ONE of the big lessons from the drought is that when pastures are under pressure, early weaning pays.
Many producers that weaned their calves from as early as eight to 12 weeks has turned out to be most successful strategy on most accounts.
While weaning is pretty normal from 20 to 24 weeks, the new thinking seems to be there are big advantages in pulling calves off at 100kg to 120kg.
The number one reason for early weaning is to preserve the body condition of the cow and her fertility i.e. to ensure she capable is producing a calf the next year.
Another consideration is that early weaning can extend the long term the breeding age of the cow because less pressure is placed on the reproductive system.
There is no doubt milk is the best food for a growing calf. As a rule of thumb, every one litre of milk consumed will result in about 100 grams of live weight gain. A calf born born weighing 35kg that receives an average of 9L/day for 100 days (or 14 weeks) should record about a 90kg gain, resulting in a 125kg calf.
The challenge is to ensure that early weaned calves properly develop, particularly their immune systems, which are the critical foundation for long term health and productivity.
It is worth noting that calves fed rolled or hammered grain or manufactured pellets through a creep feeder from an early age turned out 10-15 per cent heavier than previous batches of calves that were fed milk and grass alone.
The reason fed calves are heavier comes primarily from starch in the grain and in particular what that starch does to accelerate rumen development.
Essentially, the young animal is forced to process more starch, which fast tracks the development of the rumen resulting in increased daily intakes and higher feed conversion rates.
When that grain based ration is combined with vitamins, minerals and a live yeast to stimulate rumen efficiency such as Alltech's Yea-Sacc, more of the genetic potential of a growing animal can be realised.
It can never be stressed strongly enough that the rumen, regardless of an animal's age or purpose, is the powerhouse of every bovine.
It can never be stressed strongly enough that the rumen, regardless of an animal's age or purpose, is the powerhouse of every bovine. The better and more consistently the rumen is fed, the better the performance of the animal in terms of live weight gain.
A live yeast, in particular, helps stimulate fermentation in the developing rumen and increases appetite, enabling the growing animal to extract more energy and maximise its growth.
As soon as fermentation starts occurring in the rumen after about 12 weeks, a controlled released nitrogen source such as Optisync can also be used to provide a feed source for the fibre digesting bacteria. The reason a controlled release nitrogen source works is that the rumen is fed for an extended eight to 10 hour period.
It's all about getting the rumen functioning and operating at maximum efficiency as early possible. There's certainly plenty of truth in the old saying that a calf never gets over a good or a bad start.
So what is the cost?
An early weaned animal will consume 2-4kg/day during the first 100 days. With weaner rations running at $600/tonne that's $1.20-$2.40/day, a cost of up to about $240. Add to that supplements which significantly enhance the productivity, and the cost increases by a further 20c/day.
The offset to this is good growth rates and feed conversions of five to one means daily gain of up to 1kg/head and with the market pushing well over $5/kg for young stock the margin is definitely there.
Dry periods will continue and with the need to increase carrying capacity without overgrazing pastures, early weaning is likely to play an increasing role.
Deciding at what age those younger calves can be weaned, the most effective ration, avoiding bullying, and managing any health challenges are the deciding factors.
- Toby Doak is a beef production specialist for Queensland and Northern NSW with Alltech Lienert Australia.