Early weaning can be a beneficial option for beef producers, according to a new study prepared by USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists.
The benefits, the researchers say, can pay off especially in drought years like 2012. During drought, limited forage for livestock grazing can restrict calf growth and result in lighter weaning weights. It may also cause cows to lose body weight and weaken their immune systems. The researchers point out that weaker immune systems can lead to more problems, including reproductive issues.
Animal scientist Richard Waterman, at the Agricultural Research Service Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Mont., partnered with local ranchers, Montana State University scientists and American Simmental Association collaborators in Bozeman, Mont., to determine management options that can minimize the effects of a drought on cow herds – including an early weaning option.
For the purposes of the study, calves at two locations in Montana—Judith Gap and LARRL—were weaned early at 80 days of age and at the more traditional age of 215 days.
The researchers found that the early-weaned calves weighed more and were in better body condition at the start of winter. As a result, the amount of hay and other feedstuffs needed to sustain their condition throughout winter was reduced.
Waterman also confirmed that early weaning increases the likelihood that animals will become pregnant on time in the following breeding season.
Additional studies showed that early-weaned steers reached maturity sooner than traditionally weaned steers when body weight gain, feedlot performance and carcass traits were measured.
Waterman said that management of early-weaned steers can also impact how they grade at harvest. In some cases, early-weaned steers had poorer USDA yield grades because carcasses were too fat.
However, Waterman demonstrated that producers can maximize carcass value of early-weaned steers if animals are identified before they enter the feedlot and then harvested at an earlier age.