The Controversial Weaning Weight Debate! 

Hey the title rhymes! Weaning weights are something that ranchers and farmers will talk about for hours on end. It’s also a very touchy subject. For those of you who were like me and and still learning about the in’s and out’s of ranching I’d like to define what weaning weights are for you first, then we can get into the contentious debate.

A weaning weight is the weight of a calf at the time that it has been weaned from it’s mother. Weaning means the calf no longer has access to it’s mother for milk or physical contact with her. If you are like me, you might be asking, “why even do this in the first place?” Well there are a variety of reasons. Some people don’t wean but most do. However, some of the reasons to wean calves off of their mother are:

  • The cow can start to put on back fat and improve her overall body condition when a calf isn’t sucking on her for milk.
    • This means she can breed back more easily if she has better body condition
  • The calf can become more independent and start to put on weight on grass alone

There might be other reasons people give you but that is the basic purpose.

Many people brag about having heavy weaning weights. For example, due to management and genetics a weaned calf could weigh 150lbs or more than another one.

Weaning weight is determined by the milking ability of the mother, the quality of the forage available and genetics. For example if you have genetically selected for heavy weaning weights, you will have BIG cows of around 1,400lbs. You’ll also have selected for cows that produce a lot of milk. This might seem like a good thing but in my opinion it’s not! It’s actually a terrible idea. Let me explain why.

High weaning weights probably mean that the calf was born in January. Have you ever gone outside naked in January? That’s exactly what it’s like for a newborn calf. Cows that produce a lot of milk have higher nutritional requirements. More milk means more high quality forage is needed. This would mean you’d have to feed hay in the winter and lots of it! Do you have six zeros in your bank account’s balance? You’ll need it.

New Mexico State has found that a low milking cow requires 10% less forage than a high milking cow of the same weight. I got this figure out of Walt Davis’ book How to Not Go Broke Ranching which I highly recommend. He makes the point that you could have 10% more cows if you got rid of the “top milkers” of the same weight. This means you can carry more cows which means more calves and hence more profit.

Bigger is not always better and with weaning weights I believe this is certainly the case. Smaller, low milking cows are easier to take care of, require less forage and are more efficient. What are your thoughts on the weaning weight debate and profitability?

Chris Stelzer

Chris Stelzer is a published Author, founder of Agricultural Insights and creator of many resources that help family farmers and ranchers grow their businesses. His flagship courses are the Grazing Mastery Program and The Farm Marketing Mastery Program. 

Chris Stelzer

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