A new approach: Wean calves early, make more money

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CADIZ, Ohio – The American beef industry is built around cows calving and weaning those calves to replace the brood herd or fill meat cases with steaks and ground hamburger.
One of the industry’s biggest problems – transitioning calves from the birthing pasture to the feedlot, or weaning – gets poor scores and has the potential to hit every cattleman in the pocketbook.
How you handle weaning determines how profitable you can be down the line, according to one Ohio State researcher.
Losses. OSU Extension beef specialist Steve Loerch says newly arrived feedlot calves will have reduced feed intake, low growth and high morbidity and mortality if cattlemen don’t reconsider their weaning strategies.
“The whole industry is built around weaning calves at 7 months old, the worst possible time when they’re at pre-puberty and their immune system isn’t up to speed,” Loerch said.
“We’ve got to do look at what we can do as producers to help a calf when it’s most vulnerable,” he said.
Shipping fever. Shipping fever – stress, sickness and going off feed – can also be seen in weaned calves.
In fact, shipping fever costs the industry roughly $700 million a year, Loerch said.
“Those figures are going to be more and more important as we move toward more value-added marketing,” Loerch said, noting an estimated 60 percent of the cattle killed in the United States will be marketed through value-based grid marketing.
Why wean early? Heavier calves at weaning means bigger profits for the cattleman who sells backgrounded calves. Higher weaning weight also translates to quicker growth and shorter feedlot time.
It makes sense to bypass the cow – who needs more feed to maintain herself and produce milk for her calf – and give the feed directly to the calf for more efficient growth.
The cow’s ration can then be bumped back to maintenance and reduce the brood herd’s feed bills.
Stress. Young calves moved from pasture to feedlot are stressed for several reasons, Loerch said.
They’re acclimating to a new water and feed source – and often eating from a feedbunk for the first time – and are exposed to pathogens, extremes in weather, and a new pecking order to eat.
“These calves have never competed for feed before, and it’s just as easy to stand back as fight for bunk space,” Loerch said of low-growth calves.
“Calves that don’t gain, don’t grade,” he said.
Not enough. In research, calves ate only one-third of their nutrient requirements in the first week after weaning.
That period coincided with respiratory disease incubation of 10 days, and pointed directly to calves getting sick three to four weeks after weaning, Loerch said.
Loerch adds a standard 12 percent protein feedlot ration and a little hay don’t cut it when it comes to a young calf’s needs. Loerch said a weaned calf’s intake is so low, that type of ration can’t work.
Calves can be stronger and more prepared for weaning if they’re preconditioned, such as creep fed or bunk-trained, beforehand.
Hints and tips. Weaning is a good time of year, Loerch says. On a beef farm, it’s one of two times per year you get “paid” for your work and can see how your management is working.
“Men can be boys and boys can be cowboys,” Loerch said of the roundup, but warned against several practices common on many Ohio farms.
Take time to work calves slowly and quietly. Shouting only stresses handlers and the cattle. Avoid rodeos and dust storms, Loerch says.
Always lead calves, just don’t push them through alleyways or along fencelines. Spooked calves will run and inhale dust and pathogens that can lead to disease and respiratory problems.
It’s proven that cow behavior affects calves, and it’s not uncommon for western producers to leave a handful of cows in with weaned heifers. The cows aren’t bawling and getting excited, so the young crop won’t, either.
Other changes. Loerch also recommends looking at your farm’s castration, dehorning, parasite control and management schemes to identify other changes that can be made to wean healthier and heavier calves.
Though many farms are just now starting to see this year’s calf crop, it’s never too early to think about weaning, Loerch said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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