Capture Value Through Weaning

– Dr. Jeff Lehmkuhler, Associate Beef Extension Professor, University of Kentucky

Seems like I am a broken record lately. I keep hearing myself say only worry about what you can control and don’t fret over those things you cannot. As fall comes, it occurs to me that these words seem to apply to our beef farms. Everyone wanders when the peak in the market will be. Several ask when is the market going to drop?

Often we worry so much about what the markets will do in the fall, we forgot to focus on what we can control. Many calves make it to the market unweaned, something we can control. Time and time again, the markets show us that weaned calves bring more money than unweaned calves. Let’s consider diverting our worries towards factors we can control.

Weaning seems stressful, on the calves, cows and the livestock manager. Planning and preparing will ease this stress. A bit of planning means a bit of thinking about the process. Ask yourself, what makes weaning stressful?

Is it the separation of dam and calf, breaking that mothering instinct? Personally, I think this is minimal. Consider research with Zebu or Brahman-type cattle in which heifer calves were naturally weaned around 9 months of age. Bull calves were naturally weaned older near 11 months of age. In this classical research there was considerable variation with the spread being 7-14 months. The point I’m attempting to make is weaning calves at 7-9 months of age is near the age they would naturally be weaned.

Is there stress from dam vocalization to call the calf to her to relieve discomfort from a full udder? I have watched cows with full udders, milk streaming from the teats while calling to calves across the fence that were bedded down paying little attention. This is a reasonable assumption that udder discomfort induces vocalization of the cow to call the calf to provide relief. However, I know of no research that identifies if the cow answers the calf or the calf answers the cow. I suspect it is a mix of both. What is known is the behavior can be altered.

Is the stress related to a change in the environment? Moving the calves to a strange location with strange feed, unfamiliar water source, and close proximity to animals such dogs, cats, and humans which they normally can distant themselves from when in open fields are all stressors. This can be remedied by weaning on pasture rather than a drylot. Planning in advance can make weaning on pasture a success.

Spending a bit of time considering where stress can be induced and developing strategies to minimize the degree of stress at each of these points will pay off. In fact, weaning can be a low stress situation with calves gaining well after weaning. I would strongly encourage you to consider stockpiling a field that has good exterior fences. Now is the time to start stockpiling the field. Applying nitrogen with adequate soil moisture will promote forage growth. Ten acres of stockpiled fescue will support about 30 calves for a month assuming there is slightly more than a ton of forage dry matter per acre.

Focus your worries on strategies that add value to your calf crop and less on what the markets will do. You’ll have the peace of mind knowing you did all you could to maximize the value of your calves.