Wean beef calves earlier than normal when drought limits forage production on rangeland, a USDA researcher suggests.

Richard Waterman, animal scientist at Miles City, MT, evaluated early weaning of calves and its impact on cow, heifer and steer performance.

Calves on two ranches were weaned at 80 days of age and at the more traditional age of 215 days. Cows whose calves were weaned early weighed more and were in better body condition at the start of winter. The amount of feed they needed to maintain satisfactory weights and condition over winter was reduced, Waterman reports.

Early weaning increased the likelihood that heifers would become pregnant on time the following breeding season, and early weaned steers reached maturity sooner than traditionally weaned steers. Some early weaned steers had poorer yield grades because their carcasses were too fat. But Waterman says that problem can be averted if the animals are identified before they enter the feedlot and then are harvested at a younger age.

“When a calf is weaned early, all nutrients that normally go to milk production for the calf can be retained by the mother, helping to increase or sustain her body weight and condition,” he says. “And proper handling of early weaned calves can result in greater weight gain than if they had remained with their mothers, especially during drought.”

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