|  Home   |   Board   |   Members   |   What's Happening   |   Herf Ed   |   Links   |   Annual Sale   |   Contact/Join   |

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Early Weaning Equals Added Cow Weight

Trey Patterson, COO of Padlock Ranch, discusses the benefits of Weaning calves ahead of schedule.

by Heather Smith Thomas

Sometimes weaning calves earlier than traditional weaning dates can be beneficial for both the cows and the calves—and for the rancher’s financial picture.  To do this efficiently, however, a person needs to plan ahead and be set up to do it properly.
     Trey Patterson, PhD (nutritionist and Chief Operations Officer of Padlock Ranches, in Wyoming), says their ranches have sometimes weaned calves as early as 4 months of age.  “We’ve used this management strategy, weaning calves earlier than usual, primarily in our first-calf heifers, but we’ve sometimes done it with cows as well.  In both cases, it is a strategy to manage body condition,” he explains.  This gives the cow or heifer a chance to regain weight or to not lose weight in the fall—so you won’t have to supply more feed in order to pick them back up again.  This can be a consideration on a dry year when a ranch might be short on forage.
      “I did some research when I was on faculty at South Dakota State University, working with a team of range scientists from SDSU and NDSU,” he says.  In comparing spring-calving cows weaning in August with cows weaning in November, the studies found that the dry cow from August through November used 76% of the total amount of forage that a pair did. 
       “When we early-weaned, we were able to save 24% of the forage that would have been used during that period of time.  Thus early weaning can be a beneficial tool when trying to manage body condition score on cows and/or forage use.  If it’s a forage-availability question, you can calculate this to see if you are ahead to leave the calf on the cow (assuming body condition score is adequate) and feed the cow more during that extra length of time she’s lactating, or if it is cheaper to wean the calf and feed him, and not have to feed the cow as soon or as much,” he explains.

Efficient Feed Converters
     Young calves are very efficient feed converters.  “They eat a little more--on a dry matter basis—as a percent of body weight than a bigger calf and are pretty efficient at converting that to gain.  One of the things we do here at the Padlock Ranch, when we wean a younger, lighter calf, is to make sure the ration is built with that in mind.  We provide a higher concentration of energy, protein and minerals, and a little less roughage.” 
     The higher concentrate ration helps the younger calves start gaining quickly, and they are very efficient in utilizing this kind of feed.  They can’t eat very many pounds of forage because the rumen doesn’t have that much capacity yet.  “So we increase the concentration of energy, protein and minerals,” says Patterson.  Thus a producer would typically wean these calves onto some kind of concentrate ration rather than onto grass pasture like you could an older calf.
      “Later-weaned calves can go right on grass and do well, but early-weaned light calves need a higher level of nutrition to keep growing and gaining.  They would survive without it, but will gain faster and might stay healthier on the higher level.  I haven’t found that earlier weaned calves are less healthy; I think they are just as healthy as late-weaned calves, if they are managed appropriately,” he says.
     “We’ve weaned them when it’s hot and dusty in September, when you’d think they’d be at risk, but they don’t seem to be any different in their health from those that are weaned later when it’s cooler and there’s snow on the ground,” says Patterson.
      “We wean them in a feedlot facility with concrete pads and bunks and feed them a total mixed milled ration.  They are separated from their mothers and we get them on feed as soon as possible.  In our situation they don’t really get a chance to eat this type of ration and learn about it until they are weaned.  The mixed ration contains hay and concentrate,” he explains.  The hay helps the calves adjust and keeps the rumen healthy.
     “Another thing we do, from a rumen safety standpoint, is use some fiber-based energy products like wheat mids and distillers grains (along with corn or barley), just to keep the starch load from getting too high.  That’s a good way to get energy levels up without getting a diet that’s too high in starch,” says Patterson.
     The wheat-mid pellets are very palatable and the calves start eating those fairly quickly in a mixed ration.  They aren’t off feed much at all even though they are stressed at being taken off their mothers.  The more stressed they are and the lower their feed intake, the higher the nutrient concentration must be in what you are feeding.  If the calves aren’t eating much, every bite needs to be nutritious.  “We need to be thinking about pounds and grams of ingested nutrients at this point and not necessarily percentage of the diet,” he says.
     “Typically on these lighter calves, we don’t use a wet ration.  If we are using silage or haylage for weaned calves, we leave these young ones on a dry ration longer than we would a normal-age weaned calf.  The older calves get worked onto corn silage fairly quickly.  After those early-weaned calves get a little more size and weight, over 400-450 pounds, we can start working more silage into their diet.  From that point on they can be managed similarly to the older-weaned calves.”
     “Once they get a little bigger, the moisture (within reason) doesn’t have a lot to do with dry matter intake.  If you feed them a wetter ration, they just eat more.  But the little calves don’t have enough rumen space to eat enough to get adequate nutrients to meet their requirements for growth,” he explains.  They can’t consume as much silage as a larger calf.

