Over the last couple of years, making hay in a timely manner has been nearly impossible. There just were not 3- or 4-day windows of dry weather without water standing in the fields. The result was a lot of poor-quality hay resulting in poor body condition scores of cows coming out of the winter. This year, hay production has started out much better for most people. We had a couple nice dry periods in late May and early June that allowed baling of good quality hay. The issue this year is quantity. Many people are reporting reductions of 30 to 50% in tonnage of first cutting hay. There are probably two factors that are causing this. First the cold weather and numerous frost and freeze events in April and May slowed the hay down growth. Much of the alfalfa was at a bud stage on the first of June instead of flowering. This likely helped the quality but hurt the quantity. The second factor is that we simply would expect less hay when it is baled at the beginning of June than the end of June. Time will tell whether the season long hay production remains low or if second and third cuttings make up the difference.
It is never too early to plan. There are options to consider to be sure enough forage will be available for the winter. This comes down to either producing more forage or reducing the need for forage. Many good articles have been written on alternative forage production for increasing available forage, so I am going to skip over that. I will concentrate on reducing the need for stored forage. We often think of early weaning as an alternative during drought conditions, but it can also effectively extend the grazing season which will reduce the need for stored forage.
Studies in both North and South Dakota have reported reductions in daily forage consumption between 25 and 40% associated with early weaning. We know that cows nursing calves require more forage, but we also need to remember that those calves are eating between 2 and 2.5% of their body weight a day in dry matter. This reduction in forage use is only valuable if managed in a way to take advantage of it. The reduced consumption could allow more days of grazing on each section or some sections could be skipped over to allow stockpiling and extend the grazing season.
Early weaning also provides the opportunity to remove cull cows from the herd before seasonal low prices occur. According to NASS data over the last 5 years, September cull cows have typically brought at least $5 per cwt. more than November culls. Cows nursing calves often continue to lose weight up to the time the calves are weaned. A study by Landblum et al. in North Dakota showed a decrease in cow weight of 136 pounds with a November versus August weaning. This could amount an extra $150. Holding these cull cows until traditional weaning time, while calves continue to nurse, may result in a smaller payday and less forage remaining in the pasture. Early weaning will also allow retained cows to put on body condition from pasture forage before heading into winter and use of stored forage. A 5 to 7 body condition score at the beginning of the calving season will increase the likelihood of cycling early and getting pregnant early the next season. Having a calf early in the breeding season is one of the most important determinates of profitability. An increased body condition score can have long term impacts on productivity.
The downside to early weaning is younger calves weigh less. If calves are sold directly off or the cows and ownership is not retained, this would mean a smaller payday. The lighter (younger) calves will bring a higher price per pound, but this will not make up the difference in the total payment received for larger calves. The value of forage saved and increase in body condition of the cows need to be accounted for when looking at early weaning. If early weaning extends the grazing season, and a producer has plenty of good quality hay, the producer could sell some of that hay at a premium. Early weaning could pay off.
A final point to consider would be keeping weaned calves and backgrounding them. Early weaning and then backgrounding can allow you to put some inexpensive gain on the calves. In addition, If processing facilities are still backed up as we reach the end of summer, early weaning and then backgrounding of the calves can provide a little extra flexibility for timing of marketing to avoid backlogged market conditions.