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Early weaning as a strategy for improved breeder performance

The nutrition available from the pasture is the major constraint for grazing cattle production in Australia. Even during the wet seasons, native grasses on poor soils are often too low in protein, energy and phosphorus for optimal growth. Therefore, a cow feeding a calf will struggle to consume enough energy from the pasture to maintain her own condition. During the dry season the protein and energy levels in the pasture are so low that a lactating cow will lose weight dramatically.

Leaving the calf on its mother during the dry season will enable the calf to grow a bit faster as it gets a good balance of nutrients from the milk. The cow however, is putting all of her nutrient resources into producing enough milk for the rapidly growing calf. As a result, she begins to lose weight and her condition will decline to the point where she is either unable to conceive again, produces a calf every second year or she may perish.

Early weaning refers to the weight (age) of the calf and not to the time of the muster. Radical weaning is referred to as weaning calves less than 100kg (under 3 months old) and early weaning is referred to as weaning at 100-150kg (3-4 months of age).

Early weaning removes the need for the cow to produce milk for its calf. By weaning earlier in the season around April, the feed quality will be of a better quality following rain over summer and the now dry cow is able to put the energy and protein from the feed towards her own maintenance instead of supporting the calf. As a result her Body Condition Score (BCS) will be higher as she enters the dry season compared to what she would have been if the calf had been weaned later. Thus, the benefits of early weaning are:

  • The dry cow will be able to maintain her weight,
  • Improved BCS as the dry season begins ? therefore better condition at calving at end of dry season,
  • She may need some protein supplement but no extra energy supplement, and
  • Calves in the yards and smaller weaner paddocks are easier to feed than cows and calves in a large breeder paddock.

As the major calf drop is generally at the end of the dry season, the BCS of the cow at calving greatly impacts her ability to conceive again the next year. To produce a calf every year, the cow must get pregnant again within 75 days of calving. If the cow is in BCS 1-2, her ovaries may be dormant. She will probably not conceive again while lactating during the following growing season. If the cow is in BCS 3, she should start cycling soon after calving. Therefore, to produce the best chance for conception she must be in good condition (body condition score 3 or better on scale of 1-5) when she calves.

The table below is sourced from Meat & Livestock Australia and shows the relationship between BCS and likely pregnancy rates of lactating cows in the coming season.

Cow body condition at the end of the dry season

Likely pregnancy rate in the coming season

BCS (1-5 scale)

Description

1

Poor

Up to 25%

2

Backward

50%

3

Moderate (store)

70%

4

Good

85%

5

Fat

95%

In order to improve the condition of your breeders, breeder and grazing management must match feed requirements to feed availability.

Breeder management strategies include:

  • Timing mating so that the calf?۪s highest milk requirements in its second and third month is matched to peak pasture quality,
  • Weaning to remove the nutritional stress on the cow as pasture quality declines, and
  • Supplementing to reduce significant diet deficiencies.

Grazing management strategies include:

  • Adjust stocking rates so that the cows and calves can select nutritious leaf from the bulk of the pasture,
  • Periodically spelling breeder paddocks over the growing season to allow the good grasses to recover, and
  • Spelling weaner paddocks to accumulate good feed.

Implementing early weaning is an effective management strategy to not only make the most of the higher quality pastures during the wet season, but ensure that your breeders are able to meet their maintenance requirements and increase pregnancy percentages as well as calving percentages in subsequent years.

Reference: Meat & Livestock Australia 2012, ?Weaner management in northern beef herds?۝, Meat & Livestock Australia Limited

Author: Susie Doyle

Tags: PASTURE Body Condition Score, Early Weaning

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