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Early weaning: a smart way to make the most of tight feed supplies

With pasture and feed supplies still tight across the Central Tablelands, early weaning could be a smart management strategy for local cattle producers, reducing feed costs and keeping valuable animals in good condition.

“Weaning a calf early is the best way to reduce the amount and quality of feed needed for both the calf and the cow,” said Brett Littler,Senior Lands Services Officer (Livestock), with Central Tablelands Local Land Services.

“A lactating cow requires approximately 60% more feed than a dry cow to maintain body weight, and feed quality needs to be significantly higher for a lactating cow.”

“Weaning calves early when feed is short, will also improve cow fertility, increasing her likelihood of getting back in calf at joining.”

“Whichever way you calculate it, it’s very inefficient to try to feed a calf through a cow and it is always cheaper and better to feed them separately rather than together,” said Brett.

Last autumn, Molong farmer James Morse, weaned calves early, as he had done in previous droughts, and he says the strategy has been very effective.

“I think this has been a huge success, and we are now keeping some of those early weaned calves in a feedlot situation to take them through to slaughter weight, which will give us some much needed cash flow,” said James.

“If you split a cow and calf, you need a lot less feed to maintain their condition. We had done our calculations on how long we could viably feed these stock based on how much hay and grain we had in store, and Brett helped us a fair bit to work out the right ration,” said James.

“We had budgeted to feed cows through to early August. We were then able to put them back on the grass, and put the smaller calves on to a crop of oats.”

“Early weaning allowed us to make the most of the feed we had on hand, and by using small drought feed lot pens, we were able to save our paddocks from overgrazing.”

James says the pasture is now bouncing back much more quickly after recent rain, creating lucrative opportunities for buying in light weight trade cattle and turning them off at a profit.

“If we hadn’t had rain and had run out of stored feed, we could have sold our cattle in good condition at a good price because we hadn’t let them lose too much body weight.”

However James Morse warns that early weaning requires a lot of management to avoid potential problems such as pink eye and shy feeding.

“There are big animal health issues with early weaning and putting cattle into a confined space to feed them. You need to monitor calves carefully, and you also have to provide the right vitamins and supplements to make sure their diet is not deficient,” said James.

Brett Littler advises early weaned calves should be split into even groups based on weight and size, and a vaccination program implemented.