Early weaning

John Maddux

John Maddux, Maddux Cattle Company in Wauneta, Nebraska, did several years of early weaning. “We run 2,000 to 2,500 cows and have been in business in southwestern Nebraska since my great-grandparents started here 128 years ago.

Thomas heather
Freelance Writer
Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

We are next to a large irrigation area and have cornstalks to winter on. We generally don’t have to feed anything to our cows; they graze year-round,” he says.

A dozen years ago when the drought began, the ranch was feeding and finishing all their calves in their small feedlot. “With the drought, we put March-born calves into the feedlot earlier – to keep our cow herd together and not have to sell down,” says Maddux.

Many ranchers were early weaning to take lactation pressure off cows to help them get through the rest of the year with less feed and breed back. “We wanted to take the calves off so we could feed the cows a concentrate/hot ration but limit-feed them because we were short on grass.

We fed dry cows a high-corn/high-distillers ration with a very small amount of roughage. This was a very successful maintenance ration.”


The cows were fed under an electric wire. “We put $2 corn into those cows, with our purchased ration costing $0.50 per head per day. It was cheaper than grass.

“We weaned the calves on irrigated pasture and as much distillers grains as they would eat. Those calves weighed 300 pounds after a few weeks on this program, and then we’d take them into the feedlot and start them on a hot ration. We fed them up to a 1,300-pound fat steer by early April the next year,” he says.

The early weaned calves responded well to a high-concentrate diet. Starting that young, feed conversions were fantastic – like a hog with a simple stomach – since their rumens were not developed very well. They were very efficient at digesting grain.

“This worked extremely well as a strategy to get us through the drought without having to liquidate cow numbers. We did this for about 10 years.

Then feed costs increased. We now have $5 to $7 corn, and it was not cost-effective to limit-feed cows the hot ration. This also created more pressure to put more weight on calves outside the feedlot,” says Maddux.

“So we started calving in May instead of March and eliminated all feed for our cows – making them graze cornstalks in winter and grass in summer. We went from feeding calves to a yearling operation,” he explains.

Growing yearlings

“With a May calf, however, we had to wean by the first of October to get our cows onto cornstalks. We were weaning at 140 to 150 days and trying to winter calves on pasture with supplement,” says Maddux.

With this program, the calves were weighing 350 to 400 pounds at weaning. “We had gotten along extremely well with early weaning the light calves we put in the feedlot, but trying to have them on a roughage diet – even with lots of supplementation – was not as successful.”

It took longer for the calves to grow out. “Those light calves didn’t have enough rumen function yet to take advantage of grass or cornstalks, even with plenty of distillers grains or cake. There was some compensatory gain on green grass the next spring, but the calves didn’t quite make up for not gaining well during winter,” says Maddux.

Late weaning

“What we did last year was a bit different. We took two-thirds of our cow-calf pairs and locked them on the edge of a field and started feeding them underneath a hot wire.

We fed them a ration of ground wheat straw and distillers grains – about 60 percent distillers and 40 percent straw on a dry matter basis. In the current drought, we tried to leave the calf on the cow as long as possible because we were disappointed by the inefficiency of roughing a light calf through winter,” he says.

“Terry Klopfenstein at the University of Nebraska has done confinement work with pairs, showing there might be added efficiencies to letting the calf get some ration and still nurse the cow – over separating them and feeding the same amount of ration to the separated pair.” Milk enables a calf to develop more fully with a more functional rumen.

“We got along so well last summer feeding a high-energy ration to those pairs that we took about 700 pairs to cornstalks last fall and didn’t wean the calves,” says Maddux. The rest of the calves were weaned.

“By late winter, we had to supplement the pairs on cornstalks (feeding every other day) and probably averaged 3 pounds daily of dry matter per pair. We used wet distillers grain, and the calves on the cows did just as well as the weaned calves that were getting a full TMR,” he says.

“That little bit of milk seems to help calves become more efficient at handling forage. So we’ve gone from early weaning to late weaning – the end of March.

If we have a May 15 average calving date, these calves are 10½ months old. This gives the cows enough time to dry up and calve, and re-breed on time, especially with a little green grass at calving. By late winter they aren’t milking much, with a 9-month-old to 10-month-old calf nursing them. Some cows start weaning the calves on their own.”

Calves that wintered with their mothers weighed about the same as the calves fed a TMR. “If they weigh the same, our wintering costs for calves on their mothers are about half what it cost for calves on a TMR,” says Maddux.

Traditional advice said it was more efficient to wean the calf and feed the cow and calf separately, but we’re now discovering that maybe this isn’t true. Doing it nature’s way – leaving the calf on the cow until she’s ready to kick him off – may have advantages for the calf.  end mark


Photo provided by Heather Smith Thomas.

University of Nebraska study

Terry Klopfenstein, University of Nebraska, says grass has become a more expensive feed. “One option is to pen cows (off pasture) and feed them something that may be cheaper than grass.

We started a project two years ago to evaluate this option and to discover at what point in time it would be most economical to wean the calf,” says Klopfenstein.

“We’ve had cows in drylot year-round and know exactly what and how much they eat, using a high-quality diet that could be eaten by both the cow and calf.

One group of calves were weaned at 90 days old and fed that same high-energy diet. The other group was left on the cows (cow and calf eating the same diet, together) and weaned at 205 days,” he says.

The dry cows – with calves weaned early – were fed half of what they would normally need if they were lactating.

“We fed these groups the same amount of feed. The calf that was early weaned could eat as much as it wanted, and the cow was limited.

We added those two amounts of feed together and that was how much we fed to the pair that was still together.” The only difference for the unweaned calf was that he had the benefit of mother’s milk along with the high-quality diet he shared with the cow.

“In the two years we’ve done this, the calves from each group have weighed about the same at 205 days. Body condition of cows in each group was about the same.

It didn’t make much difference, for the cows or the calves, regarding whether they were weaned early or not.

“The option we are now looking at is to utilize the feedyard during summer when grass is expensive and let cattle graze cornstalks during winter. We might have pairs in the feedlot in summer and trail them to cornstalks for winter,” says Klopfenstein.  end mark