Larry K. Bond


On good feed, a calf will gain about 1.75 pounds a day while on its mother. Although we have no research data to evaluate, it is known that weight gains drop off considerably when milk production drops. This happens when ranges are dry and feed is scarce. Under these circumstances it may be more profitable to wean calves earlier than usual. This could be anywhere from mid-summer to early fall. Calves taken off their mothers during the summer would likely be fed. Those weaned in the early fall might be sold at weaning or fed for a month or more.

This article looks at some of the ramifications and economics of early weaning. It is based in part on research conducted in Montana (Staigmiller and Adams). At this stage, we are not recommending early weaning. We only present this as an option that should be considered.

Economics of Early Weaning

The budget on the following page is based in part on the Montana study. Calves were fed for another 84 days after weaning. Rolled barley, which gave the best gain in Montana, was fed along with alfalfa.

To make a proper evaluation, something has to be assumed about expected weight gains if calves are left on their mothers. This could vary considerably, depending on the year. Assuming an average gain of 1.75 pounds per day if left on their mothers, it does not appear profitable to wean early and feed. Although the weight gains were achieved at $.26 per pound, the added value of a calf is less than the cost of putting on the gain. At lower rate gains while on the cow, it could be profitable.

Break-even Rate of Gain

Due to a lack of knowledge about rates of gain, it is difficult to do an accurate analysis. Probably the most important line in the budget is the last line showing the Break-even rate of gain. Based on the data in the budget, a calf would have to gain less than 1.68 pounds a day while on it's mother to make it profitable to wean early and feed. It would not take much of a decrease in feed availability for weight gains to drop below this level, since typical gains on good range is only about 1.75 pounds a day.

It should be pointed out that no labor costs or medical expenses were included in the budget. Some range operations have no facilities for feeding calves. If facilities have to be built, this would represent a fixed cost that should be included in the budget. These additional costs would increase the cost per pound of gain and change the break-even rate of gain.

Example Budget - Early Weaning of Calves
Number of days on feed 84
Average daily gain if weaned and fed 2.20
Average daily gain if left on cows 1.75
Pounds of grain per calf for feed period 669
Pounds of hay per calf for period 169
Price of rolled barley per cwt 6.20
Price of hay per Ton 70.00
Number of calves to feed 100
Hours of labor per week for entire lot 0.00
Value of labor per hour 0.00
Estimated medical expense per calf 0.00
Estimated selling price per cwt 95.00
Total pounds of gain if weaned and fed 184.80
Total pounds of gain if left on cow 147.00
Estimated additional value of calf 35.91
Total cost of grain per calf 41.48
Total cost of hay per calf 5.92
Total cost of feed per calf 47.39
Cost per pound of gain 0.26
Additional value of calf over feed cost -11.48
Break-even rate of gain if left on cow 1.68

Other Benefits To Consider

When calves are left on their mothers, under poor range conditions, it has a detrimental effect on the cow. Survival rate decreases, especially in severe winters. A cow that is in poor condition at calving will usually raise a lighter calf. Conception rates could be lower than normal which decrease the calf crop the following year. All of these factors combined could have a significant influence on production beyond the current year.

In years of moderate reduction in feed, cows might hold their own but the calves might gain very little. Prices received for calves in mid-September, before the majority go to market, could be higher. If expected gains are very low the last 6-8 weeks, it might be profitable to wean and market early if feeding is out of the question. It is hoped that sufficient data can be collected in the next few years to allow a more accurate evaluation of the possible benefits of early weaning.

April 21, 1988 earliwea.cow