Both veterinarians and producers know that with every lost pound of gain, open cow or calf death there is missed opportunity for profit. With today’s strong cattle market, a few missed opportunities can quickly add up to an expensive mistake.
Now is the time to convince producers to add animal health practices and products that provide return on investment. These practices add value even in weaker market conditions but can be worth more as U.S. cattle supply remains low—meaning prices are likely to remain high.
“Cow-calf producers are challenged to produce calves that are acceptable and desirable in the industry,” says Lee Schulz, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics at Iowa State University. “There are a variety of value-added practices that can create a value proposition for both buyers and sellers of cattle.”
Realizing value from improved animal health is key for all producers, Schulz says. Widespread industry recognition of practices like preconditioning helped develop a premium for those cattle over time. The credibility of preconditioning programs built up as both buyers and sellers relied on healthy calves that performed well after sale day.
Adding additional value today takes alignment between buyers and sellers, he notes.
“That’s what has developed a lot of the direct trade relationships,” Schulz says. “When I, as a buyer, build a relationship, it’s in part because of production practices you, as a seller, are using that have shown to be successful on my operation. It helps eliminate search costs for both of us.”
Investments in animal health happen every day at Ouzts Cattle Co. in Cairo, GA, says owner Caylor Ouzts. Attention to vaccination and parasite control programs keep death losses very low, improve overall health and build up strong relationships with buyers.
“The same people who buy your cattle this year will buy them another year,” Ouzts says. “They will find the cattle do well, and the representatives will call and remind them ‘those cattle from Ouzts are coming up.’”
Direct trade relationships can also benefit from information transfer that will improve both parties over the long run, Schulz advises. Buyers benefit from receiving cattle at the right time and from a consistent program. The seller can benefit by seeing how cattle are performing and adjust production practices accordingly.
Schulz notes that veterinarians and producers can develop a plan that meets a particular buyer’s needs through genetic selection, vaccination programs and implants, among other proven practices that reduce loss and improve gain.
“Distinguish between the longer run investments versus shorter investments,” he recommends. “With genetics, it takes considerable time to change those within the operation. However, with a preconditioning program that value really pays off more quickly.”
With increasing value for each calf, the herd mentality may no longer be applicable, says Rick Sibbel, DVM, director of U.S. Cattle Technical Services at Merck Animal Health.
“The concept of precision agriculture that’s done in row crop farming can be moved to animal agriculture, looking at each animal as an individual unit with individual characteristics,” Dr. Sibbel says. “Does it make sense to have a minimalistic approach to raising cattle when they are worth more now than they ever have been before? We should know more about these individuals to make sure we are giving resources where they are necessary.”
In particular, vaccination timing can help prepare calves for better health with a little extra labor and time. Vaccination, weaning and shipping are all stressful events, which can impair the animal’s immune system. Spacing the procedures out can help ensure vaccinations work to the best ability.
“If you want to create the healthiest calf possible, vaccination and weaning should be separate,” he says. “As you approach weaning time, vaccinate those calves while they are on their mom. Then, turn those calves back out and wait two to four weeks before weaning. Traditionally, we liked to wean and vaccinate in the same day, but it’s the absolute worst time. A calf is going through huge amounts of stress.”
The downside of this extended vaccination and weaning process is additional time and labor. However, that cost can quickly be earned back if one calf worth $1,000 is saved.
“It’s so very rare that a vaccine just doesn’t work,” Dr. Sibbel notes. “It’s more likely the animal’s immune system wasn’t optimized to receive the vaccine.”
Developing a careful preconditioning program starts even before the calf is weaned, notes Gary Sides, Ph.D., beef cattle nutritionist with Zoetis. Beyond simply choosing a product or a preconditioning plan, it involves getting animals familiar with a feed bunk and other tried-and-true management practices.
“It can be really easy to pass that management on to someone else, but those calves are worth less and don’t perform as well,” Sides says. “Everybody benefits when the calves are worth more, and we know what happens at the ranch affects what happens at the feedlot. If a calf gets sick on the ranch—from poor vaccination or poor colostrum—he’s more likely to get sick in the feedlot.”
Attention to preconditioning can also benefit producers who are keeping replacement heifers. Healthy heifers breed earlier and are generally more productive during their lifetime in the herd, he notes.
Ouzts Cattle Co. operates both a cow-calf herd and a year-round backgrounding operation. Working in two different market segments gives Ouzts perspective from both sides of the fence. He says it’s important to be transparent about the exact vaccinations administered to demonstrate the program was carefully considered. The true test of any preconditioning program happens after sale day.
“It helps us to sell the cattle,” Ouzts says. “When you ship them, that’s when your vaccination program shows off. As high as cattle are, there’s no reason not to invest. Even when cattle are cheap, it will add to your bottom line quite a lot.”
Ouzts’ vaccination program doesn’t remain static. It’s constantly being evaluated based on new products or clinical cases, notes his veterinarian, Elizabeth Kidd, DVM, at Cairo Animal Hospital in Cairo, GA.
