Cooperative Extension University of Wisconsin-Extension

Issues in Agriculture

Extension Responds: Drought

Early Weaning Calves Options

By the University of Wisconsin-Extension Beef Team
September 2003

This summer's hot and very dry weather conditions, combined with the depleted forage supply due to winterkill in 2002-2003, has left cow-calf producers examining strategies for dealing with short pasture conditions. Options include supplemental feeding alternatives or early weaning. Because hay prices are higher than the seasonal average this year, many producers are considering weaning calves early.

Weaning beef calves early can stretch the grazing time for existing supplies. Dry and gestating beef cows can use lower quality forages because they need less protein and energy than cows that are lactating.

Wisconsin producers usually wean calves at six to eight months of age. Most Wisconsin calves are born in March through May; most are 100 to 150 days old in August. Research and the experience of other producers have shown that, with good management, you can successfully wean calves of this age.

Early weaning should be considered when:

  • Pastures are short
  • Hay is expensive
  • Calf prices are high
  • Cows are in thin body condition
  • Hot weather makes cool-season grass species go dormant
  • Temperatures are more stable, resulting in fewer health problems
  • Producer has cows to cull and the market is strong
  • Willing buyers exist for pre-conditioned weaned calves

In the Upper Midwest, many herd managers fit in one or more of these categories. Several methods exist for weaning calves early. One that is becoming popular is “Across the Fence” or “Fenceline” weaning. With this method, cows and calves are separated by only a fence and can remain in visual contact with each other. This reduces stress on both the cow and calf. If possible, it is better to move the cows to an adjacent space and leave the calves in their current pasture, since they know boundaries, water locations and remain on a familiar forage resource. Calves and cows, although separated, will often lie down next to each other while still on opposite sides of the fence. This method also means less dust in the calf area, reducing the risk for respiratory disease. In two to four days, cows and calves can be relocated.

During the weaning transition, be sure that the feed or forages offered are palatable and balanced to meet the calves' nutritional requirements during this period of low intake. Keep the feed fresh. Daily feeding or stirring the feed in the bunk may help calves find the feed.

Avoid fermented feeds such as corn silage immediately after weaning as calves are not acclimated to these feedstuffs. You can offer fermented feeds at low levels a few days after weaning. Increase the amount slowly.

Good quality grass or grass/legume mix hay is an ideal forage source for drylot weaning. Avoid high quality legume hays as they may result in scouring and increase the risk of dehydration.

Place feed bunks so the animals have to walk around them if they want to pace the fenceline. This “stumbling over the feeder” concept helps calves find the feed.

Gradually introduce starch-containing feedstuffs by limiting the amount of grain offered to one to two pounds for the first two to three days. Begin to increase the amount fed, waiting a few days between each increase, and monitor calves for eating and health problems.

Provide fresh, clean water and ample drinking space. For commercially available rations, follow the label directions. If you use fountains, place a tank in the weaning area the first few days after weaning to prevent dehydration until the calves learn how to drink from the fountain. Using a tank waterer for the first few days also allows you to add electrolytes if calves need them.

If calves are to be sold immediately as feeders, limit grain consumption because calf buyers may bid less for calves that appear over-conditioned or “fleshy”. If you plan to sell the calves in the spring, you may also limit daily grain consumption so calves can be switched more economically to a roughage-based ration. Typically, grain is limited to not more than five pounds for these situations.

If you plan to finish or feed calves to slaughter, you can manage weight in several ways. In typical years we see a drop in fed cattle prices in late spring and a widening of the choice-select spread as more finished cattle begin to arrive at the markets. Producers with early calves (January to March) have an opportunity to push calves on high-energy rations following weaning and market them at 12 to 14 months before prices decline. For producers with spring calves (April to June), placing the newly weaned calves on a higher roughage ration leading to lower gains (backgrounding) during the winter may be a better option if forage sources are inexpensive. Calves can then be sold as feeders in the spring for grazing operations, sold as heavy feeders, or offered a high energy ration to finish the calves for expected marketing in September to November.

For more information: Keith Vander Velde, (608) 297-9153; Mahlon Peterson, (715) 839-4712; Dan Short, (920) 386-3790; Rhonda Gildersleeve, (608) 935-0391; Dave Wachter, (608) 723-2125; Bill Halfman, (608) 269-8722; Jeff Lehmkuhler, (608) 263-7761; or your county extension agricultural agent