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Early Weaning is an Option

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After a mild wet winter, it is easy to forget last summer's dry conditions. However, above-average temperatures and low soil moisture have once again forced us to think about some drought management practices. Early weaning is one way to reduce the nutritional requirements of your cow herd and ultimately improve reproductive efficiency.

Why Wean Early?
Lactating cows' energy and protein requirements are approximately double those of a nonlactating cow. Lactating cows grazing drought stressed pastures usually can't meet their nutritional demands, because either forage intake or quality is limiting. Cows then begin to break down their energy stores to fulfill the energy demands of lactation. In order to maintain a 365-day calving interval, cows must rebreed 80-85 days after calving. Results from numerous studies show cows that calve and go into the breeding season while thin have a difficult time rebreeding within the deadline.

How to Manage the Calf Weaned Early
The minimum weaning age of calves is 40 days. Because the total ration consumption in calves weaned early will be small, diets must be palatable and high in energy and protein. Creep feeding before early weaning would help familiarize calves with their diet. Calves should be confined to a small pen with the feed bunk and water source easily accessible. Calf gains of 1.5-2.0 pounds per day can be achieved, but it depends on producer management and growth potential of the calves. Rations information and more details on early weaning can be obtained from extension personnel or your livestock specialist at the Noble Research Institute.

When calves weaned early reach 250-300 pounds, producers may tend to move them to grass. Research at Oklahoma State University showed that gains of these calves that grazed native pasture and ate supplemental grain from late July were lower than gains of calves weaned early and raised in a dry lot. Light cattle weaned early need high quality pasture such as wheat to get acceptable gains.

Other Drought Management Considerations
Grazing forages is the most economical way to maintain beef cows, but having an adequate supply of hay, being adequately stocked, and being able to rent additional pasture can help avoid drought problems. When hay prices escalate because hay is hard to obtain, producers could consider limit feeding high-concentrate diets to cows. Feeding corn and a high protein supplement with minimal hay can meet the animal's maintenance requirement or help it reach a targeted level of gain. Consider limit feeding concentrates when grain is cheap and hay is expensive.