The Purpose and Timing of Pre-Conditioning Programs

Every autumn, cattle producers are flooded with information about preconditioning fall weaned calves. These articles and ads tell cattlemen about price premiums and what products work the best. Unfortunately, the reasons why preconditioning is important are often lost in the conversation. If we know why we precondition, the rest of the questions about products and when to castrate will make more sense.

The reason to precondition calves for weaning is to help prevent illness after weaning. While cattle feeders will give you a premium price for preconditioned calves, preventing sickness before they are sold means more to the ranchers’ bottom line. To capitalize on the health boost of preconditioning, we need to structure your herd health program around the issues that will affect your calves. This will involve a well-timed vaccination program, completing surgical procedures such as castration and dehorning prior to weaning, and efficient bunk breaking.

Vaccinate when it helps the most
The stress of weaning is the primary reason that calves break with respiratory disease. Therefore, if we want to prevent disease, we should start the vaccination process before they are weaned. Although there is some utility to vaccinating calves with their first shots at weaning, vaccines work better if they are given before weaning.

This occurs for two reasons. First, it takes time for the calf ’s immune system to recognize the “bug” in the vaccine and mount an immune response to it. The calf ’s immune system requires two to three weeks after vaccination to create enough immune cells to effectively fight disease.

The second reason is stress. Stress decreases the immune response. Therefore, if calves are undergoing the stress of weaning while they are being vaccinated, their immune system does a poor job of remembering the “bug” we want to protect against. Both these reasons necessitate vaccinating the calf three to five weeks before weaning to allow the vaccine to take full effect, which leads to fewer sick calves after weaning.

Castrate/Dehorn before weaning
In the same vein of thought, castrating and dehorning prior to weaning is advantageous. Both of these procedures add stress to the calf, so coupling this stress with the stress of weaning makes the calf more susceptible to disease. And conversely, separating these events from weaning gives the calf time to recover before it faces the stress of weaning.

Nutrition is a key to immune function
Once vaccinations and surgical procedures are accomplished, the final piece to weaning success is bunk breaking. The immune system needs energy for fuel, and once separated from the cow, calves need to know where to find that energy. If bunk breaking can begin with some creep feed prior to weaning, calves take to a bunk faster at weaning.

When creep isn’t an option, start with long-stemmed hay. Calves are typically more familiar with hay, so use it to introduce the bunk to those calves on day one. Add the ration on the second day with the hay, with the goal of removing the hay completely as soon as feasible.

Articles and ads for preconditioning products make more sense when we understand our goal, which is healthy cattle. By preconditioning your calves, not only will they stay healthier and be more profitable, you will also have a sharper looking group of calves to take to sale. And that honor is well worth the effort.