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Preconditioning Calves; Is it in the Cards?

By Adam Hady
 
As the summer grazing season winds down and the time is getting near for cow calf producers to wean calves, they might be asking themselves, with the prices of many agricultural commodities, can I add some value to my calves by preconditioning my calves or just sell them right off the cow? For starters, what is preconditioning, and why would we do it? Preconditioning is a practice that gets calves ready for the next phase of production and done with proper management can add a few dollars into the cow/calf producer’s pocket. In general, these are programs that are done for 30-60 days with 45 being the most common. During this time, calves are weaned, vaccinated, bunk broke, and water tank broke.
 
So, how does holding these calves for 45 days actually make the cow/calf operator any money? They have the cost of feeding the calves, vaccinating, yardage, and death loss. Knowing feed cost and price slides are the key factors adding extra dollars through preconditioning. Understanding these factors can also help you make the decision on the possibility of backgrounding longer into the winter or sell the calves outright versus preconditioning. Overall, the goal to preconditioning is to sell a few more pounds of calf by being able to put on some cheap pounds of gain and add some value to the calf by having an enhanced health status and being on feed.
 
Buyers are looking for quality calves that are less likely to get sick and perform well in the feed yards. Feedlot operators are often willing to pay a premium for calves that they can add to the yard and have very little risk associated with them. Numerous University studies of feeder calf prices have identified that buyers are willing to pay premiums for calves that have been through quality preconditioning programs. The key here is to make sure you are proactive in documenting and letting your marketing partner and potential buyers know what you have done with the calves. Building and maintaining a positive reputation and how your calves perform will go a long way in seeing the premium that preconditioning program can offer.
 
Here are some key points to take home as you establish your preconditioning program. The first is to remember we are not trying to get these guys on full feed and we don’t want to get them too “fleshy”. The goal should be modest and efficient gains. As we go through the weaning process the transition needs to be smooth, so if you are preconditioning in a dry lot starting the calves on feeds they are accustomed to, like plenty of long stem grass hay and work grain into the diet over the course of the next week or two. Make sure not increase grain too fast so you are not getting into issues with acidosis. This means keeping rations that are 50% or less of grains and concentrates on a dry matter basis over the preconditioning period. For more information see the UWEX Pre-Conditioning Factsheet.
 
Finally, the vaccination programs, make sure that you have been proactive in your vaccination and health programs. Consider castration and vaccines prior to weaning to reduce stress on the calves during weaning, and this makes your vaccination program more effective. Also, time it so that boosters can be given after weaning. The overall health status of calves coming to the feed yard was further supported by comments from the 2018 UWEX Feeder Cattle Workshop Evaluations. Sixteen percent of respondents indicated that they have changed their receiving protocol because of the Veterinary Feed Directive. In response to the question on changes they made in their receiving protocol, multiple comments reference to buying cattle that had been vaccinated, knowing health history, or weaned for 45 days. As you work on refining your health programs, make sure you have a valid Veterinarian Patient Client Relationship (VCPR). A VCPR can help establish a plan that works for you and can also provide the background and documentation for the buyers of your calves. UWEX has a very nice treatment record form for vaccination and processing calves .