Instead of weaning your fall-calving cow-calf herd in April, earn an extra $100/calf by waiting until July, suggests Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.
Delayed weaning gives an extra pound of gain per day, and it’s easy when the cow begins to dry up in July and the calf is too big to nurse, he says.
Researchers at the university’s Forage Systems Research Center studied four weaning options for their fall-calving cows.
“Calves left with their mothers through the spring grazing season gained an average of 2.1 lbs/day in the three-year study,” Kallenbach reports. “In comparison, calves weaned in April and grazed in an eight-paddock rotational grazing system gained only nine-tenths pound per day. This was the traditional stocker system.”
The researchers found many advantages for the delayed-weaning option.
“In April, May and June there is more grass growing than the cow herd can eat,” says Kallenbach. “Keeping the fast-gaining calves with the herd helps control grass in the paddocks.”
The study demonstrated that milk from the cows is a good supplement for grass the calves are eating. He explains that, as long as a calf is not weaned, the esophageal bypass stays active. Milk nursed by the calf goes directly to the lower digestive tract, not into the rumen.
“Milk is the perfect bypass protein for calves,” says Kallenbach. “That helps account for added weight gain.”
Three other options in the study were compared to delayed weaning. One weaned in April but gave calves first choice in grazing paddocks, a leader-follower system. A second option took the leader-follower system and added supplemental feed to replace protein from missed milk.
Finally, calves were rotated through the grazing paddocks in a traditional stocker system, without grazing assistance from mother cows cleaning up the residue. In that system, the calves were weaned, trucked to a sale barn for an overnight stay and then hauled back to the research farm.
“We tried to replicate what happens to a lot of Missouri stocker calves,” says Kallenbach.
Fall calves weaned in July typically hit a yearly high in feeder-calf prices. The price declines to a seasonal low as spring calves are sent to market in the fall.
“Delayed weaning couldn’t be easier,” he says. “It’s strictly low-stress. By July, the calves have about weaned themselves. And, the mother cows let them go.”
Despite the long nursing period, he says cows were in good condition for calving in September and rebreeding in December.
“In the three years, the cow BCS (body condition score) at the end of July was right at 7 on a nine-point scale. We want cows in BCS 5 or better at calving and breeding.”
However, he cautions to not try delayed weaning with heifers that are still growing. The cows in the study were three years old and older.
Fall-calving herds are gaining popularity because of better calving weather in September and October. “Calving in February is a killer,” Kallenbach adds.