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Benefits of Early Weaning During Drought

Benefits of Early Weaning

The benefits of early weaning go far beyond the survival and growth of the calf. The energy requirements of a 400kg lactating breeder are approximately 80MJ/day.  On dry mature pasture, these requirements are rarely met and the breeding herd slips in condition. Weaning the calf will reduce the cow’s energy requirements by almost half.  This improves her chances of maintaining body condition and getting back in calf as dry cows will typically gain weight quite rapidly on the same feed that they were previously losing weight on, with a calf at foot. Early weaning can also open up markets for the producer. Historically, in a prolonged drought, it is often very hard to sell heavily pregnant cows or cows with very young calves at foot. After calves are separated, there is a greater opportunity to look at reducing stock numbers further. Once cows dry off, they will increase condition to a more saleable BCS and are easily transported.    

In 2006/07 one of Top Country’s largest clients crash weaned over 2000 calves down to as small as 50kg. They achieved an average daily gain of 0.96kg for an intake of 2.4% BW and losses were less than 1%.  The most significant gains were seen in the reproductive performance of the herd.  They had some cows and heifers where they did not early wean the calves to compare the cost effectiveness of crash early weaning in severe droughts. The difference in pregnancy rates between early and late weaning was over 30%. During this dry period, Top Country also fed approximately 3000 calves in 2009 for a company and they achieved weight gains of 1.1kg average for the heifers and 1.3kg average for the steers.

What to Feed Early Weaners

The rumen of a young calf develops following birth as it begins to eat fibrous feed.  By the end of its first month of life the calf is technically a ruminant. By 1 month of age, the rumen will have doubled in size and the young calf will be able to survive and perform well if given a high quality diet without the need for milk replacers.  Top Country’s Top Early Wean 100 is a complete balanced ration suitable for calves ranging from 50-150kg.  It contains a blend of rolled grains, protein meals, effective fibre and a complete balance of vitamins and minerals.  It is high in both energy and protein and will ensure calves maintain a high plane of nutrition after weaning. More specifically, Top Early Wean 100 is 18% crude protein and is based on very soft high quality protein, supplying essential amino acids that are needed for weaner development and muscle growth.  It is during this early stage of development in the calf that their future finishing potential is determined.  Nutritionally restricted calves will not develop secondary muscle fibres and hence their ability to produce meat (muscle) later in life is reduced. 

The ideal rate for calves to grow is at least 0.6kg/day, with optimal levels preferably being between 0.7 to 1.1kg/day. Therefore it is essential that the nutritional requirements of the early weaned calf are sufficiently met so as not to impair their growth and development. To achieve a weight gain of 0.75kg per day, a 100kg calf requires 43 MJ/day on a low energy diet (7MJ/kg) or 31MJ/day on a high energy diet (11MJ/kg). Top Early Wean 100 is just over 12MJ/kg.  Therefore, as a full ration, Top Early Wean 100 will supply adequate energy for the animal to gain within the desired range of 0.7 to 1.1kg/day.

Top Early Wean 100 can be fed ad lib and is best supplied to large mobs through self-feeders.  Top Early Wean 100 is a complete feed and access to pasture or hay is not a requirement.  If you choose to supply hay, it is imperative that the hay is free of mould and micro-toxins.  Young calves particularly are very sensitive to mould and it greatly affect their performance and can result in fatalities.  Top Early Wean 100 contains Monensin sodium which is the active ingredient in Rumensin© to improve feed efficiency and aid in the prevention of coccidiosis and bloat.  Calves will consume approximately 2.5%-2.8% of bodyweight on a daily basis.

Performance on Top Early Wean 100 is typically around 1kg/head/day. The feed conversion of young calves is particularly good at around 2.5-3kg: 1kg.  The heavier an animal becomes the more energy they will need to maintain their bodyweight and their feed conversion efficiency will be reduced (e.g 250kg weaners = 5-6:1).  This makes feeding calves quite a profitable exercise with the strong beef market at present. 

Once calves reach 150kg, Top Country would suggest moving to either Top Background or Top Wean 200, depending on pasture availability.  Top Background is a self-regulating paddock production mix with a target intake of 0.5%-1% of bodyweight.  It is designed to be feed in the paddock with ample pasture or large amount of hay. Weight gains on Top Background are usually 0.5kg-0.8kg above what they would gain on the hay or pasture alone.  For example, if they were gaining 0.2kg in the paddock with no supplement they would go to gaining approximately 0.7-1kg per day with Top Background.  Top Wean 200 is a full feed, similar to Top Early Wean 100 with a target intake of 2.5% of bodyweight. You could feed the Top Wean 200 in the yards with hay, then drop back to Top Background in the paddock or alternatively feed Top Background for the entire time, both in the yards with hay and the out in the paddock. Once calves are over 170kg they could be moved to Top Production which is a very high protein supplement.  It would be like a very palatable, higher intake dry lick with very little grain.  This would be the least labour intensive option, however would not be recommended for the very small calves. 

Managing the Early Weaned Calf

The biggest key to improving performance of weaned calves is reducing stress. Early weaned calves are particularly prone to stress which is why it is imperative that they are managed in a way that reduces stress in every aspect of weaning.

One of the most important strategies in reducing stress is to have weaners older than 4-5 weeks eating an all-solids diet as quickly as possible. Some approaches to aid in this transition are included below; although some seem quite obvious, it is amazing what a difference these simple practises can make to the outcome of early weaning:

  • Having calves already used to eating from a trough/tub.
    • Usually calves that have had access to a supplement whilst still on the cow are more likely to take to feed more quickly.
    • If possible, creep feeding calves with an early weaning ration for a couple of weeks prior to weaning is ideal, especially for the younger calves.
  • Allow for plenty of chances for freshly weaned calves to start eating quickly.
    • Providing plenty of feeding space; making sure that smaller weaners can reach both feed and water troughs is important to improving performance. If wanting to feed in self-feeders, it may be beneficial to initially feed in open troughs and then change to the feeders once they have all started eating the ration.
    • Regularly cleaning troughs giving calves access to good quality water is critical; improving hygiene overall will help minimise the risk of exposure to bacteria, viruses and parasites in the calves’ environment. Segregate calves that are sick and treat them separately if possible.
    • Initially at weaning, feeding a good quality, soft hay such as Oaten hay or even small quantities of Lucerne will ensure calves start eating it sooner.
  • Draft calves according to size/weight/age where possible.
    • Separating younger calves from the larger weaners would be beneficial in a couple if ways; larger/older weaners would not require the same amount of attention as the smaller/weaker calves.
    • The nutritional requirements of a 5 month old weaner (typically around 150 kg) are different to those of a younger calf. Once the rumen starts to develop, the older weaner requires more effective fibre in the diet and doesn’t have the need for such a concentrated ration like the Top Early Wean 100.
    • It is important to take into account that a drought affected calves’ weight for age can be different to that of a typical weaner. Under drought conditions, calves tend to have a more developed rumen because they are forced to start foraging younger in life. The feed quality also tends to be poorer, which results in the physical stimulation and bulk fibre to help the rumen to develop.

These are just some examples when it comes to feeding young weaners. If you would like to discuss weaning options further, please do not hesitate to contact one of our Top Country nutritionists based in Roma, Mundubbera or Toowoomba.

Author: Caroline Hope

Tags: Early Weaning

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