The growing popularity of preconditioned calf sales has created a hectic schedule for many auction markets this fall. Most special sales feature calves produced under specific guidelines to improve health and performance for buyers. And data collected over the past few years show calves produced and marketed under a preconditioning program warrant a premium. Many believe the premium should be in a range from $5 to $12 per hundredweight.

However, a standardized national preconditioning program is not yet in place, so buyers must verify specific programs at each sale. As a minimum, most programs demand that calves are vaccinated for viral and respiratory diseases prior to sale. Many programs, however, require much higher standards for vaccination, and may also require a post-weaning program of up to 45 days before the cattle can be entered into a preconditioned sale.

The VAC-45 program, designed for the Texas Ranch-to-Rail program managed by Texas A&M University, is the industry's most recognizable preconditioning regimen. Over the past decade the Ranch-to-Rail program has shown the tremendous value of proper vaccinations coupled with a 45-day post-weaning program. And many believe the weaning program is a key to the cattle's success in the program.

John McNeill manages the Texas Ranch-to-Rail program, which has had participation from 1,700 ranches over the past decade. He says data collected through the program suggests that a 30-day weaning period is not long enough. "Calves weaned for at least 45 days are a different commodity than those weaned 30 days. Thirty-day weaning programs are a major reason preconditioning programs failed in the 1970s."

Calves produced under less stringent preconditioning programs may meet your expectations for health and performance, but if you're a buyer this fall, be sure that the premiums you pay for preconditioned calves match the value created by the preconditioning program. Proper vaccinations with the proper timing coupled with a 45-day post-weaning program create calves with the most value.

Proof of the value of such calves can be found in data collected in Missouri's MFA Health Track Beef Alliance. Mike John, director of the alliance, says the program has shown a treatment rate in calves of less than 5 percent, and a death loss of 0.5 percent. MFA's data far exceeds the industry standard of a 25-to-30 percent treatment rate and a 2-to-5 percent death loss rate.

The MFA Health Track Beef Alliance is also offering electronic identification (EID) tags to producers. Many programs now require calves to be traceable to the farm of origin, and one major fast-food chain already requires such identification. MFA is a project leader of Missouri Electronic Animal Tracking Systems (MEATS). MEATS projects are facilitated by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which furnishes the electronic identification devices to Missouri producers. MFA will put EID tags in MFA Health Track red-tagged calves at no charge to the producer. It's MFA's intention to provide the producer with all data collected from the EID, so the producer will have access to management data.

The popularity of preconditioning programs with 45-day weaning protocols is growing rapidly. Calves produced under such programs will fetch top dollar this fall. Before you buy this fall, be sure the program you're buying from deserves the premium you're paying.