Maximising weaner throughput

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Key actions

  • Assess the fertility and fecundity of your herd using body condition scoring and for calves liveweight.
  • Consider early weaning, primarily for the cow’s welfare and promote re-conception.
  • Select healthy, fertile bulls for mating to achieve good conception rates.
  • Maintain the best herd structure suited to the environment, natural resource/feedbase and climatic conditions.

Why is herd management and weaner throughput important?

Sales from a beef business include stock bred on the property, cull cows and any purchased trading stock.Increasing the number of cattle sold each year has a major impact on the profitability of arid zone beef enterprises. 

Increase throughput to increase profit.

There are two main components of weaner throughput:

  1. Number of weaners produced and the total saleable kilograms of product from the enterprise.
  2. Carrying capacity of the land and vegetation resources and the stocking rate applied (discussed in Module 1: Setting directions, Module 2: Managing your feedbase and Module 3: Managing your natural resources).

However, the primary factor influencing beef cattle production in the low rainfall arid zone is the highly variable pasture availability expereinced in the zone, there is no regular seasonal pattern making it unreliable and unpredictable. This can make it difficult to produce to consistent production targets (such as lines of weaners) within each season, and season after season.

Standing pasture can vary from very low amounts with very low nutritive value to being so abundant that it cannot be consumed by livestock. Managing consistent production targets under such conditions can be difficult so grazing management has traditionally relied on using conservative stocking rates.

Some herd management strategies in low and/or highly variable rainfall zones to help improve productivity include:

  • a limited joining period for heifers, to set them up for calving at the most suitable time of the year and then continuous mating from the second joining onwards. This reduces operational costs (mustering to add or remove bulls) and increases overall calf production in an environment where predicting the timing of peak cow condition each year is very difficult.
  • a continuous mating approach in extensive areas where rainfall and pasture growth is uncertain. It is still possible for many cows to achieve weaning one calf per year but any extended dry period reduces the number of individuals achieving this.
  • selection of healthy, fertile bulls for mating to achieve normal conception rates and a condensed calving pattern/period.
  • supervise calving for maiden/first calf heifers, to increase the number of live calves born. The time and expense of monitoring all calving in an extensive pastoral grazing situation with continuous mating is not feasible. Cows in extensive grazig condtions that have difficulty calving and are not monitored are unlikelt to survive.
  • culling cows that are neither lactating nor pregnant at weaning is a useful approach to remove low productivity breeders from the herd. However, culling a cow for failing to rear a calf, when the failure is because of the arid zone environment (that is, due to the combination of herd management and prevailing seasonal conditions) will not increase the long term productivity of the herd. In fact, many highly productive animals can be unnecessarily culled if this culling criteria are strictly applied.
  • use age, weight and body condition scoring of cows as indicators for earlier weaning.
  • aim to wean calves when the efficiency of pasture use is greater for the calf alone than the cow–calf combination. The time of the year is also important in weaning decisions. Handling and weaning calves during the hot summer months must be avoided where possible. At these times, high mortality rates can eliminate any economic advantage of early weaning.
  • use yard weaning to lift cattle productivity. Yard weaning is not a well-defined practice in the arid zone and means different things to different producers but the general principles of reducing the impact of weaning (especially if the process of weaning includes dehorning, castrating and branding) have application due to the low rainfall experienced in the arid zone.
  • use higher heifer retention rates to increase selection pressure on the cow herd.
  • take advantage of periods of excess pasture growth following rainfall and/or floods by purchasing weaners/growing livestock.
  • take advantage of restocking periods to improve the genetic composition of the herd.

How does this module assist you?

This module will help you:

  • increase the throughput of weaners bred on your property
  • manage your culling strategy for weaner heifers and mature cows
  • understand how nutrition drives fertility and allocation of energy to maintenance, growth and then reproduction in that order is the major limiting factor
  • recognise the biological constraints imposed on different stock classes and the allocation of a limited resource, such as feed, to the most sensitive stock, such as reproductive heifers and growing stock. This is especially important in relation to the arid zone where the predominantly native pastures are naturally low in energy, protein and phosphorus, definitely too low for optimal growth. This means that a cow feeding her calf will struggle to maintain body condition or if lactating may even lose weight and not survive. 

Linkages to other modules

The throughput of animals is also linked with issues discussed in Module 1: Setting directions, Module 2: Managing your feedbase and Module 7: Meeting market specifications.

Genetic improvement of fertility, mothering ability and growth are discussed in Module 4: Cattle genetics.

The management of common reproductive diseases that infect beef herds is outlined in Module 6: Herd health and welfare.

Further information

Weaner management in northern beef herds

Principles of herd management and weaner throughput

  • Manage the herd to maximise fertility and weaner throughput.
  • Match livestock requirements to pasture production by managing livestock feed consumption and allocating high quality (nutritious) pastures to maximise reproductive function and turnoff of sale cattle. (Note: if a calf is left on its mother during a dry, and non-growth, period for the pasture, the calf might grow faster but the cow is likely to be putting much of its nutrition into producing milk and will be losing weight and condition, reducing the likelihood of reconception.)
  • Weaning is the single most effective management tool available to look after the body condition of your breeding cows because weaning allows:
    • the cow to regain condition and have a better chance of producing a calf every year
    • young stock to be educated for easier management in the future.
  • Manage weaner cattle after weaning to achieve target growth rates by maximising nutrition and manipulating feed allocation. This may include a period of yard weaning, followed by placement in the paddock with the best feed to ensure future performance.
  • On occasion weaners may need to be allocated to new paddocks (particularly if they are large paddocks) with older, coacher cattle, who can show weaners the location of watering points and pastures.
  • Where possible, return cows  to the same paddock, or new paddocks with the same cohort of cows, after weaning. This is particularly important in large paddocks and with first calf heifers, as the animals will be familiar with the different land types and the location of watering points in that particular paddock. Consider coacher cattle if allocating animals to new paddocks.

Procedures for herd management and weaner throughput