“Caylor is a smart producer, and he understands that there’s only so much we can do with physical exams,” Dr. Kidd explains. “Sometimes you need to know exactly what bacteria or virus you’re fighting, and that’s something he really gets.”
Her recommendation for preconditioning is based less on market conditions and more about the specific health challenges. However, treatment is one area higher cattle prices changed.
“We are aggressive in treating every single sick calf and trying to treat them faster,” Dr. Kidd says. “That’s how a lot of our producers are in the area. They are now more willing to treat than they may have been in the past.”
Additional gain can be saved if parasite control products are administered prior to vaccination, which can help reduce stress from parasite burdens and improve vaccination response, Dr. Sibbel says.
“There are some animals in every herd that are more susceptible to parasites internally,” he says. “We need to take fecal samples on a regular basis on a percentage of the animals in the herd to determine what’s going on. Calves coming off cows were worth $400, and now they’re worth two and half times more than what they used to be worth. It makes sense to do the extra work and understand the individual need.”
Timing parasite control based on the season is another tactic that veterinarians and producers can use to make the most use of their animal health investment, Sides says.
“It’s been really cold this year, so I would imagine parasite season may be delayed,” he says. “If I treat too early, then my product is off before the parasites even emerge. If I can delay, then I actually have a good chance of killing parasites when they do emerge.”
Even with strong cattle prices, each ranch must decide how much additional labor and facilities are needed to extract the value of a more customized parasite control or preconditioning program.
“Some ranches are just not set up to do a 45-day preweaning feeding program,” Sides notes. “There are still things they can do with parasite control and vaccinations. For instance, if they collect the data on cattle performance, they can make huge strides in culling cows that produce bad calves.”
Andrew Conley, ranch manager for Blackwater Cattle Company in Lake Park, GA, is planning to deworm a few weeks later than he typically would due to the cold weather through early spring.
“We know there’s a cost to it,” Conley says. “Any time you handle the cattle, it causes stress, but it’s one thing that will absolutely pay for itself in the end.”
Investing in animal health practices—like timing parasite control—translates into higher weaning weights and directly affects his bottom line. In addition to heavier weights, the reputation of the ranch’s Brangus purebred cattle is important to securing a steady stream of buyers. This is especially critical as he grows the cow herd to help meet demand.
“We are trying to enhance our position from a genetics standpoint and trying to raise cattle that will hit a target earlier, have early maturing cattle and cattle that will be genetically superior to their counterparts,” he says. “Everything has to go hand-in-hand: the genetics, management, nutrition, animal health products—the whole nine yards.”
Producers cut back on mineral in previous years, but strong market conditions are helping convince them to reinvest in that nutritional component, among other services, says Clint Hilt, DVM, owner of Hilt Veterinary Service in Power, MT.
“They are more comfortable being able to put more into their cattle at this point,” Dr. Hilt says. “We’ve had some issues with coronavirus in the past, and we know that a good mineral program will help cattle deal with the challenge better.”
Clients also are more willing to invest in diagnostics to help identify a problem accurately when one does occur, he notes. It’s a service his practice offered for years, but producers are now taking advantage of.
To help convince clients to invest in additional services, Dr. Hilt held a few producer meetings this year and had many one-on-one conversations by the chute or after a midnight emergency phone call.
“If we know what’s going on in the herd, we know what vaccines to recommend,” he says. “If there’s not a vaccine, we can boost their immune system with minerals. We haven’t eliminated death loss, but we like to think that we’ve helped the producer fine tune what they’ve done in the past.”
Check on nutrition
Strong markets are good times to double-check other areas of the operation, too. For instance, if a producer has been changing the herd’s genetics to select for bigger calves, then the tried-and-true feed ration may not be optimized for the best gain.
Ensuring that cattle have adequate amounts of free-choice minerals is another area that requires labor and time. Recommending quality, consistent nutrition provides the foundation for all other aspects of an animal health plan, Sides says.
“It’s worth the extra time and labor to do it today,” Sides says. “You want cattle to have access to a good quality mineral, especially for cow-calf producers looking at cows during the last trimester of pregnancy.”
Often, traditional cattle marketing requires calves born in February or March, which places the highest nutritional needs of the cow against the period of time with the lowest quality forages. Providing supplemental forage and mineral can help invest in the future performance of both cows and their calves, he notes.
Reap the benefits
Cattle producers who trade with the same source each year are already primed to profit from these practices, Dr. Sibbel notes. When producers profit, it can help change the direction of the veterinary clinic.
“The incentives are arranged so it’s a win-win,” he says. “Cattle supply is down overall. We don’t have as many calves as we used to. I was a practicing veterinarian for a long time so I’m familiar with answering the phone because someone on the other end had a crisis. If we can move into a consulting arrangement where we’re finding out how to do it better, we can help our producers profit.”
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