beef calves pose for a photo on a sunny day

Early weaning an effective drought management tool

June 29, 2022 12:57 p.m.

Early weaning can be an effective strategy to manage forage supply for beef herds during drought conditions. CHS Animal Nutritionist Cory Parsons shares recommendations to reduce stress and get calves off to a good start when weaning day comes early.



Traditionally, beef calves are weaned at 6 to 7 months of age. However, during drought, forage quantity is generally limiting, and early weaning should be considered as a management tool. Time of weaning will affect cow and calf performance, as well as health and productivity of the native range or pasture. 

Advantages of early weaning

Improved cow body condition. Lactating cows can lose body condition due to the increased nutrient requirements associated with lactation. When drought conditions exist, this situation is usually made worse by the lack of forage in drought-stressed pastures. By weaning early, the cow's nutrient requirements for lactation are eliminated and cows can maintain or increase body condition prior to the fall- and winter-feeding periods.  

Improved calf performance. During a drought, calves may not be able to successfully compete with cows for adequate forage. By weaning early and providing a highly nutritious diet, calves can reach their growth potential. Early weaning, coupled with feeding a high concentrate diet, has resulted in increased quality grades at slaughter, according to research conducted at several universities.  

Improved conception rates. Weaning early can result in improved conception rates, provided calves are weaned during the breeding season. This would require weaning calves at a very young age (45 to 105 days of age). When their calves are weaned early enough, cows have a greater opportunity to rebreed in an optimum time frame and an increase in conception rate can be expected. Also, by early weaning calves, a cow is better able to restore her body condition. Cows in better body condition going into and out of the calving season have been shown to rebreed sooner and have better conception rates the year following early weaning.  

Improved forage availability for the cow. Early weaning reduces a cow’s nutrient needs by an estimated 30% to 50%, as well as reducing her dry matter intake and eliminating the demand for forage from the calf. Consequently, the cows remaining on pasture have access to more forage and demands on the pasture are reduced, which can enhance sustainability and forage production in the future. 

Disadvantages of early weaning 

Increased attention to management is required. Early weaning requires greater attention to proper health, nutrition and management of the newly weaned calf.  

Increased cash costs. Weaning calves earlier will result in increased cash costs for the rancher or beef cattle producer. Instead of pasture and their mother's milk, early weaned calves will eat high-quality grains, hay, protein supplements and/or commercially prepared feeds. In addition, producers must have facilities to feed calves or will be required to hire a custom backgrounder or feedlot to do this work. 

Reducing nutrient requirements of the cow herd 

Lactation represents the greatest nutrient demand for cows during a year-long production cycle. Lactation increases the demand for energy, protein and other nutrients. One of the simplest ways to reduce nutrient requirements is to wean the calf. This practice can cut nutrient requirements by one-third to one-half, depending on the cow’s milk production.  

Early weaned calves can achieve adequate rates of growth if given access to a high-quality, nutrient-dense feed such as CHS feeds Payback® Beef Elite Starter and Grower, Payback Calf Creep and Payback Head Start.

By the time calves are 3 to 4 months of age, they are consuming significant amounts of forage. At 6 to 7 months of age, calves will consume approximately half the amount of forage each day that a mature cow consumes.  

Following weaning, dry cows will eat less forage than lactating cows, further reducing the demand placed on the pasture. By removing the demands of lactation, acceptable pregnancy rates and calving season length can usually be maintained. 

Producers may consider early weaning only a portion of the herd. In that case, logical candidates for early weaning are cows nursing their first and second calves. These animals have nutrient requirements for growth in addition to maintenance and lactation. The nutrient requirements for lactation and growth are given higher priority than the need to reproduce. By removing the demands of lactation on nutrient requirements, growth and reproduction will receive a greater proportion of the nutrients available. Producers may also consider early weaning for cows that are in thin or poor condition. 

How early can calves be weaned?   

Calves have been successfully weaned as early as 2 months of age. However, this is not practical under most ranch conditions. Weaning March- and April-born calves in late July or early August is generally preferable to earlier time frames. 

Special health considerations  

Ensuring the health and well-being of early-weaned calves calls for an excellent health and vaccination program. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to properly design a health program that will work on your ranch. Consider these general recommendations: 

  • • Castrate, dehorn and brand calves at least 14 days prior to weaning.   
  • • Vaccinate for clostridial (seven-way) and viral (four-way) infections. Work with your veterinarian to develop a specific program. Follow the label recommendations and revaccinate if necessary. Administer all vaccinations in the neck area and subcutaneously (under the skin) to avoid injection site blemishes.   
  • • Treat for internal and external parasites.   
  • • Provide protection from flies.   
  • • Provide a good-quality chelated trace mineral and vitamin (A, D, E) supplement.   
  • • Consider using growth implants. They will increase weight gain and improve feed efficiency. Do not implant potential replacement heifers.   
  • • Provide access to adequate quantities of good-quality, clean water. Clean watering equipment on a regular basis.   
  • • Monitor calves daily for symptoms of respiratory disease, digestive disturbances, scours and coccidiosis and watch feed intake levels.  

Bunk management: What's best for the calf?   

Early weaned calves should consume 2.75% to 3.25% of their body weight in dry feed daily. Rations should be palatable and free of dust. The most nutritious rations won't work effectively if calves don't consume them. 

Initially, calves should be offered long-stem grass hay. Top-dress the commercial feed or concentrate mix over the long -stem hay for the first three to five days. Once calves are consuming these feeds readily, begin offering mixed rations. Gradually adjust the calves to greater levels of grain and/or concentrates. Adding a liquid supplement such as molasses, condensed distillers solubles or commercial liquid supplements will help control dust, improve palatability and reduce sorting. 

Do not start calves on silages and other fermented feedstuffs. The fermented odor and flavor of these feeds can cause feed aversion in freshly weaned calves. Wait until the calves are consuming the ration adequately and then begin blending in fermented feedstuffs. 

Facility requirements 

Place calves in a small secure, well-sheltered pen or pasture after weaning. If possible, sort calves by weight into pens so small and large calves are not competing for feed and water. 

During extremely dry conditions, dust levels can be a problem. Consider using sprinklers to control dust in pens, if necessary. 

Waterers and feed bunks should be placed along the fenceline to allow calves to find feed and water easily. Freshly weaned calves will tend to walk the fenceline, so placing feed and water in the center of a pen makes it more difficult for them to find. 

Early weaning can be a good option during drought 

Drought conditions are a periodic occurrence. Early weaning is one management option that should be considered during drought. Early weaning will be more successful and less stressful when adequate attention to nutrition, health, management and facilities is considered. Early weaning should be considered as part of a normal drought management strategy.