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Early Weaning = Less Health Risk, Enhanced Carcass Value

By : Garth Ruff, OSU Extension Educator, Henry county

 

Having grown up in the beef cattle business I realize this is the time of the year in which most of the spring born calves have traditionally been weaned and sent to market. Here in Northwestern Ohio where pasture comes at a premium and preserved forage is fed for a large part of the year, it may be time to consider reevaluating weaning age, in order to increase potential gains within the cow calf system.

Why do we wean calves in the fall? One often overlooked answer to this question is simple when we take history into account. In most cases we wean calves in October because Grandpa did, it is “tradition”. In the days of small diversified farming operations, beef calves were weaned when harvest and hay making were over, as there were simply not enough hours of daylight to do so during the summer months. Physiologically at around seven months of age (traditional weaning), we are weaning the calf at a point when its passive immunity acquired via colostrum is at its lowest and active immunity is beginning to ramp up. Therefore, from a health standpoint we are increasing the risk of stress and sickness in the animal.

By shortening the lactation period of the cow and weaning calves earlier, at around 100 days of age, we can accelerate the growth curve of the calf and increase marbling potential. Early weaning allows for an earlier start on a high plane of growth promoting nutrition. By promoting growth early in life, proliferation and growth of intramuscular fat cells are also increased for a short period of time.

This early growth contributes to heavier carcass weights and higher marbling scores, which increases the calf or carcass value. In addition, when utilizing early weaning, we are inducing stress by weaning at a time when immunity via colostrum is still high, thus lowering disease risk.

In order to be successful in an early weaning system economics need to be considered and inputs vary tremendously across each production enterprise.

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