We’ve gone through the numbers, and the proof is there—add value to your calves and the investment will pay off. But what exactly does preconditioning entail and how do you make it worth your time?
Let’s start with the basics. First, since every operation can vary in available resources and management practices, there is no one-size-fits-all blanket
definition for preconditioning.
“There is a vast difference is preconditioning depending on where you are in the country,” says Mike John, director of MFA Health Track operations. “For some producers, preconditioning is just getting one round of shots into calves. For others, it is a vaccination program that also includes weaning protocols and nutrition.”
The common perception of preconditioning programs centers on kick-starting calves immune systems so they are more likely to remain healthy during the high stress events of weaning and commingling in the feedyard. And while this is a pivotal component, producers have a lot to gain by expanding their end goals.
“The most important part of any preconditioning program is that you are efficiently putting weight on calves for payout in the effort you are going through,” John explains. “Reducing disease and enhancing performance—that’s what a good preconditioning program should really be about.”
Equally as important is a return on investment, adds Matt Hersom, University of Florida Extension beef cattle specialist. Vaccination programs cost money, and implementing those programs requires more man hours, also costing more money.
“Because of that, you have to be able to pencil in a return,” Hersom says. “Historically that has been available to cattle producers, but they still need to assess their operation to make sure a preconditioning program fits their production scheme.
“Just because they precondition, doesn’t guarantee they are going to receive a huge premium. It means we are going to get as much out of them as we can, which needs to be enough to cover their risks,” he adds.
The returns on ranchers’ investments are paid out through buyers paying higher prices for a value-added product that statistically is less likely to get sick and more likely to perform better.
However, proving calves have had the investments and management the producers claim they’ve had can be difficult, especially in an industry where calves can be purchased from an unknown ranch in Tennessee by a feedyard producer in Kansas. Because of this, producers often opt for a third party verification program to insure their investments don’t go unappreciated.
“Depending on your production scheme, it will make a lot of difference on management strategies and what works for individual producers,” says Jessica Laurin, Kansas veterinarian and previous president of the Academy of Veterinary Consultants.
There is no one-stop-shop preconditioning program. In fact, there are several available for producers to choose from to best fit their operation’s goals. These can range from regional programs developed by an individual auction market, to state and national verified programs through pharmaceutical and verification companies and even the government.
Producers can also work with their local veterinarian to verify their practices with a signed affidavit, Laurin says, with all three experts agreeing a producer’s veterinarian is a vital source for determining which route best fits their operation.
What does verification entail? In a nutshell, following a structured calf health program and keeping track of a lot of data.
For example, the VAC-45 program through Superior Livestock Auction, which has become a household brand in the animal health world, has a set of protocols that require participants to put calves through two rounds of vaccinations. The first are administered two to four weeks prior to weaning, with boosters given at the drug label’s recommendations.
Producers must provide documentation on which vaccinations were given, the brand name, the dates and injection sites administered. If found compliant with the programs specifications, an affidavit is signed and producers are able to market their calves with the program’s specialized sales and with its reputation.
Other programs, for example MFA’s Health Track/Power Calf, might require producers to purchase pharmaceuticals from company or their veterinarian. According to John, it requires producers to report the birthdate of the first calf, when they were weaned, vaccinations given and dates administered, along with other details such as nutritional information and weights, to name a few.
If a producer is going to work with a veterinarian for an independent program, Laurin says the more detailed records the better.
“Write down every management practice you do, because then it can be verified to be advertised for your calves,” she says, adding it doesn’t have to be a complex system—a simple Excel spreadsheet or record book would work.
Remember, the goal is to kick the immune system into high gear. While there are multiple ways for producers to get their practices verified, they all have the same goal: To build strong immunity for calves, setting them up for a healthy future.
According to John, the MFA database shows significant differences in pull rates of calves post-weaning. Calves that received one round of shots at weaning had a pull rate of 5%, while calves that received two rounds of shots pre-weaning had a pull rate of 0.03%.
Some diseases producers can expect to give preventative vaccines for in a typical program are:
Respiratory diseases: Including IBR-P13, BVD, pasteurella and Haemophilus somnus
Clostridial diseases: Most specifically, Blackleg
For example, Boehringer Ingelheim’s KCH 34 PLUS program requires producers to administer viral and bacterin vaccines to branding-age calves, along with a clostridial vaccine and parasite control. Then two to six weeks prior to shipping, receive boosters and another round of parasite control.
“There are a lot of health issues that come up when commingling calves in a feedyard setting,” Hersom says. “So it is important to get a calf ready to take on the next stage of the production cycle.”
The other end of the equation is a focus on nutrition. All three experts agree it is absolutely essential both cows and calves have adequate nutrition, because vaccinations alone aren’t enough to give cattle complete immunity. Start with a mineral program for cows during lactation and gestation since fetal programming research shows nutritional management of gestating cows might increase the health and performance of the developing calves.
On that same token, they also recommend creep feeding calves while they are in the pasture. Not only will this allow calves to receive additional supplementation for added gain, but it will also introduce them to a feed other than grass prior to weaning when they will most likely be put in a bunk setting.
“If you can get calves bunk broke and water broke before pulling them off mom, that is going to help lower their stress when it comes time for
weaning,” Hersom says.
However, while an increase of calf gain is important for cow-calf producers, John adds too much can actually hurt the value of calves. A good sweet spot producers should aim for is 2.5 lb. per day of gain.
“Stocker and backgrounders have built a vast success on compensatory gain. If calves are too fleshy, they won’t perform as well in the next segment because they have had too much nutrition and energy, and they won’t be able to capture that value,” he says. “There has to be a balance.”
At the end of the day, it’s about setting calves up for success. “In today’s world, there are two main goals of preconditioning,” Laurin says. “The first is to keep a calf healthy and market on that basis. The second is for the welfare of the cattle and the welfare of our industry.”
This is not only for a performance and monetary level, but for their ultimate destination—the food chain. John believes beef producers have the opportunity to gain consumer trust, as interest in where food comes from and how it was raised increases. Along with that, is a pride factor and responsibility for
producers in providing for their cattle the best they can, Hersom adds.
“Every cattle producer should be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I am producing a good product that I stand behind,” he says.
From the special section: Drovers Insight. This is a bonus section published periodically to provide additional information to cattlemen about issues important for the production of healthy, wholesome beef.