Early weaning of beef cattle

Main points

  • Early weaning maintains body condition of breeders and reduces need for supplements.
  • Early weaning increases weaning rates.
  • Early-weaned calves must be well fed and well managed.
  • There is a trend to earlier calving after using early weaning for a few years.

What and when to wean

In a good season

Wean calves over 80 kg in April/May.

In a drought

Wean calves over 80 kg in November/December and February/March.

Calves less than 80 kg should only be weaned in extreme drought conditions. These very young calves need special attention and it may be easier to feed the cow and calf until the calf reaches 80 kg.

In a herd with continuous mating, at least one extra weaning may be necessary in August/September. Pregnancy testing and culling cows that will calve out of season will reduce the need for an extra weaning.

Feeding

This is the most important part of any early weaning program. If early-weaned calves are not fed properly they will be stunted and deaths may occur. For a feeding program to be successful calves should be drafted into the following groups according to liveweight.

  • 80-100 kg; poor calves should be put with the lighter weight group
  • 100-150 kg
  • over 150 kg.

Ration

80-100 kg

Unlimited pasture or good quality grass hay plus one of the following:

  • vegetable protein meal containing a minimum of 15% protein (daily intake up to 1 kg/hd/day)
  • 0.5 kg/hd/day grain mix (3 parts crushed grain/1 part vegetable protein meal)
  • proprietary calf pellets and mixes (feed according to manufacturers recommendations)

Do not feed molasses or lucerne hay to this group as they may cause scouring.

Coccidiosis is a major cause of poor performance and death in calves of this weight. Consider adding a coccidiostat to the ration or using a proprietary ration with a coccidiostat already included.

100-150 kg

Unlimited pasture or good quality grass hay plus one of the following rations:

  • free access to molasses plus 12-15% vegetable protein meal (daily intake 1-1.5 kg/hd/day)
  • 1 kg/hd/day grain mix (3 parts crushed grain/1 part vegetable protein meal)
  • 0.5 kg/hd/day vegetable protein meal
  • 0.5 kg/hd/day whole cottonseed
  • proprietary calf pellets and mixes (feed according to manufacturers recommendations)

Over 150 kg

Treat as normal weaners. If paddock feed is good, this group of calves may not need to be fed. When feeding is necessary feed as for 100-150 kg or molasses/urea in roller drums, or M8U. If paddock feed is limited feed good quality grass hay such as Rhodes grass. Calves should be allowed to ´fill up´ on this hay.

Feeding notes

The levels of feeding shown are a guide only. The performance of the calves is the best indication of how much supplement is required and intakes should be varied accordingly.

Whole cottonseed contains an amino acid called 'gossypol', which can cause digestive problems and in extreme cases death in young calves. Therefore, do not feed more than the level indicated. If more supplement is required feed one of the other supplements listed.

Costs

Fifteen to thirty cents per head per day depending on the feed used and the level of feeding. This will cost $15 to $30 per head for three months.

Management

Feeding calves is more cost efficient than feeding cows and calves. A cow and calf will usually need three times the quantity of supplement of a calf alone. In any breeder herd there are a number of animals that do not need feeding but are fed because they are in the mob. When feeding calves only the animals that need to be fed are fed, thus reducing the cost.

Monitor calves for internal and external parasites at weaning. Use worm egg counts to determine the level of internal parasite infestation. Young calves are susceptible to parasites. A few parasites that are not a problem when the calf is sucking can become a major problem when it is stressed.

A clean water supply is essential.

Care should be taken when grain is included in the diet to avoid sickness caused by grain engorgement.

Hay should be fed in racks to avoid contamination from dirt and dung which may contain parasite eggs.