The case for long-term weaning

From the April issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

"It's more efficient to put pounds on a calf than milk in a cow." This is a common and proven case for early weaning. Once a calf's rumen is fully developed, which is at about 60 days of age, it can be weaned, says University of Missouri Extension beef nutrition specialist Justin Sexten. While early weaning is perfect for producers in areas that are lacking in natural resources, since it helps drop the cow's nutritional requirements, it may be unnecessary for others.

"We often think of weaning as a fixed time, such as at 7 months of age," he explains. "But in reality, weaning should be dictated by the forage resources, market and cow body condition."

"When fall cows are turned out at the start of the grazing season, most of the time it is hard to appropriately stock pastures to keep up with early spring forage growth, making it unnecessary to wean in April from a nutritional standpoint," he says. "And since there is value in the protein supply of milk, producers may as well utilize it if they have the opportunity." 

According to him, producers who wean when the forage growth begins to slow can leave fall-born calves on cows for 250 to 300 days of age with a stopping point that gives a cow a 60-day dry period prior to having her next calf.

"In a fall-calving system, this would be around early June in most cases. We haven't gotten to heat stress yet, our pastures are still vegetative and lush, and those cows will still be in adequate body condition," Sexten explains. "We can see an additional 50 to 70 pounds of weaning weight on those calves that were allowed to nurse cows longer."

In test models where a calf was weaned prior to grazing turnout and grazed on pastures in front of the cow, performance was lower, which Sexten says makes the case for utilizing milk supply when possible. This also gives producers flexibility in choosing their market, on top of quickness in reducing nutritional needs if the weather starts to get dry.

"If producers find themselves in a situation where the weather gets dry, and they start going through more forage than expected, they can just wean the calf along the way," he explains. "I would suggest weaning is a flexible decision just as long as producers keep in mind the body condition of a cow, natural resources and, ultimately, their market."