Everyone enjoys seeing newborn calves. The downy hair spread across a tiny body with two bright, curious eyes surrounded by luscious eye lashes. The wobbly knees trying to stand for the first time. Those two perky ears seemingly too large for the calf’s body bolting this way and that as the calf takes in the world for the first time.
But, as with all creatures, calves grow and evolve; from physical size and ability, consuming solely mother’s milk to learning to eat, calves travel down their own life cycle just as babies transition from toddler to child, young adult to elderly. A key transition period which occurs early on in the life of a calf is the weaning phase – when a calf has grown enough to stop nursing on the cow but rather consume all its needed calories from various feed sources.
In a normal year, we would wean calves from their mothers at around 6 to 7 months old. However, this has been no typical year. Because of the drought conditions we have experienced, we, along with many cattle producers across the area, are weaning the bulk of our calves at 3 to 5 months old. A small portion of our calves have been weaned already.
There have been many articles circulating to inform producers of the benefits of early weaning. Maybe you’ve notice; maybe you haven’t. The reasoning behind early weaning is two-fold. In the drought-stressed conditions, cows are not receiving adequate nutrition to sustain themselves while also having enough energy to produce milk for their calf. Their physical health suffers and pushes them toward losing weight and muscle. The calf, on the other hand, is not receiving enough milk from the cow because the cow just isn’t producing enough. By weaning, the calf can receive adequate nutrition to grow and maintain its health.
The calves we’ve weaned are eating high-quality grass hay as well as a mixture of grains formulated for young calves. They are fed twice a day and have constant access to water. If you could sum their daily nutrition on a nutrient label and compare it to that of my diet, some days I guarantee the calves are being fed a more wholesome diet.
Management practices such as early weaning is but one way cattle producers evolve with the curve balls thrown their way to care for the livestock in their charge to the best of their abilities.