Early weaning of beef calves can have many advantages, and one of them, especially in a drought year, is to preserve body condition of the cows.

Speaking at the Academy of Veterinary Consultants summer meeting, Kansas State University’s KC Olson, MS, PhD, said for three consecutive seasons, they tracked body condition score of a large group of cows at two-week intervals from early August through the end of November. “Each month we were essentially losing one body condition score.”

Olson said if body condition is sacrificed by pushing lactation late into the calendar year, someone is going to have to pay to put that body condition back on pre-calving. “That is going to cost money. Possibly money better spent elsewhere in the operation.”

Olson said it doesn’t require any greater management skill to wean 150-day-old calves than it does to wean 210-day-old calves. “In so doing, we are preventing loss of cow body condition late in the fall,” he explained.

“What our data told us is that the threshold of acceptable body condition was somewhere around October 1 each year. If we pushed lactation beyond that point, we’re going to have to pay to put body condition back on cows during the winter months. If we ended lactation before that point, we will retain more body condition and reduce cow nutrient requirements during the winter months.”

From the experience with the Kansas State cattle, Olson says calves weaned 60 days earlier than ‘normal’ can be up to 70 lbs. lighter than you might like, however, seasonal price differences make up for much of the potential shortfall in revenue.

“Kansas State’s Kevin Dhuyvetter’s calf price database indicates that, historically, the price slide between a 400-lb calf sold in August and a 500-lb calf sold in October is close to $13/cwt. Even though he’s lighter he’s worth close to the same money.”

If you decide to recover that loss in weaning weight by feeding the calf post-weaning, it’s economical. “The calf is very efficient with feed resources compared to its mother,” Olson said. “I can take the feed I otherwise would have given to mama and give it to the calf.”

Another plus to weaning a little earlier than normal, particularly in a dry year like this, is the additional feed needed to support late lactation is worth about 5 lbs. of extra forage dry matter a day to a cow. “At that point in the calf’s life, the calf is a significant consumer of forage, as well,” Olson says. “It follows that for every day that calf is weaned there is a net 10-lb. savings in terms of forage availability. For every three days that calf is weaned, you get an extra day of fall grazing for the dry cow."