September 13, 2011

Weaning Part 1

With the changing of seasons from summer to fall we will begin our fall routines sooner than we wanted.  It seems that we just sold the last of the calves and moved all of the cows and their calves to summer pasture.  Feeding chores were pretty much done with the exceptions of a few orphan calves and the horses.  Now we are preparing to start feeding all over again.  Weaning time is only a couple of weeks away (2 to be exact).  So we have 2 weeks to finish getting the pens cleaned, fences double and triple checked and pick up all of the supplies we will need to keep the calves healthy and as stress free as possible.  We wean our calves between 5-6 months of age.  For our area of the country we wean a little earlier than a lot people especially when you factor in we calve just a little later.  We have to do what works for our situation, resources, and available labor not just in the fall but throughout the whole year.  We wean early for several reasons.

She is no longer small enough to sleep in the bunk, but will soon be using them for their real purpose... eating!
 Reason 1 - Cow health and condition - The cows nutrient requirement is the highest when she is nursing a calf.  By late Sept our cows are nursing a calf that is 5-6 months old while at the same time she is in the first trimester of gestation and some cows will be entering the 2nd trimester.  Pregnancy also increases the cows nutrient requirements.  By removing the calf that can survive on his/her own (with out mothers milk) we greatly reduce the amount of nutrients the cow needs.  At this time of the year our grass has matured and is beginning to go dormant for the winter and consequently it provides less protein and energy than it did in the earlier summer months.  We try to match our cows needs to the feed that is available at different times of the year and at this time the grass does not meet all of her needs.  If we remove the nursing calf, the grass now is able to meet the cows needs.  In fact it will be more than the cow needs and she will be able to put a little extra weight on over the next month or 2.  We want to allow our cows to put on a little extra weight going into the winter as we can have some extreme cold temps and lots of snow.
2 - LABOR - As I have mentioned before we both work off the farm.  During particular times of the year Mark will put in 10-12 hrs a day at his boss's place and then come home to take care of our stuff.  The fall is 1 of those times, crops are being harvested and with harvest comes many long days.  Mark's boss "farms" Mark out with a semi and grain trailer to another local farmer who does a lot of custom harvesting.  I only know that he is still alive because there will be dirty dishes in the sink and a new pile of filthy cloths by the washing machine in the morning.  Weaning our calves before this happens insures that I have help to get them wean, vaccinated, and hauled home.  It also gives us a few weeks to get the calves adjusted and acclimated to their new pens, feed, and friends.  Once harvest starts the calves will be in the big pens and set up that I can care for them relatively easily by myself.
3 - Feed resources - I have talked about putting up hay for winter use.  If we left the calves on the cows longer we would most likely have to feed our cows more in the winter as they would not be prepared to graze the cornfields (after harvest) with out the use of supplemental protein and energy.  This would require us to purchase additional hay which is expensive.  The calves eat a lot less feed a day and because of their youth are much more efficient at converting that feed to pounds of calf than a mature cow.  A cow will consume as much as 30-35 lbs of hay each day where our calves will eat about 10-12 lbs a day.
4 - Buyers Preference - Any time you change anything in an animals life it will create some stress.  We strive to minimize the stress that our cattle have to deal with.  We choose management practices that work both economically and induce the least amount of stress as possible.  Some stress such as weather we can't control we can only minimize the effects it has on our livestock.  Weaning is stressful and we can minimize this stress by weaning the calves at our farm instead of shipping them direct to the feedlot at weaning.  Traditionally calves were removed from the cow, hauled to the sale barn in town, sorted, sold, co-mingled with calves from other ranch, then hauled to the feedlot fed a feed they are not use to and processed (vaccinated and wormed).  We remove all of the last sentence except for the removing the calves from their mothers, vaccination/worming, and a short haul to the yard.  The more stress we minimize the less risk for illness and injury.  By the time our calves are moved to the feedlot or heifer development program, they are ready to enter that stage of their life, they have all the vaccine needed to help protect them and they have been slowly adapted to succeed once they enter the feedlot.  By investing the time, extra feed, extra vaccine and care our buyers pay us more for our calves to cover these extra expenses.  They want calves that have been given all the tools to succeed in the feedlot (or heifer development program) and that have been care for with the least amount of stress in their life.
5 - Range Pasture Management - We want to raise cattle and corn with little to no impact on the environment we use to do so.  By removing the calves we reduce the amount of grass that is removed from the pasture.  This helps to prevent over grazing.  Over grazing leads to increase of weed species in our pastures, soil erosion, decreased water holding capacity of the soil, and lower quality diets for our cattle that graze them. 

Had some good practice eating out of a bunk a few months ago!!
These are only the top 5 reasons for weaning when we do and using the weaning strategies that we do.  There are many other factors that also effect our decision but that is for another day as well as other weaning strategies that could work some day down the road.  Be sure to check back as Part 2 (Weaning Preparation) will be posted soon.

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