With proper feeding management, however, early-weaned calves can grow as rapidly as they would have while in the nursing stage and in most cases will grow faster especially if the drought is very severe.
Returns would not be expected to increase by early weaning, so this system would only be used during times of short feed supplies and drought conditions. Calves that are weaned early should probably be classified into age groups and managed differently, depending upon their age. An adequate classification would be 3 to 6 months, and 6 months and older. Calves 3 to 6 months can be fed good quality hay and grain. Calves older that 6 months will require no special treatment other than the proper care and feeding. When calves are weaned early, they should be started on feed about 3 weeks before weaning to ensure that they will eat after being taken away from the cows.
Calves weaned from 3 to 6 months of age should be fed rations containing at least 12 to 14 percent protein. It may also be useful to add enough molasses to ensure that the calves are eating at least 3 percent of their body weight per day.
Calves older than 6 months should be fed good quality hay and a small amount of grain 2 to 4 pounds per day. This should ensure that they are growing at a rate equivalent to what they would be if they were still nursing.
Little or no green feed or carotene, which is converted to vitamin A for calves or cows, may occur during drought. Even though cattle can store vitamin A in their liver and fat from 4 to 6 months, supplementing vitamin A in the ration is recommended.
Research has shown that early-weaned calves, with proper management and feeding can equal weight of calves raised on their dam. In one study, early-weaned calves from thin 2-year-old cows reared in dry lot weaned at about the same weight as calves raised on dams. Early weaning improved the heifer conception rates from 59 to 97 percent. Heifers with the early-weaned calves gained more in the fall than heifers with calves. Another study evaluated calves weaned at 50 days of age, with herd mates receiving creep feed or just allowed to nurse their dams in the dry lot without creep. The early-weaned calves gained more than either the creep-fed calves or the nursing-only calves during a trial period of 107 days. It's more efficient to feed weaned calves than it is to try to feed cows with nursing calves. Pounds can be put on calves for somewhere around 40 cents per pound especially when commodity feeds are incorporated into the program.
During drought creep feeding is another alternative that some producers may wish to consider to ensure heavier calves at weaning. Under normal conditions, creep feeding has been a marginal management practice due to poor conversion rates of creep feed to increased weaning weight. Under drought, conditions with poor milking cows, gains may be less. Creep feed has been more effective when cows are milking poorly because of poor pasture or because cows are young and not producing as much milk. Under most conditions grain can be used as a creep feed, since milk will serve to keep protein up to the level needed.
Jerry Little is Boyle County extension agent for agriculture/natural resources.