Recently, I was at drought ground zero in southern Saskatchewan and passed a group of about 50 blonde and whiteface cows and calves grazing dried-out pasture. The thin condition of the cows caught my attention and their calves looked gaunt and on the small side. My immediate reaction was this cow-calf herd was a good candidate for early weaning.
Separating spring calves from cows by the end of September, rather than typically at the end of October and into the first weeks of November, is considered as early weaning for us. I believe people whom consider this approach should take advantage of two major opportunities: (1) build up the body condition of thin pregnant replacement heifers and mature cows before winter, and (2) achieve the best saleable weight on calves by creep feeding.
Both points are achievable, because mature, dry, pregnant beef cows (early- to mid-gestation) with their spring calves removed only require about 52 to 55 per cent TDN and about eight to nine per cent protein to meet body maintenance requirements and body condition of 3.5 (1-emaciated and 5-fat) as well as support an early-term fetus.
That’s a 20 per cent reduction in dietary energy and protein requirements of a beef cow nursing four- to five-month old calf at summer-end. Likewise, young first-calf mothers have an extra natural requirement for further body growth. Without a nursing calf they are able to put on more desirable frame and body size ever becoming more productive cows in the herd.
Feeding these early-gestating cows without their calves is relatively easy. Despite a shortage of good pasture, there is a fair supply of straw and crop residue available following this year’s early grain harvest. Either straw and grain chaff can be collected together or the chaff can be collected separately. These straw/chaff or chaff-only residues might be blown or stacked into piles for cattle grazing throughout the field.
The nutrient value of straw and crop residue ranges from 40 to 45 per cent TDN, four to six per cent protein and has a poor mineral/vitamin profile. This quality will not support the nutrient requirements of the early-gestating beef cow. Therefore, extra energy, protein and a good mineral program must be provided. The magnitude of this supplementation depends on the current cow herd feeding program, cow health and current body condition.
Consider three well-balanced rations based on straw as the sole forage and supplementing with either barley, screening pellets or corn distillers grains for a typical early- to mid-gestation cows and compare their feed costs:
- 20 lbs. barley straw @ $50/mt, eight lbs. barley @ $3/bu., 1.5 lbs. 32 per cent beef supplement @ $490/mt and 3 oz. of commercial 2:1 mineral with salt @ 11c/head/d. = $1.38/head/day.
- 20 lbs. barley straw @ $50/mt, 10 lbs. 14 per cent cow screening pellets @ $175/mt and 3 oz. of commercial 2:1 mineral with salt @ 11c/head/d. = $ 1.36/head/day.
- 20 lbs. barley straw @ $50/mt, eight lbs. corn distillers’ grains @ $200/mt and 3 oz. of commercial mineral with salt @ 11c head/d. = $1.29/head/day.
The cost of these feeding options is nominal when substituting dried-out pasture grazed by early- to mid-gestating beef cows. Yet, when we turn our attention to their separated calves, the exercise becomes a little more difficult. That’s because calves have comparably higher nutrient requirements, lower dry matter intakes and their digestive systems cannot digest large quantities of low-quality forage such as straw.
Instead we must choose from a number of limited options for weaned calves such as putting them on dry but acceptable quality pasture or move them into dry lot and feed them hay. In both cases, a creep feeder should be moved in to provide supplemental nutrition.
Creep feeders should be filled with a well-balanced creep feed: 14 per cent protein, medium level energy (65-70 per cent TDN), balanced with calcium, phosphorus, salt, fortified trace mineral pack (especially copper, zinc and selenium). A growth promotant and coccidiostat such as monensin sodium should also be added to the final creep formula. Given the quality of forage provided, newly weaned calves should consume about eight to 10 lbs. of creep feed into autumn months and much higher after the date of traditional weaning. Afterwards, these calves can go onto more typical backgrounder and grower feedlot programs.