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Early weaning = vast benefits

Kansas State University has released studies showing the benefits of weaning calves earlier than at the traditional age. Prompted by the drought that caused many cattle producers to decrease herd size, calves were weaned earlier last fall.

“The conventional weaning time has always been in the fall, when calves are around 180 to 210 days old, but there was no substantial research to show that that was necessarily the best time,” says John Jaeger, beef scientist with Hays-based K-State Research and Extension. 

Jaeger, along with Justin Waggoner and K.C. Olson, K-State Research and Extension beef science staff members, conducted studies in 2007 and 2012 to determine the effects of earlier weaning on calves and cows.

“We wondered if, rather than putting growth on calves at the expense of cows, it might be better to wean them earlier. If the calves fared well, it might give the cow more time to recover from calving and lactating and improve her own body condition before going into winter,” Jaeger said.

The studies found that calves weaned earlier (at 120 to 160 days) gained as much weight and were just as healthy as calves weaned later (at 180 to 210 days).  Furthermore, it showed that health risks and death loss were no different.

Previous studies have indicated that early weaning reduces grazing pressure on pastures.

Weaning calves earlier helps with the cow’s nutritional requirements. According to a Kansas State release, studies show that “for every 30 days that a calf is weaned early, there will be another three additional days of grazing for the cow.” Having more time to recuperate takes the cows into fall and winter with better body condition, which lowers the amount of supplementation necessary during the cold winter months. It is known that cows with better body condition scores have higher rates of conception.

So why have producers waited to wean calves? It could be the fact that the fall season is busy for many cattle producers: Juggling crop harvest, children’s fall school activities, and preparations for winter can be a challenge. Then throw weaning calves into the mix!  Not to mention possible prior concerns of calf stress, health risks, and calves not receiving proper nutrition from feed – a worry that has also ended with emerging studies.

Researchers say young calves need feed that is highly palatable (tastes good) and highly nutrient-dense. This helps balance out the smaller amount that young calves eat in comparison to older calves. Olson adds that familiar feeds might not have the nutrient density needed for calves weaned early. Palatability is vital because calves pick through ingredients of their feed the same way people pick through foods on a plate. Studies also discovered that feed moisture content of 20% to 30% is the optimum.


Calves need management regardless of age. Jaeger provides management tips for calves of all ages:

  • Place an additional water tank and feed bunk in the pen with the calves.
  • Remove floating covers from automatic water troughs.
  • Pen calves based on their body size. Limit the weight range within a pen to no more than 50 pounds less then or greater than average weight in the pen.
  • Make sure each calf has at least 12 linear inches of bunk space.
  • Make sure the calves can easily access water supply and feed bunk.
  • Consider airflow – especially in hot weather. Too little shade promotes crowding.

Source: Kansas State Research and Extension

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