How Early Weaning Can Save You Significant Dollars

Living with droughts has more often than not become a way of life for Australian graziers and the cost of feeding livestock for extended periods of time pays a heavy toll. If you have the capability and facilities, early weaning can be a very strategic management practice that can result in the saving of significant dollars.

What we mean by early weaning is simply weaning calves from their mothers at an age that is younger than ‘normal’ practice. In Queensland, calves are usually weaned somewhere between 5-8 months, but in extreme cases such as prolonged drought calves can be weaned effectively down to 4-6 weeks of age. The reason behind early weaning is that it is typically cheaper and easier to feed a young calf and its mother separately, than to feed a lactating cow and calf unit.

For instance, a 500kg cow with a four-month-old calf at foot requires approximately 110 mega joules (MJ) of energy per day as compared to 59 MJ per day as a dry pregnant cow. During a drought (green or dry) the pasture has no chance of meeting the requirements of a lactating cow and a significant amount of supplementary feed is required to meet these energy needs.

It is the next year after a drought that will hit harder if no calves are on the ground, so getting cows back in calf should be a priority. In feed shortage times, prior to weaning, less than 20% of your breeders are likely to be cycling. Research by Lusby, Wettemann and Turman (1981) found that by early weaning calves from first-calf heifers they reported increased conception rates in heifers (96.8%) from the early weaned (EW) group compared to (59.4%) from the normal weaned (NW) group where calves were weaned at 7 months. The average interval from giving birth to conception was reduced from 90.5 to 73 days by early weaning and the EW heifers gained weight more rapidly during the summer.

Early weaned calves need to be fed and managed carefully so that they can perform just as well later in life as would normally weaned calves. It is important to note, however, that starved calves left on starved mothers won’t fair as well either. Weaning is a very stressful time on the calf and to avoid further stress and increased susceptibility to disease and reduced weight gain it is recommended to avoid castrating and dehorning at this time. Although, it is important to vaccinate for clostridial diseases.

A simple ration is all that is required for early weaned calves and one feed each day of a milk replacer at about 10% of body weight is recommended for calves around 4-5 weeks of age. Along with a high energy, high crude protein grain-based ration it is important to supply ad lib hay or pasture.

Though there is a cost of feeding a ration to early weaned calves, their intake is very low (2% of bodyweight) and again it is a lot less than feeding a cow and calf in the paddock. Once calves have been weaned breeders can then be run on drought affected pastures with minimal supplementation and minimal costs compared with trying to sustain the cow and calf as a unit.

Putting condition on cows with a basic ration can be quick and very cost effective and allows for direct selling to abattoirs. Cow rations are economical because protein and starch requirements are minimal and compensatory weight gains in cows that were in store condition can be enormous. To maximise potential returns when feeding store cows only feed for a maximum of 45 days and then cull regardless of weight and price as compensatory weight gains are reduced after this period impacting on feed conversion and returns.

For customers purchasing MegaMin products, AgSolutions’ qualified staff provide complimentary ration formulation and nutritional advice.

For more information on our ration formulation service please contact us on 1800 81 57 57 or via our contact form.

DAF. (2019, February 6). Early Weaning. Retrieved from Queensland Government Department of Agriculture and Fisheries:

Emma Weatherly, H. (2019, February 5). Early Weaning of Beef Calves. Retrieved from Agriculture Victoria: