I’ve written many articles on preconditioning (PC) over the years, but few generated the response of my May BEEF column, in which some readers challenged my contention that everyone should wean calves before selling them. The common complaint was that it’s next to impossible to precondition calves on large, extensive ranching operations.
I listened to their arguments, did some research and asked veterinarians who work with large ranches to help me become more informed.
Was I too bold in my May BEEF column by implying that everyone can wean calves before selling? In a word, yes. While I received responses from DVMs with Western clients who operate on extensive acreages with no feed or facilities to wean calves, the good news is, I received many more responses from DVMs whose clients make PC (including weaning) work for them.
Here’s what I learned:
• Every DVM responding to my request for help said health and vaccinations are the easy part. Nearly all their top herds vaccinated for bovine respiratory disease in one of the following ways: branding and weaning, three weeks prewean and weaning, or weaning and three weeks postweaning. Treating for parasites and providing coccidia control are also musts.
• Nutrition is among the biggest obstacles. Some herds brought pairs to a meadow preweaning, then moved the cows and left the calves on this high-quality forage. Others fed cake to pairs preweaning, so the calves would acclimate to eating feed. Weaning rations can range from high-quality grass to a complete ration, or something in between. The system, however, must be adapted to the ranch.
DVMs said the key is to have a positive energy balance postweaning. The calf needs calories for a properly functioning immune system to respond to the vaccine and to fight off pathogens.
• A variety of weaning options surfaced. The “quiet wean” method of placing an antinurse device for 5-6 days was used by some, while fenceline weaning with a strong fence was advocated by others. One DVM said some ranches’ only option was leaving calves on high-quality grass, while moving cows miles away to lower-quality pasture.
• Facilities are another challenge on many ranches. Justifying the cost of a set of facilities, feed bunks, etc., for only 45 days is a legitimate question. However, one DVM cites a client who — using enterprise analysis — learned he tripled the profit on his calves with a 45-day PC program, vs. selling the calves off the cow.
In addition, some producers rent neighboring facilities. Sharing facilities between ranches with different weaning times is another option. And if calves go to high-quality grass, this allows a minimal investment in equipment.
• A marketing plan is critical for PC success. It’s important to call the auction market before you deliver calves in order to receive the calves’ full value. Selling at special PC sales also is highly desirable, as are video auctions or selling direct to the feedlot. As your preconditioned calves gain a positive reputation, the price should improve.
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One DVM reports that his clients follow a popular PC program, with calves tagged appropriately. If his clinic does the work, he will apply an additional PC tag with the clinic’s name and telephone number. He reports excellent success with this program. Also, third-party verification can add additional value.
Numerous respondents said PC’s greatest value is in retaining ownership of the calves to the feedlot. In fact, CattleFax reports that retained ownership pays in most years, particularly if your calves’ health and genetics are better than average.
Sometimes it’s logistically very difficult to wean calves for 45 days or more before selling. But we do need to work to make this the exception rather than the rule in order for cow-calf producers to receive full value for their calves.
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W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.
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