Weaning calves early when severe weather conditions such as drought affect cattle production has its benefits, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture studies.

Working with local ranchers, Montana State University scientists and American Simmental Association collaborators in Bozeman, Mont., animal scientist Richard Waterman at the Agricultural Research Service Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory (LARRL) evaluated the early weaning of beef calves and its impact on cow, heifer and steer performance. Calves at two locations in Montana - Judith Gap and LARRL - were weaned early at 80 days of age and at the more traditional age of 215 days. Cows that weaned a calf early weighed more and were in better body condition at the start of winter. As a result, the amount of harvested feedstuffs required for cows to maintain satisfactory body weights and condition throughout winter was reduced.


Waterman confirmed that early weaning is a viable management option, presents fewer problems and allows producers to better control their production environment. He also demonstrated that early weaning increases the likelihood that heifers will become pregnant on time in the following breeding season.

Additional studies showed that early-weaned steers reached maturity sooner than traditionally weaned steers when body weight gain, feedlot performance and carcass traits were measured. Waterman noted that management of early-weaned steers can directly impact how they grade at harvest. In some cases, early-weaned steers had poorer USDA yield grades because carcasses were too fat. However, Waterman demonstrated that producers can maximize carcass value of early-weaned steers if animals are identified before they enter the feedlot and then harvested at an earlier age.