As pastures dry up, cattle producers should consider early weaning, says Shane Gadberry, University of Arkansas nutritionist.

Forage production typically makes the change from cool-season fescues and ryegrasses to warm-season grasses, including bermudagrass, crabgrass, bahiagrass and dallisgrass, from May to June. ”Below-average rainfall, however, has slowed the production of these grasses and is beginning to limit the amount of forage available for cows to consume when nutrient requirements are at their greatest for spring calving beef herds.”

Cows should be in good condition – they’re producing milk for their calves and need to be bred back to calve again within 365 days, Gadberry says.

Although beef calves are commonly weaned at six to seven months of age, cows can benefit from calves being weaned as early as 56 days old, some research has shown. Cows gain weight more rapidly and pregnancy rates improve.

However, proper management is essential, he warns. “Calves need a diet that is capable of mimicking the nutrients they would have received from milk and the small amount of forage they would begin to consume at that early age.”

With a high-quality diet and healthy environment, early weaned calves should acquire 1 lb of weight gain for every 4-6 lbs of feed consumed. “Young calves are very efficient at converting feed into weight gain. At today’s livestock auction market, a pound of beef calf weight gain is worth $1.58/lb. If a feed conversion of 5 is used, the cost of feed would have to exceed $600/ton before the feed cost of gain would exceed the value of weight gain, Gadberry adds.

A high-quality diet can be formulated for $220-320/ton depending on whether feed is bought in bulk and blended on the farm or bought in small amounts from local feed stores.

Before weaning, cattle producers should creep feed calves or supplement cows in troughs low and long enough to allow calves to eat from those troughs. The supplements should include ingredients similar ingredients to those to be used in the early weaned calf’s diet.