Weaning: When and How
In most instances, cattle are weaned from their dams between three and seven months. That means if producers have fall-born cattle, they are probably preparing to separate the pairs. But before they load their calves and head to market, producers should consider if retaining ownership would be more profitable.
Backgrounding cattle typically entails taking a calf from weaning up to 850 pounds prior to moving to a feedlot.
Shane Gadberry, assistant professor of ruminant nutrition with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, said risk is always a variable when deciding to background cattle.
Managing Risks of Retained Ownership
“There is always risk in market down swings, high morbidity or mortality rates and high feed costs,” he said. “Generally, the health risk with on-farm cattle should be low compared to purchasing and co-mingling sale barn calves; however, beef cattle producers should always be aware that farm-raised calves are not bullet proof and respiratory disease and coccidiosis outbreaks can occur.”
Shane also said producers should look at the market to determine the value of additional weight gain and complete a budget projecting performance and feed costs to make sure the cost of gain does not exceed the added value from selling a heavier calf at a later date.
“When budgeting retained ownership, cattle producers must look at it as a totally separate enterprise from the cow-calf enterprise; therefore, the value of a calf becomes income to the cow calf budget, but is looked at as an expense to the retained ownership budget," he said.
Calves are generally fed a forage-based diet designed to grow cattle rather than add condition, said Justin Sexten, Extension beef nutritionist with the Commercial Agriculture Program at the University of Missouri.
“Producers background their own calves to capture genetic and post-weaning management investments. Backgrounding may also provide an opportunity to efficiently utilize feedstuffs or forage resources,” he said.
If producers choose to background their calves, Justin said weaning management should generally have a greater focus on health.
“Producers selling calves at weaning may or may not vaccinate calves prior to selling depending on their marketing program. If producers choose to background, calves should be vaccinated to prevent post-weaning health problems possibly observed during the backgrounding period,” Justin said.
Monty Kerley, animal nutrition professor at the University of Missouri, said weaning can stress calves, but growing out calves where they were reared may be beneficial.
“Calves are less likely to see a pathogen that they have not already been exposed to, and consequently, weaning and backgrounding on the farm typically reduces sickness and the cost associated with morbidity and mortality,” Kerley said. “I believe this is the reason that preconditioning programs have their associated values.”