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No silver bullet

I think I can speak for all the “Vet's Opinion” authors in saying that we enjoy feedback on our columns, particularly when a correspondent gives us more to think about. In fact, I was so impressed with Richard Roth's letter to the editor that I thought it deserved some follow-up.

I have practiced in Iowa and Indiana and did my veterinary school externship in Nebraska, so I have no experience in what Rich calls “big country.” This is why in each article I author, I encourage beef producers to build a team to help them improve their herd. This team should include their herd health veterinarian, Extension educator, nutritionist, grazing specialist, etc., and the more local these folks are, the better. The days of the owner saying “I am the expert in all areas” should be dead and gone. My father allowed all these people to help make our own herd and farm better so I learned this at a young age.

Preconditioning: I love this topic because, in most cases, preconditioning makes sense, both economically and from an animal-welfare standpoint. Roth is correct that it doesn't make economic sense for everyone; if you can't add value to your calves (vaccinations, deworming, weaning, implants, etc.) and get paid for it, there's little reason to spend the money.

But, my point is that in most cases you can add value and you can get paid for it. When someone says they didn't make money by preconditioning, the first questions should be: “Do you know all your costs?” and “What did the calves gain during preconditioning?”

Too often, the only “proof” that preconditioning isn't worthwhile is that the calves brought the same price/cwt. as the other calves sold that day. But, not knowing your costs makes knowing the selling price nearly worthless.

If you must buy high-cost feed, it's likely you'll have a tough time making a profit. Ten years of data on an Indiana herd indicate feed costs represent 80% of their cost to precondition. This makes feed cost highly correlated to profit.

When I read articles that suggest backgrounding calves to gain less than 2 lbs./day, I just cringe. In this case, too much of your feed cost is going for maintenance weight and you get paid nothing for this. High health, excellent genetic calves should gain at least 2.5 lbs./day during the preconditioning period, with 3 lbs./day a reasonable goal.

With Roth's ranch size, he may be in a unique position in regard to marketing calves; preconditioning may well be of less benefit to him than to a rancher with a typical Indiana herd of 40 cows. Unweaned and unvaccinated calves from herds of 40 or less cows are what many would call “high risk” calves, which feedlots rightfully discount. I've found that most all of these herds can benefit from preconditioning. And, if you live in an area of the country with by-product feeds available, this really shifts things in your favor.

The writer is spot on when he says the “key takeaway” from my August issue article is to know the health of your calves after they leave your ranch. Many producers don't know this and that's not good for their business. But, the other key takeaway is to critically examine your business and see where you can improve.

I again want to state that I don't have experience as a DVM in the far west so perhaps the writer's statement that “… calves are going to get sick” is correct in his area. But, for me, this is another opportunity for the veterinarian, the nutritionist and the producer to work together to prevent disease. We have many herds with zero sickness each year during preconditioning and that would still be my goal.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical associate professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.