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Monday, March 16, 2015

Preconditioning Calves

Chris Shelley
Colorado State University Extension – Golden Plains Area


The health of newly weaned cattle can be the determining factor between profitability and loss of income in feeder calf and stocker operations. Preconditioning calves can help to reduce disease and increase profitability for multiple sectors of the beef industry. However, there are many factors to consider before preconditioning.

One of the most common diseases seen in young calves is bovine respiratory disease (BRD). Studies suggest that beyond death loss, BRD can decrease average daily gain, hot carcass weight, dressing percentage, actual carcass value, fat level, marbling and yield grade. These characteristics play a large role in the quality of the beef being produced. If contracted, BRD will likely decrease the value of the animal.

While carcass quality is important, the cost to treat sickness is the most important determination of profitability in feeder cattle operations. High costs associated with drugs and labor make it very expensive to bring cattle in and treat them. One study found that cattle treated once for BRD netted $40.64 less than those not treated. Those cattle treated twice sold for $58.35 less and those treated three or more times brought $291.93 less than cattle not treated. As such, keeping calves healthy is extremely important to feedlots and stocker operations.

Over the years, preconditioning has increased in popularity as a means to increase feeder calf health. Compared to calves with no previous history, preconditioning has been shown to reduce death loss and decrease sickness. Studies also show that the heavier the calf is, the less likely it is to get sick upon entrance to the feedlot. The weight gained during preconditioning can also be important in calf health. From this research and personal experience feeding preconditioned calves, many calf-feeding operations are willing to invest more in preconditioned calves.

There are many preconditioning programs available to cattle producers. Most have three main components: a health plan, weaning, and a weight gain period afterwards. Programs vary greatly on the vaccination plans used, methods of weaning, and the criteria for feeding after weaning. There really is no right or wrong answer. In fact, cattle producers are fully capable of designing a unique or adapted preconditioning program on their own operation. Some programs are widely known and bring with them a reputation that cattle buyers may recognize. Whether you choose a well-known program or create your own, it is important to build your reputation as a cattle producer that raises healthy calves. Here are some things to consider about preconditioning.

Increasing calf health is the main purpose behind preconditioning. Vaccinating cattle is one of the most critical tools in disease prevention. Regardless of the popularity of the preconditioning program, you should carefully discuss it with your local veterinarian.

Consider who will purchase your stock. It makes sense to feed bunk and trough adapt calves that are headed to the feedlot. Calves going to stocker operations can be fed much more economically on hay or pasture after weaning. Most preconditioning programs require 45 days of feeding the calves after weaning, though some may feed for longer.

There is increased risk for the producer in preconditioning. You are now responsible for the health of your calves after weaning. Although the calves may not have the added stresses of transportation, comingling, novel feed and environment, weaning can still be a stressful time. Again, work with your local veterinarian to develop a health plan and treatment methods during preconditioning.

Another risk is the fluctuation of the market. Become familiar with market data and predictions. High prices that would have been received may change by the time the preconditioning program is complete. In addition, current high beef prices have increased the “price slide” that is seen between different weight categories of animals. For example, a calf weighing 550 pounds, and bringing a price of $285.00 / cwt, may only bring $240.00 / cwt when weighing 700 pounds. The overall value of the calf increased by $112.50 and the producer should then ask the question: was the cost of preconditioning higher or lower than the increased value?

When considering to precondition it is helpful to remember that it may not be an effective management tool every year. Markets, consumer preference, and feed availability can vary year to year. An economic analysis through a partial budget can be done relatively easily and help you make an informed decision whether or not preconditioning is for you. For help with a partial budget or for any other preconditioning questions, contact your local extension office.