Are Your Calves Feedlot Ready?

Even though summer is just around the corner, there is still time to talk about what preconditioning can do for your calves. Depending on your area, this may be commonplace; you may have never heard the term before, or you may sell your calves straight off the cow due to space available at your operation. There is no right or wrong way of doing things. The goal is to find what works the best and is the most cost-effective for you and your operation.

What is preconditioning? Preconditioning refers to the process where calves are weaned and conditioned BEFORE being moved to grass or a backgrounding yard or sent straight to a feed yard for finishing. Typically, this happens at least 45 days (about one and a half months) before a sale, which gives the calves time to learn how to eat from a feed bunk and drink from a water trough. This also allows you, the producer, to follow an appropriate vaccination program.

The preconditioning process improves the likelihood that a calf can deal with future stressors and exposure to pathogens without health complications. According to Mark Hilton, DVM, “Compared with non-preconditioned calves, preconditioned calves have improved health, gain, feed efficiency, and animal welfare in the feedlot along with increased carcass weight and quality grade at slaughter.”

Once calves leave the ranch, those with fewer health problems will require LESS medication, reducing costs while lowering the potential for injection site lesions and residues. Ultimately, this leads to less death loss, efficient performance, and potentially higher-valued carcasses. These healthier calves with more robust immune systems have an increased potential for profit in the feedlot due to a lower risk of BRD illness and deaths. For this reason, they tend to sell better than calves that have not been through a preconditioning program. According to Page Carlson in the Bovine Veterinarian, calves going through the pre-conditioning phase, “exhibit less morbidity and health costs at the feedlot while typically generating greater net return to the cow-calf producers as calf value increases.”

What should be done at preconditioning time? Processing newly weaned calves before selling can be critical to cattle management. Developing processing protocols with your veterinarian and nutritionist will lower the risk of health-related issues when cattle are received at the next location. The following is a list of practices that can be included at preconditioning (although some calf processing may have already been done in springtime). But we must remember that a true preconditioning program requires more than just vaccines given before weaning!
• Keeping the calf on the operation for at least 45 days after weaning

• Dehorning (if horns still present)
• Castrating bulls (if not done at birth or at spring processing)
• Deworming
• Low-stress weaning techniques (including fence line weaning and noseflaps)
• Administering appropriate vaccines
– TALK TO YOUR VETERINARIAN (not just your neighbor)!
• ·Transition to feed bunk and drinking water from a tank

As mentioned above, it is essential to
remember to help calves with the transition process of moving from a forage or milk-based diet to a concentrated diet to best prepare them for feedlot nutrition. It is recommended to place feed bunks with palatable hay and supplements near fence lines to make it easier for calves to find them when they walk the fence line during the weaning process. There should be 1.5 to 2 feet of bunk space per head to prevent crowding. We must also ensure water troughs are clean, visible, and easily accessible.

In conclusion, preconditioning has some pros and cons. Premiums for added calf weight associated with preconditioning can be realized at calf sales. However, costs related to preconditioning programs include increased labor, vaccinations, death loss, additional feed costs, and interest expenses on borrowed money. Two additional factors to consider are the seasonal patterns of the cattle market and the price slide on increased calf weights.

The range of decisions to make when choosing weaning and/or preconditioning strategies will depend on each operation’s individual goals, expectations, and resources. Any of these practices will require an assessment of your operation’s labor requirement, current facilities, and available feedstuffs. Work with your veterinarian and nutritionist to establish these plans and improve your herd and bottom line.