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Preconditioning calves - is it right for you?

This year has definitely been a rollercoaster year to test the highs and lows in the feeder cattle market, which has led to some uncertainty about when to sell calves.  If you normally sell calves right off the cows in the fall, it’s not too late to consider a preconditioning program for your 2015 calves and the benefits it has to offer.

The term preconditioning refers to a program that prepares young cattle to enter the feed yard.  The University of Arkansas states that preconditioning programs are implemented around weaning time and are designed to enhance the immune system function while minimizing stress in calves, and therefore increasing the overall value of weaned calves.  So if it increases a calf’s overall value, then why doesn’t everyone do it?  Because preconditioning requires additional labor, management, and expense that must be absorbed by the cow-calf producer; therefore, they should have a good idea of their overall costs to determine if this is a viable option.

There are benefits for both the seller and buyer.  Sellers will receive a price premium and also have more weight to sell.  Buyers will reduce sickness, weight loss, and death loss from stressed calves, calves will have overall increased performance, which will result in higher quality carcasses. 

To make preconditioning successful, overall stress on calves needs to be minimized as much as possible.  This can be done through several different practices, the most common being:

Weaning – Calves should be weaned at least 45 days prior to sale.  Whatever weaning technique the producer chooses to use should focus on minimizing calf stress.  Examples include fence-line weaning, where cows and calves are separated by a fence but can still hear, see, and smell each other, and preferably have nose-to-nose contact, or two-stage weaning that uses a device such as anti-suckling nose-tags.  Being transported to a new environment without mom is incredibly stressful on newly weaned calves; move the cows rather than the calves if possible, so that they may stay in a setting they are comfortable and familiar with.

Vaccination Program – Consult your veterinarian to insure that you are properly following an approved vaccination program.  Research proves that vaccinated calves have a reduced incidence of health problems post-weaning and buyers are willing to pay premiums for preconditioned calves that have been vaccinated.  Buyers understand that the cost the producer has invested will eventually be offset by healthier animals, decreased labor requirements, and overall improved performance and carcass quality.  Ideally calves would be vaccinated two to four weeks prior to weaning, and again a few weeks after weaning (rather than the same time as weaning) to reduce overall stress.  Calves should also be given a deworming product to treat internal and external parasites.  Waiting to castrate and/or dehorn calves for several weeks following weaning will help reduce the risk of infection and overall stress on the animal, but allow enough time prior to shipping for proper healing.

Feeding – Feed costs typically account for the majority of the overall costs in a preconditioning program, so it is important to make sure that calf weight gains are maximized to recover these costs.  It is important that calves find the feed bunk and water as soon as possible after weaning to get them started on feed and “bunk broke”.  Freshly weaned calves should have access to plenty of good quality grass hay and initially a lower starch diet so as to not upset their digestive system.  Provide plenty of bunk space (18-24 linear inches per head) to prevent overcrowding, and make sure that clean, fresh water is available at all times.  Calves may drink faster if they can hear the water, so setting up a temporary drip system may be helpful.  Positioning bunks perpendicular to the fence line will help calves find the bunk as they pace the fence.

In short, preconditioned calves should be healthy, bunk broke and know where to find water, dehorned and/or castrated, and ready to start gaining upon arrival to the buyer.  Although the cost-effectiveness will vary as the market fluctuates and input costs change, the potential benefits to the cattle buyer and the calf will always be there.

Any use of this article must include the byline or following credit line:  Melissa Runck is an extension educator-ag production systems with University of Minnesota Extension in Murray and Pipestone Counties.

Source: Melissa Runck, U of M Extension, (507) 836-1143,

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