Planning to Pull
     “We hear a lot of talk about early weaning, but a person needs a reason to do it.  If you have a reason to do it, then you want to make sure you do it properly and the diets are managed appropriately and you have a good management plan for the calves.  A feed shortage, or cows thinner than you’d like them to be, or if you hope to market some bred cows and don’t want them losing weight before sale, could all be reasons to look at early weaning.  If you plan to sell some cows and your feed costs are reasonable, you might be money ahead to leave the weight on the cow to sell her, and efficiently put weight on the calf,” says Patterson.
     “Often you reach a point, especially with first calf heifers, where the calf doesn’t seem to be growing very much on the cow but the cow continues to be pulled down.  She’s still trying to grow and produce milk and can’t quite maintain herself.  If you can identify that point, this is an economical time to wean the calf.  You are not gaining much by leaving them together.  You might actually be hurting yourself and those young cows because you have to start feeding the cows earlier or feed more, to pick them back up if they are thin and have to go through a hard winter,” he says.
     “There is also some good information on carcass quality on these early-weaned calves.  They marble better.  But I think the main reason people do it is to manage the cow and/or their land more efficiently."
     Early weaning is something very few people considered in earlier years, thinking the calves would be bigger (more pounds to sell in the fall if they are left on the cows longer), but often the cows would be thin by the next calving season. 
     If a person is set up to retain ownership of the calves, or plans to keep them as replacements or to sell later as breeding stock, they might do very well with early weaned calves.  “Otherwise marketing them can sometimes be a challenge unless a feedlot is set up to handle those,” says Patterson. You need to check into the marketing aspect before you jump into this, especially with really young calves.
     “If you are used to weaning and handling calves and have the facilities to do this, then it’s an easy decision if you have issues with thin cows or running out of grass.  But if you are not set up for it, and don’t have experience with early weaning, it could be a wreck,” he explains.
     It’s not for everyone, but can work well for a person who is set up to do it and can commit to it.  “Your feed costs are an important factor.  If you have feed bought or put up at a reasonable price—your forages and/or some concentrates or by-products—there are some real opportunities here to help manage your cows and do a good job managing calves.  If that’s not the case, however, then it becomes more difficult to make it work.”

Cow Tales
The new nonfiction collection by Heather Smith Thomas
Following the success of her acclaimed nonfiction collection Horse Tales: True Stories
 from an Idaho Ranch, author Heather Smith Thomas has assembled Cow Tales: More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch,  an entertaining and compelling lineup of autobiographical essays detailing her family’s adventures raising cattle in the challenging ranch country outside Salmon, Idaho. In the tradition of James Herriot ( "All Creatures Great and Small"), each story centers on a particular animal or aspect of animal  husbandry, offering insight into the resourcefulness required to manage a cattle herd and a heartwarming look at human-animal bonding.

“I am grateful to ... the many unique ‘cow characters’ I’ve been privileged to know,” Thomas writes. “This book is a gathering of memories about some of those special characters ... a collection of stories and recollections about a few of the many ‘cow critters’ who taught me and my family about cattle care, cattle nature, and ourselves as humans.”

Paperack/Published by The Frontier Project Inc.
Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other book retailers. Retail: $24.95.
Inquiries: A.J. Mangum, (719) 237-0243, thefrontierproject@gmail.com