Early weaning of beef calves – a good strategy during drought and dry conditions

Early weaning is a strategy worth considering this season with the feed and water challenges faced during the prolonged dry seasonal conditions. Agriculture Victoria has lots of information available to farmers to help with these key decisions.

Farmers are strongly encouraged to check out our Feeding Livestock website for advice, tools and key resources all in the one place and for free. We’ve put all the key resources in one place to make access straightforward, including our popular drought books.

Download these essential guides to feeding livestock from feedinglivestock.vic.gov.au or by calling 136 186 or dropping into your local office.

The information provided in this article comes from the website.

Key reasons for early weaning

Maintain herd fertility

Early weaning helps beef producers to maintain cow condition and therefore fertility of their breeding herd during and after a drought.

For example, by weaning spring calving herds before cows fall below a fat score of 3 will mean they only need maintaining to calving for acceptable post-calving return (interval) to oestrus and conception rates.

Cows down in condition are more likely to cycle and conceive sooner after calving, if the calves are weaned prior to joining.

Save your pasture

It is more efficient to convert feed directly into calf weight than milk for a cow and calf pair. Weaning early will reduce the dry sheep equivalent demand on your property.

When combined with feeding appropriate quality and quantity of feed to dry cows and weaned calves, rather than cows with calves at foot, significant feeding cost reductions can result.

Cows that have had their calves weaned early can be shifted to more marginal country so only ‘growing’ stock are run in the best paddocks. Cows will need less feeding later on because they will have lower weight loss once calves are weaned.

Better utilise supplementary feed

Buying supplementary feed during a drought is a costly exercise. Early weaning will enable you to better allocate supplements to different classes of animals. By weaning the calf off the cow early, the cow returns to maintenance requirement energy levels.

This separation can provide a 30 per cent savings in energy across the farm.

High energy and protein feeds can be fed to young growing stock, and lower quality feeds (that is, poorer quality hay) to the dry cows. This will reduce the overall cost of supplements during the drought.

Save water

Early weaning can reduce water requirements of cows by up to 60 per cent. Lactating cows require up to 100 litres per day. Although a calf’s water intake approximately doubles when it is weaned as it’s no longer getting liquid via its mother’s milk, there is a significant net saving in water from early weaning.

Sell cull females earlier

Early weaning will enable earlier pregnancy testing and mouthing and the earlier sale of non-productive, cull or aged animals.

Age of weaning

In most cases it is preferable to wait and wean calves at 12 weeks old or around 120kg, because they will then require less protein and be easier to feed.

If cow survival is of concern, calves can be weaned earlier than this, but a milk replacer will be required if calves aren’t going to be sold as bobby calves. In a drought, all calves older than five to six months should be weaned and fed separately.

Deciding when to wean

Cow condition is a major consideration when deciding when to wean. Wean early in order to maintain cow herd productivity. The appearance of calves should also be considered.

Calves with dry, coarse coats (woody calves) are almost certainly not receiving adequate milk from their mothers. Early weaning is the best policy in this situation. Calves with glossy coats are receiving an adequate diet and early weaning can be delayed.

Pre-weaning

Expose calves to the post-weaning supplement while they are still on the cow. For example, if calves are going to be given silage post-weaning, feed silage to the cow-calf mobs a few times prior to weaning.

Rumen microbial populations can require up to 14 days to completely adapt to a new diet. Consider introducing calves to post-weaning supplements slowly via creep-feeding two weeks before weaning.

Weaning

Avoid combining stressful procedures like castration and dehorning with early weaning. If yard weaning, where possible keep the yards damp to minimise pink-eye.

Fly traps and backline insecticides will also reduce flies, a vector for the disease. Eye ointments and patches of heavy material will provide relief for affected calves and prevent fly access.

When penning calves allow four square metres per calf at a minimum, increasing to 6-8 square metres for larger calves approaching 150kg.

Provide high quality hay, such as clover, vetch or lucerne hay. If these quality hays are not available then oaten hay combined with high protein cattle pellets will supply the weaners nutrition.

Weaned calves need to have an adequate fibre source such as a barley straw in a feeder at all times, this will help their rumen development. It’s important to clean water troughs regularly as young weaned calves will not drink fouled water.

The high-quality ration required by early weaned calves will increase their risk of developing pulpy kidney so a 5 in 1 vaccination for clostridial diseases is very important.

During the first week of weaning observe any small calves or shy feeders that are being pushed away from the feed source. It is best to draft these off and pen them as a smaller mob in another yard, so they have adequate opportunity to feed with less stress.

Yard weaning is the best option as the calves are contained, don’t wander, learn to stay as a mob, are close to feed and water, best to socialise calves to human contact, plus daily observation and feeding is easier.

Yards should be soft floored, free of dust and mud, have adequate access for stock to feed and water trough space. Shade and shelter can be provided by using shade cloth along the exposed external fences.

Yard weaning is also an ideal opportunity to quieten down stock by regularly moving through the mob or teaching them to move slowly through gates and walk through the crush without any stress.

Leaving the farm ute nearby with the radio playing gets stock accustomed to voices and sounds and helps prepare them for future yarding or market noise.

Once weaned and accustomed to people, the mob can be taught to move with dogs or vehicle in the paddock or kept within in a stock containment area until adequate pasture/groundcover returns to your paddocks.

Post-weaning nutrition

Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. The younger the weaning age of the calf, the higher the energy and protein levels need to be.

Unless the feed has adequate energy density, feed intake and animal performance may be restricted by small rumen capacity. Much of the pasture hay and silage made in Australia is by itself unsuitable for early-weaned calves.

Introduce any concentrate (for example grains) slowly. Introduce initially to calves at 300g per head per day and increase the amount by 100g per head per day with access to hay. Supplement the mix with a buffer to prevent acidosis.

Insufficient protein in the ration of early weaned calves will result in short, dumpy cattle. Likely sources of protein to use are lupins, peas, linseed meal, canola meal, lucerne and soybean meal.

Feed merchants can supply high protein calf grower pellets comprising of 16 per cent protein and 13ME (metabolisable energy) which are safer to feed than grain mixes.

If using grain mixes ensure it is a formulated ration with adequate protein, energy and a pH buffer and introduce the new feed slowly to the weaners.

Avoid changing ration mixes if at all possible or if necessary, to change blend the new and old mix over a 10-day period to ensure smooth transition to the new diet

Ideally, roughage should be chopped and mixed with the other components of the calves’ diet, before feeding. Palatability is important to get calves to eat sufficient fibre. Consider adding a sweetener such as molasses or grape mark to a mixed ration for young calves.

Calcium is the mineral most likely to be needed in a diet for calves. Generally, calcium carbonate (such as ground limestone) should be added to a grain-based diet at the rate of 1½ parts per 100 (that is 1.5 per cent) by weight of the grain in the diet. A manufacturers grain mix or pellets will already have the calcium added.

Although good quality roughage (lucerne or clover hay) provides a reasonable supply of Vitamin A, some supplementary Vitamin A is usually necessary for early weaned calves if they only have access to a dry ration and have not had access to green pasture for some time, for example three months.

This can be included in the feed, given orally or by injection. Alternatively, complete rations in the form of pellets or grain mixes are available from commercial suppliers.

Post-weaning management

Rather than letting calves roam barren paddocks, consider weaning into containment areas where they will tend to rest and feed, conserving energy and minimising damage to paddocks.

Six weeks after weaning, draft off tail-enders into a separate management group. Repeat this process four months after weaning.

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