Wean or Sell Calves? A Management/Marketing Option
for Feeder Calf Producers

Phil Osborne
Animal Husbandry Specialist
WVU Extension Service

West Virginia beef producers wrestling with management and marketing options for feeder cattle. Specifically, what is the economic feasibility of selling calves early versus weaning and feeding them for 60 days until the Quality Assurance Feeder Calf sales? Less than ideal weather conditions can play havoc with well-designed plans for marketing feeder cattle. However, a sound plan that is easy to adjust is better than having to react hastily, as those without a plan so often do. The challenge is to keep cows in a body condition score 4 to 6 and still sell a calf in the fall that will cover annual production cost.

Some of the options available for various situations:

Gather and sell the calves at the auction market and feed the dry cows. The weakness of this option is that you have fewer pounds to sell and therefore reduced income. You hope that a number of buyers appear on sale day needing the weight and kind of cattle you have. The option will at least allow the cow herd to recover before winter and hold out-of-pocket expenses to a minimum. This may well be the best option for producers who have a handful of cows and no facilities or who have not been part of one of a calf marketing pool. Marketing calves in a calf pool or in partnership with other producers allows for some substantial savings. A dozen or so weaned calves generally will not realize a market advantage unless assembled in a larger, uniform lot or trailer load .

If you were fortunate to have made enough hay for the winter and still have pastures or hay meadows to graze until sale day, you may creep feed the calves to improve market weights. Grain is relatively inexpensive this year. Creep grazing meadows is an effective, low-cost management option that increases returns. If pastures are in short supply, the cows must be in good body condition because as the calves increase in weight, the condition of the cows is pulled down. Once calves are worked on to creep, if pasture is short, you can begin to feed the cows as though they was in late gestation. The body condition of the cow should not get much below BCS 4 while she is nursing a calf for her to avoid going into the winter in the same condition (Table 3).

Weaning the calf and feeding the dry cows maybe the option for making the best of a bad situation and still adding value to your calf crop. Early weaning allows cows to maintain or improve body condition before going into winter. This is extremely important since available winter feed supplies are short. It is much cheaper to feed dry cows than lactating cows. Removing the calf reduces the cow's nutrient needs by nearly 45%. If calves are weaned early enough, most cows can recover at least one condition score before winter on available forage with little or no supplementation. Most cows not already bred probably should be sold.

Early weaning allows for cows already marked for sale to be removed from the herd at a time when the price of cull cows is seasonably more favorable than later in the fall. The early weaning calves may be the only option for many producers that have run out of grass or whose grass has been forced into dormancy. Early weaning trials in Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan have shown the practice to be far more beneficial than detrimental. The feed efficiency and conversion of an early-weaned calf is at the most economical level. Some of the weaning trials conducted in West Virginia with Southern States Cooperative have yielded average daily gains in steers of better than 3 pounds per day for 30 days. Trials in which calves were limit fed a preconditioning pellet at 1.5% of their body weight and allowed to graze, re-growth meadows averaged 2.75 ADG over a 40-day period. Research at Virginia Tech yielded similar results with calves weaned on pasture and grain versus calves weaned on hay and grain producing ADGs of 2.36 and 2.12 respectively. Some preliminary data have shown that early-weaned calves also have heavier carcasses and were more efficient with a higher percent grading choice than conventionally weaned calves.

Many producers are reluctant to wean calves because they lack facilities or fear sick calves. Weaning home-raised calves is far simpler in comparison to calves that have been assembled and transported from several sale barns. Sale barn calves are exposed to a greater number of stresses and often lack the pre-vaccinated immunity that helps to diminish health-related problems.

It takes the following to put together a successful preconditioning program with some of the associated cost involved. The health program is the key to being able to handle stress. The Quality Assurance Gold health program has been tested and proven to be successful in the feedlots. All calves should be pre-vaccinated at least 14 days prior to removal from the cows. Then, when the calves are weaned, a booster vaccination should be administered. Table 1 outlines the vaccination programs for the Quality Assurance Sales health programs.

Table 1.

Quality Assurance Feeder Calf Health Programs

Gold Program Vaccinated & Weaned
7 way Clostridium / H. somnus
Booster vaccinations of respiratory complex &
Weaned for at least 30 days
Silver Program Pre-vaccinated
7 way Clostridium / H. somnus


The following budget shows potential returns on weaning a set of calves this summer (Table 2 ). The table starts with a 410-pound calf valued at $ .90/lb, vaccination cost (Gold) at $ 7./head, preconditioning feed at $ 200/ton and hay at $ 25/1000 bale. The calves will be fed for 40 days and sold in the Quality Assurance sale. A conservative estimate of 2.5 lb. average daily gain or 100 lbs. of gain over the 40 days will be used.

Table 2.

Projected Weaning Budget


Cost ($)

Feeder calf (410 lbs @ $.90)


Vaccination program


Preconditioning feed (8lbs/head/day)


Hay and Pasture


Total Investment in 510 lb calf


_______________________________________________ _________
Breakeven on 510 calf


If a weaned 510 lb calf brings $89/cwt in October the value would be $454
$ 454 - 412 = $ 42 return per head

Return on your investment would be (42/412 *100) a 10.2 % for 40 days. Certificates of deposit are paying 3.85 % on 30- to 90-day investments. This is not too shabby a return on your investment or as a means of adding value to your feeder calves. Now, of course, you will have to complete your marketing plan to ensure that you receive the highest market price for your calves. That has been one of the advantages of marketing through the feeder calf pools in the state. Producers pooling resources or buying in volume will realize cost savings lower those in the estimated budget. Marketing calves in trailer load lots in the Quality Assurance Sales program has helped attract buyers who are seeking calves prepared for feedlot or backgrounding programs .

Weaned calves are better prepared to handle stress and the risk of losses due to sickness are reduced. Weaned calves allow the producer more flexibility when marketing. Weaning will keep you from having to sell calves when other producers are selling them because of the drought.

When crop yield is low, weaning calves provides you more market flexibility, allows the cows to recover before winter, and helps ensure that cows will breed back faster the next year. Contact WVU Extension county agents or specialists for assistance.

Table 3

Body Condition Scores

BCS 4 Slightly below optimal condition
: Foreribs are not noticeable
: 12th and 13th ribs can be distinguished
: Backbone can be identified but feels rounded
rather than sharp
BCS 5 Optimal body condition
: 12th 13th rib are not visible
: The backbone can be felt with only firm pressure, but is not noticeable to the eye.
: Areas on each side of the tail head are filled but not mounded
BCS 6 Slightly above optimal body condition
: Ribs are fully covered and not noticeable to the eye.
: Hindquarters are plump and full
: Noticeable sponginess over the foreribs and on each side of the tail head