Early Weaning Saves Time and Money

Published on Tue, 07/10/2018 - 2:07pm

 Early Weaning Saves Time and Money

 By Aly McClure

 Doing what you love makes it easier to get through lean times, but changing some of your production practices can help ease financial restraints.

“Hard work becomes easy when your work becomes your play. Never under estimate the value of loving what you do.” – Author Unknown
Dairying is hard work, it becomes even harder when the markets are down and you aren’t sure if your next milk check will cover your expenses. But, one thing that dairyman are known for is their resilience through down times and their love for what they do. Dairying isn’t a job, it is a lifestyle, and when you love what you do it is easier to make it through the hard times.

When margins are tight in the dairy industry, it is important to find ways to cut back on overall operations costs without jeopardizing health or production of the cattle. All aspects of dairying can be evaluated to either tighten up in extra expenditures or to change procedure slightly in order to realize cost savings in larger amounts over time rather than all up front. Depending on what your operation goals are will help you to determine where you can “get skinny” during times of lower milk prices. One area that has been known for some time to cut back on operations costs is early weaning. But what early weaning means can vary based on the dairy or calf grower, with a range as wide as three weeks of age versus eight weeks of age. Where you fall on this scale is very dependent on several factors including availability calf care workers and how quickly you need to move calves through the cycle (hint: faster is not always better). The care in the beginning of a heifers life affects her through the duration of it. It can affect her caving ability, milk output, and overall health condition.

As mentioned before, weaning techniques are very operation unique but there are some tried and true methods that should not be overlooked when changing or updating the way you handle this important factor in a heifer’s life. According to the Penn State Extension research department, “If we can wean calves earlier, we can reduce the amount of milk replacer fed and be able to control the costs of raising calves, even if the milk replacer price remains high.”

The question then becomes, what is too early and what is just right to make an obvious impact on your finances?

Weaning is appropriate at whatever age would be 21 days post rumen development, or initial grain intake (Penn State Extension). Initiating grain consumption by offering fresh water and feed within a few days of birth will stimulate the beginning of rumen development.  While it is possible to wean calves at 3 weeks of age, it is not recommended. The level of hands on care increases substantially requiring as much as hand feeding grain to encourage rumen development. Waiting a week longer, at four weeks of age has seen much more effectiveness for weaning. You should avoid making weaning decisions based on age alone, but also factor in starter ration consumption.

How you move the calf through the weaning cycle does not change much based on age, it’s just when you start. If you plan to wean within a week you will gradually reduce milk feedings and amounts until you get to one feeding per day and then remove the replacer from their diet altogether. As your work through this process it is essential to make sure the calves are consuming grain as well. At this age it is essential to know what they are consuming so that you know rumen development has begun and is at an adequate stage to remove the milk replacer from their diet. This is the key to successful early weaning. 

Another factor to consider with early weaning and what age makes the most sense for your operation is if it will require more calf care than you are already providing. If you are faced with having to hire another person to make this switch possible, be sure to weigh the long term expenses versus the long term savings. Do they breakeven? Are you ahead? Or will it just end up costing more? All of these need to be taken into consideration.

When reviewing whether calves are physically ready to be weaned at 4 weeks of age, according to Penn State Research, there is hardly any difference in rumen development and body condition between a calf weaned at 4 weeks and a calf weaned at 8 weeks. The same is true with different markers throughout their lifecycle.

Calf weaning is very subjective to the operation, but it is seen to save money in the long run doing it earlier. As mentioned before, this decision should not be based on age alone but consider in other factors as well. If you have the help and facilities to run a trial for yourself you should give it a try, no harm has ever come from a little experimentation and change.