Early Weaning Beef Calves

Greg Lardy, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

NDSU Animal and Range Sciences Department

Table of Contents

Advantages of Early Weaning

Disadvantages of Early Weaning

Candidates for Early Weaning

How Early Is Early Weaning?

Designing a Health Program for Early Weaned Calves

Nutritional Recommendations for Early Weaned Calves

Other Considerations

Early weaning is one option to consider during a drought or any time forage supplies are limited. Lactation represents a significant demand for nutrients in the cowherd. Reducing those demands is one way to keep cows in good condition during a drought and, if done early enough, will possibly improve pregnancy rates.

Producers considering early weaning should pay particular attention to the health and nutrition programs for early weaned calves. A good health program starts with proper vaccinations and includes emphasis on calf nutrition. Consequently, producers considering early weaning need to pay particular attention to nutrition of the weaned calf as early weaned calves require higher concentrations of nutrients in the diet than calves weaned at the traditional times (6 to 7 months of age).

Advantages of Early Weaning


       Reduced nutrient demands on the cow herd and improved cow body condition.

       Reduced forage demand on the pasture. Dry cows consume less forage. By the time calves are 4 to 6 months of age they consume a significant amount of forage. Early weaning can reduce grazing pressure on a pasture by up to 50%.

       Early weaning conserves forage resources for the cow herd.

       Reproductive performance of the cow herd may be improved if calves are weaned early enough.

       Cull cows can be marketed before the seasonal market lows.

       Quality grade of the calf may be improved, depending on management and feeding strategies implemented following weaning.

Disadvantages of Early Weaning


       Increased labor requirement.

       Requires facilities to background or feed calves.

       Higher nutritional requirements of early weaned calves necessitate special ration considerations.

       Increased focus on vaccinations and health program is required.

Candidates for Early Weaning

In some cases, producers may not want or need to wean the entire herd early. In those cases, the following types of cows should be considered candidates for early weaning:

       Two- and three-year-old cows.

       Thin cows.

       Cows which would normally be culled in the fall.

       Cows grazing pastures with limited forage resources.

How Early Is Early Weaning?

Most dairy producers wean calves at 2 to 3 days of age. Beef cattle producers will likely not adapt this early weaning system due to the high labor input required with calves of this age. However, calves can be successfully weaned at 45 to 60 days of age, if sufficient nutrition and a high degree of management are provided. More realistically, weaning at 120 to 150 days of age still allows ranchers to capitalize on many of the benefits of early weaning without many of the management difficulties associated with weaning at very young ages.

Designing a Health Program for Early Weaned Calves

The proper health program for early weaned calves will differ from one ranch or feedlot to the next. Producers should work with their local veterinarian to be sure the health and vaccination program they have in place is adequate for the disease challenges early weaned calves face. In cases where weaning is done at a very young age, the calves still have some immunity from colostrum. The health program should include emphasis on vaccinations, parasite control (internal parasites, external parasites, and coccidia), and a treatment protocol for sick calves.

Use of metaphylaxis (treating the entire pen upon arrival) may be warranted for some early weaned calves. Research at several universities has indicated that mass treatment may be effective for severely stressed cattle. Producers should consult with their local veterinarian to determine if this approach will work on their operation.

Nutritional Recommendations for Early Weaned Calves

Early weaned calves have higher nutritional requirements than calves weaned at 6 to 7 months of age. They need diets which are energy dense, have increased levels of protein, and are extremely palatable. Adequate feed intake is critical to the success of any early weaning strategy. Keep feed intake records for each pen of calves. Calves should consume approximately 2.5% of their body weight daily in dry feed. Producers may want to consider creep feeding on pasture as a way to introduce calves to processed and pelleted feeds prior to weaning. Creep-fed calves tend to adapt quicker to drylot feeding.

Table 1 gives general guidelines for receiving rations for calves. These guidelines may need to be increased for calves weighing less than 400 pounds. For lighter weight calves (250 to 350 pounds), crude protein should be increased to 16 to 18% to account for the increased need for protein and low feed intakes.

Table 1. Suggested nutrient recommendations for newly received calves.


Recommended Level



NEm, Mcal/lba


NEg, Mcal/lbb


Crude protein (CP)



0.60 to 0.80%


0.40 to 0.50%


0.80 to 1.40%


0.20 to 0.30%


0.20 to 0.30%


10 to 15 ppm


100 to 200 ppm


20 to 40 ppm


75 to 100 ppm


0.10 to 0.20 ppm


0.10 to 0.20 ppm


0.30 to 0.60 ppm

Vitamin A

2500 IU/lb

Vitamin E

50 to 100 IU/lb

Adapted from Hutcheson, 1990. Proceedings of the Liquid Feed Symposium.

a Net energy for maintenance.

b Net energy for gain.

c Higher levels for stressed calves.

Many different rations can be used successfully in an early weaning program; however, emphasis should be placed on using high quality ingredients. Forage quality and digestibility are important for early weaning rations. Do not use low quality hays, straws, or other poor quality forage in early weaning diets. No off quality, moldy, dusty, or otherwise damaged feedstuffs should be utilized. To ensure adequate energy intake, concentrate level should be at least 65 to 70%.

Complete diets or starter feeds can be utilized to start early weaned calves on feed. A number of commercial feed companies offer these types of products and they can be formulated with custom specifications designed to suit the end user.

Dusty diets result in feed refusals, poor intakes, and lowered performance. Inclusion of ration conditioners such as molasses, liquid protein supplements, condensed distillers solubles, silage, or other wet ingredients reduces dust and increases palatability of the ration.

Start calves on concentrate feeds by top dressing the grain mix on the hay or forage. Feeds such as silage or other fermented feeds should be introduced gradually in order to acclimate the calves to the flavor and odor associated with these feeds.

Water is an often overlooked nutrient. Good quality, fresh water should be offered to the calves at all times. Place the water fountain or tank in the fence line to help freshly weaned calves find the water source in the pen.

Other Considerations


       Finish castration and dehorning at least two weeks prior to weaning to reduce stress at weaning.

       Once calves have arrived at the feedlot, allow them time to rest before processing.

       Provide a minimum of one foot of bunk space per calf.

       Urea or other non-protein-nitrogen (NPN) sources can be utilized but should be limited to 0.5% of the diet.

       Keep feed fresh. Silage and other high moisture feeds lose condition rapidly during hot weather. Clean out feed bunks as needed to keep the feed fresh.

       During hot weather, wet feed and/or moist rations should be fed twice daily to prevent spoilage. Feed dry rations once daily.

       Heat stress can be a problem when calves are weaned in late summer and early fall. Heat stress can reduce feed intake and calf performance. Provide shade if heat stress is a problem.

       Dusty pens can be a problem during the late summer and early fall. If necessary, use a sprinkler system to reduce dust.

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