Complacency can cost you money.

Whether it’s being complacent with a high somatic cell count or a high feed bill, it all costs you money. Being complacent with weaning age can cost you money, too.

The average age at weaning in the U.S. is 8.4 weeks, according to the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System’s (NAHMS) most recent dairy study (2002). The cost to raise a calf to weaning is conservatively estimated at $2.50 per day. At that rate, the total cost to raise a calf to weaning at eight weeks of age is $140.

For some producers, being content with that price tag just isn’t acceptable. Cutting it in half is more like it.

If weaning at eight weeks of age or more is one of the “we’ve-always-done-it-that-way” practices on your dairy, let the experience of others challenge you to gradually trim as much as four weeks off the traditional weaning age of eight weeks.

They manage the obstacles
According to the NAHMS Dairy 2002 study, less than 5 percent of U.S. dairy operations wean calves at four weeks of age. Only 6 percent wean at five weeks of age.

What’s holding everybody else back?

The risks involved.

Maybe you worry that early weaning will lead to more sick calves, or calves will go off feed and lose too much body condition after weaning. Or maybe you worry the rumen isn’t quite ready that early.

All of these threats can jeopardize the success of an early-weaning program if your management isn’t up to the challenge. “When you get a little closer to the cutting edge, it takes more management,” says Jud Heinrichs, professor of dairy science at PennStateUniversity.

Despite the challenges, Connie Evers is sold on weaning calves early. Evers and her partners at Neighborhood Dairy near Freedom, Wis., initiated an early-weaning program about a year ago. “So far, it’s working really well,” she says.

But, to keep it working well, Evers knows that she must manage calves as individuals to keep those aforementioned threats at bay. And that means recognizing and responding to individual calf variation.

At 35 days of age, Evers drops the morning milk-replacer feeding for calves at the 600-cow dairy. Usually, the calves go after starter aggressively, and weaning is complete by 42 days — a full two weeks earlier than they previously weaned. However, if a calf doesn’t respond by upping starter intake, Evers keeps her on milk replacer once a day for a little longer. As an extra precaution, all calves stay in individual pens for an additional week after weaning before moving to group housing.

The intense management isn’t for everyone, Evers acknowledges, but it’s paid off for them. Calves gain about 80 to 100 pounds by weaning, essentially doubling their birth weight by 42 days of age. The extra attention the calves get also prepares them for the transition to group housing, so calf health and performance are not compromised by the stress of a new environment.

Facilitates efficiency
At a cost of $2.50 per calf per day, the pre-weaning period is the most expensive stage in a growing heifer’s development, Heinrichs says. In fact, there’s about a $1.25 difference per day between the total cost to raise a heifer to weaning and the total cost to raise her after weaning until about six months of age. The majority of that cost is tied up in labor.

Essentially, you cut your labor cost in half by weaning at four weeks versus eight.

Although the math looks good on paper, labor cost is difficult to quantify on farm. Plus, if you save on labor at the expense of calf health, you don’t really save in the end.

That’s not to say calf raisers like Jeanne Wormuth don’t care about labor cost. It’s just easier to see the advantages of early weaning in other areas.

Wormuth manages CY Heifer Farm, a 4,000-head heifer-raising facility in Elba, N.Y. They have used an early-weaning program for seven years.

At 28 days, they pull the morning milk-replacer feeding. Calves wean completely to starter and water at 36 days. Calves stay in individual pens for an additional two weeks before transitioning to group housing.

They previously experimented with weaning at 42 days of age. Looking at the data, Wormuth says they didn’t see a whole lot of difference in weight gain when calves stayed on milk replacer an extra week.

Early weaning also complements the way the facilities were designed at CY Heifer Farm, formerly operated as the Agway TSPF Heifer Farm. When the facility was built, heifers moved through it in an “all-in, all-out” fashion, which meant that they progressed through the series of barns in groups. That design presented some space limitations in the calf barns. In other words, there was no extra space to hold back calves that weren’t ready to wean while the rest of the group advanced to the next phase. Early weaning, and the addition of some calf hutches, helps solve that problem.

Pencil out the payback
At Neighborhood Dairy in northeast Wisconsin, calves follow an accelerated calf program that includes a 28-percent protein, 20-percent fat milk replacer fed at the rate of 1.8 pounds per day for the first week. That level increases to 2.5 pounds per day for the next four weeks, then drops to 1.25 pounds per day the week before weaning.

Their total cost to feed milk replacer to one calf from start to finish at 42 days is $105, or about $2.50 per calf per day, Evers says. However, if they were to wean at eight weeks instead, the cost would increase to $140. So, by weaning at five weeks instead of eight, they save $35 per calf on milk replacer alone.

Wormuth in New York also has saved on the cost of milk replacer by weaning early. 

Like Neighborhood Dairy, CY Heifer Farm also feeds a milk replacer designed for an accelerated calf-rearing program. “If I kept them on it for eight weeks, it would be almost a 50-percent increase in cost,” Wormuth says. In fact, the heifer farm saves about $63 per calf on milk replacer alone by weaning at four weeks instead of eight.

These cost savings don’t even take into account the savings from reduced labor or reductions in other operating expenses associated with raising a calf to weaning. However, if you sacrifice calf performance and health, these savings get swallowed up by high veterinary bills and calves that take longer to become productive members of your herd.

Next month, we’ll show you how to judge if weaning early is right for your heifer-management program.