If you're like many producers, you're becoming skeptical of this "new beef industry" stuff. You've tried to keep up with new market demands by using practices such as expected progeny differences (EPDs) to select bulls, or by keeping more detailed production records to help lower costs and improve efficiency. And you know your calves are growthier and maybe more uniform. But the dividends from your efforts are increasingly difficult to measure.

Despite the perceived lack of dividends, your customers (order buyers and feedyards) continually increase their demands. Now, with profitability for cowmen at a low point, feedyards claim they're ready to pay premiums only for calves that have been raised within documented health programs. Specifically, they want calves that have been weaned and vaccinated (see "The preconditioning puzzle"). To a cowman, that sounds familiarly like a new scheme to put more of the risk back at the ranch.

But just as you've experienced evertighter margins the past few years, feeders have struggled to keep their operations running. The past two years, in fact, have helped many of the industry's biggest players find the bottom of their deep pockets. As good businessmen, however, they're searching for new ways to cut costs, improve production and add value.

Each time a feedyard animal is pulled for treatment, expenses extend well beyond the cost of medication. But why should you, as a cowman, care? Why should you spend the money on vaccines and accept the trouble of weaning your calves?
The obvious reason is that feeders are your customers, and you should want to please your customers and do what you can to earn repeat business. And by preconditioning your calves and using that as a marketing tool, you'll likely begin to earn premiums-maybe as much as $4 to $10 per hundredweight. (You're skeptical, but beginning next month, Drovers will show you who is earning premiums and how.)

Preconditioning also can increase your fall payday simply by increasing the weight of your calves. The first vaccination, administered at least two weeks before weaning, is an obvious time to implant that calf. And, assuming you wean the calf at home for at least two weeks, that's four to six weeks of benefit from the implant. The added value of the implant alone can more than pay for the cost of vaccinating and weaning.

One not-so-obvious reason to precondition is that it's good for the industry-you included. Lower the feeder's costs and raise his profitability, and you're helping a neighbor. Additionally, a preconditioning program can raise the quality of beef by limiting the number of injections administered at the feedyard and lowering the incidence of injection site blemishes. On that score everybody wins, including the consumer.

Finally, for the reasons mentioned above, preconditioning will become the industry standard. Calves without known health and genetic backgrounds are likely to be discounted severely. This is a bandwagon you should jump on early, learn the procedures and be ready to add up the benefits.

Preconditioning represents a major change in business philosophy and management for many cowmen. And change, as we've learned, comes slowly to our industry. Even when we recognize the urgency of implementing new concepts and practices we move as if we're riding a glacier. Only this time we don't have much time to waste. Value-based marketing and branded beef products are gradually dictating selection and production practices. The glacier is beginning to melt.