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“The conventional weaning time has always been in the fall, when calves are around 180 to 210 days old, but there was no substantial research to show that that was necessarily the best time,” said John Jaeger, beef scientist with K-State Research and Extension, based in Hays. There were probably many factors at play over the years, including bringing cows home from summer pasture, fitting weaning into crop harvest, fall school activities and more.
Calves gain, cows benefit
The studies found that calves weaned at 120 to 160 days at an average of 360 pounds gained as much weight and were just as healthy as calves that were weaned later. It also indicated that the health risks and death loss were no different in early-weaned calves than in those weaned at the more conventional ages of 180 to 210 days.
“Previous studies by other researchers have shown that early weaning reduces grazing pressure,” Jaeger said, adding that a calf weighing 450 pounds at 120 days of age eats about 6.8 pounds of forage per day. So, for every 30 days that a calf is weaned early, there should be one week of additional grazing for the cow.
Early weaning also decreases the cow’s nutritional requirements. The studies showed that for every 30 days that a calf is weaned early, there will be another three additional days of grazing for the cow. Cows enter fall and winter in better body condition, which trims the amount of winter supplementation needed and decreased cow maintenance costs. If the increased body condition is maintained through the winter and calving and to breeding, there is potential for improved conception rates the following summer.
Over the years, there’s been a tendency to think that calves were not capable of using concentrated feed at a younger age, Jaeger said. Coupled with worries about calf stress, health risks, and heat – a complicating problem in July, August and September – has often kept producers from weaning earlier.