Weaning and transportation combine to create the most stressful period in the life of your calf. And that stress is the most critical factor causing illness, increasing production costs and lowering performance. You can fight back with a proper preconditioning program, but the definition of a proper program is a puzzle to many producers, buyers and veterinarians.

"It's a problem that the term preconditioning has been loosely applied in the beef industry," says Greg Lardy, North Dakota State beef extension specialist. "There is a lack of standardization that has led to confusion."

To receive the economic benefits of a preconditioning program you have to correctly put together the many pieces of the preconditioning puzzle.

What is preconditioning?

The first piece of the puzzle is understanding the ultimate goal of preconditioning. And that goal is to prepare young cattle to withstand the stresses that begin at weaning. All procedures and management activities contribute to this one goal.

"Vaccinations alone do not constitute a preconditioning program," says Dr. Lardy. "It encompasses vaccination, weaning, nutrition and other management items that reduce stress."

A preconditioning program includes all of these items because each part lends itself to the success of the whole program. And the key is to start early.

"We try to do a lot of things prior to weaning so that we don't stress the calves," says Doug Ensley, Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine Instructor at Iowa State University. "We castrate and dehorn in the spring so they have plenty of time to recuperate. Then we give the first round of vaccines three to four weeks before weaning."
What do I give?

The vaccination piece to preconditioning can be puzzling in itself. What, when and where do you give vaccines? These are important questions you should ask if you're participating in an existing program or developing your own.

Giving the vaccines before weaning is a vital part of a preconditioning program. "Any vaccine needs at least 10 days before it does any good," says Dr. Ensley. "I like to do it a couple of weeks before weaning and again at weaning so we get a high level of immunity by that high stressful weaning time."

The main cause of illness in freshly weaned calves is the exposure to infectious agents associated with weaning, commingling and transportation. Over 30 percent death loss has been attributed to Bovine Respiratory Disease and just one occurrence of respiratory disease in a feedlot animal can cost almost $90 per head.

Since BRD is the most common illness in freshly weaned calves, vaccination for it is recommended in most preconditioning programs. And where preconditioning programs need to be standardized, they also need to be individualized for each herd. Although the feedlot industry has listed IBR, BVD and PI3 as the most important viral pathogens to be included for vaccination, no one vaccine program or preconditioning program will meet the needs of all backgrounding or feedlot operations.

"Our requirements for the Green Tag Program are blanketed for everyone in Iowa," says Dr. Ensley. "They have to meet certain requirements (Table 1). But the producer's local vet has to sign off on what has been done, and this gets the vet on the farm so he can make additional recommendations for that individual herd. One herd might be prone to more disease than another, so a vet might add a pasteurella vaccine or something else."

In any preconditioning program, it's important to meet beef quality assurance standards. All label directions should be followed regarding injection site, size or timing of vaccination and reboostering. All injections should be given in the neck to minimize damage due to injection site lesions.
Weaning onto feed

By the time weaning day rolls around, half of your work should be done. Calves will have been dehorned, castrated and vaccinated so their immune system should be able to handle the stress of seperating them from mom and her milk.

In a preconditioning program calves are not sold directly at weaning. Instead, they are kept for an additional 30 to 45 days to acclimate them to drylot feeding, stabilize their immune system and reduce stress. This is a vital piece to the preconditioning puzzle.

Weaning time in a preconditioning program becomes an adaptation time. The goal is to get calves bunk broke and eating well. "Calves will adjust to drylot feeding more easily if they have been exposed to processed feeds before weaning," says Dr. Lardy. "A short period of creep feeding 30 days prior to weaning allows the calves to become bunk broke or accustomed to eating dry, processed feeds."

If it is not possible to bunk break prior to weaning, says Dr. Lardy, it is important to make their adjustment to life in the feedlot as stress-free as possible. To get calves eating out of bunks as quickly as possible there are several things you can do:
place an older calf or dry cow in the lot to train new calves;
place feedbunks and waterers along the fenceline;
allow waterers to run over for a few days to attract calves to it and feed good quality, long stem grass hay that resembles what the calf is used to seeing on pasture for the first four to seven days.

The final piece

Nutrition is the last puzzle piece that completes your preconditioning program. It's not only important for the calf's growth, but also to ensure a successful health and vaccination program. "Undernourished calves have poorer responses to vaccinations and are more susceptible to disease," says Dr. Lardy.

Preconditioning feeds should be palatable, dust-free and nutritious (Table 2). "As a general guideline, start out feeding 0.5 to 0.75 percent body weight per day," he says. "In addition, this ration should also be top-dressed with long stem hay to acquaint the cattle with the taste and texture of grains and other ration ingredients."

Since intakes are generally low during this period, it's important that the ration be high in protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. This is essential to maintaining the immune system and vaccination program that you've already established.

Making the pieces pay

This is the piece that most producers worry about. Is it worth it to precondition?

If you are retaining ownership, preconditioning will pay in lower treatment costs and less death loss. But if you're selling calves, put your preconditioning pieces together for the buyers. And communication is the key.

"For any preconditioning program to be effective, the seller must communicate to the buyer what program was followed," says Dr. Lardy. This allows feedback from the buyer so you can be sure what you are doing is working. Keeping records helps with this communication. And developing an ear tag identification system for all calves involved in a preconditioning program also helps buyers identify these value-added calves.

"Most preconditioned calves do receive a premium, the only problem is that the premiums are not always as big as many producers expect," says Dr. Ensley. "Especially the first few years, it takes a while to build a reputation. As you build the program more, the greatest benefit becomes the opportunity to sell your cattle and have a buyer year in and year out, even when the market is depressed. And that's hard to pencil out."