The “Business” of Weaning

– Tom Turner, Beef Specialist, OSU Extension

The restructuring of corporate America has resulted in the phrase down-sizing. New technologies and business methods have allowed corporations to reduce middle and upper management, while maintaining production volume and sales. Therefore, executives have termed down-sizing as right-sizing.

Severing a calf from its mother or removing milk as a component of a calf’s diet is a management decision steeped in tradition. The onset of winter, feeder calf sales and the relative ease of managing cow-calf pairs on pasture during the summer and early fall have caused farm executives to wean calves at the standard time of October and November when calves are seven to eight months of age. Taking a calf from its mother at this age and weight is more a social event than a nutritional one.

Just as corporate America, the beef industry has changed. Cows are larger. Calves are larger and grow faster. These changes have put new demands on a system that is unable to respond.

The goals of the cow-calf producer are to have optimum, if not maximum, calf growth with minimal cow inputs and to have the cows calve on a 365-day interval. Right weaning can help accomplish this.

First it is important to know that calves can be weaned successfully at as early as 30-40 days of age without use of milk replacer. In numerous research studies and farm trials, calves have been weaned at 30 to 120 days of age with virtually no problems.

Secondly, the beef producer must decide the right time to wean. This decision must be driven primarily by resource availability. Assuming spring calving, at what point is the combination of milk production and pasture availability inadequate for maximum calf gains? Obviously this depends on the cow’s ability to produce milk and various environmental and management programs related to pastures. However, these feed sources are almost always insufficient prior to the seven-month weaning and some studies have shown them to be inadequate as early in the calf’s life as 60 days. Allowing calves to remain with their mothers beyond this point will result in one or more of the following: reduced calf growth, reduced cow body condition, stress on pastures and/or reduced stocking rate.

Calf growth has actually been enhanced by right weaning in many studies. Removing calves from this environment of inadequate mother’s milk and pasture will allow them to express their genetic potential for growth and capitalize on the inherent superior feed efficiency of the young animal.

Cow body condition will also be improved by right weaning. Sustaining milk production under declining forage availability will result in depletion of body reserves. Not allowing this to happen and extending the cows’ dry period will improve reproduction rates in future breeding seasons.

Stocking rates may be increased by right weaning. Our region of the United States traditionally has a surplus of forages in the spring and a deficit in the late summer. Right weaning, or removal of calves before the typical dry periods of July-August, will allow more cows to be carried during those months and, therefore, more cow-calf pairs during the more lush period of April-June. Studies have shown that non-lactating cows need only 60% as much feed intake to maintain the same body conditions as lactating females.

What about costs? Many cow-calf producers are not accustomed to buying feed. If calves that are right weaned are going to be fed to heavier weights for marketing purposes, they will typically be fed a corn based diet. The cost of this can be justified, compared to the traditional weaning system, because of greater calf growth, improved cow reproduction, greater number of cows on the same land due to increased stocking rates and the greater efficiency of gain in young calves.

The right time to wean calves is not a simple issue. It is dependent on all the factors discussed above and probably others. However, non-traditional thinking, when it comes to weaning calves, could result in increased profits for the producer. Just like corporations, those who fail to analyze systems of production and associated costs and resist restructuring will be eliminated by the competition.