are 4-6 months old they consume a significant amount of forage.


"Early weaning can reduce grazing pressure on a pasture by up to 50 percent," Lardy said. "Early weaning conserves forage resources for the cow herd."

Landblom added when early weaning is employed in non-drought situations the saved forage can be used to increase the herd size, resulting in the potential for increased ranch revenue.

"The economics of cattle production can be strained by ever increasing input costs and subsequent investigations identified in the initial investigation was that extended grazing may be the answer to improved profitability and sustainability," Landblom said.

Future research through the investigations by Landblom and others seek to address the reduction of input costs through a "follower-leader" type of grazing management of annual forages where early weaned calves will graze ahead of cows. The calves graze the higher quality material and the cows follow consuming the lower quality corn stalks, Landblom said.

The procedure is designed to cut costs and improve environmental stewardship, he added.

"Essentially, it's thinking about using calves as grazing combines that spread manure on the go," Landblom said. "It has a lot to do with the ethanol scene and sharply escalating grain prices."

What To Read Next
Get Local