With an unstable cattle market, I have talked with several cattle producers who have or will be about to wean calves. These producers are trying to decide what to do with these calves. Should they sell them now or hold them with the possibility of cattle prices rebounding in the early spring? While I cannot predict what the future holds for cattle prices, I have read several articles and heard several comments from economists who predict brighter days are ahead in the cattle marketplace. It also appears heavier-weight calves are bringing a bigger price when compared to lighter calves than in years past. This means if you can add additional weight to your cattle, it will pay off with more dollars in your pocket.
If you are considering holding your calves with the possibility of higher prices in mind, let’s discuss a preconditioning program that will offer you more flexibility in marketing your cattle this spring. A complete preconditioning program will require the producer to meet certain standards feed yards look for when purchasing such cattle. A properly preconditioned group of calves usually has a lower death rate, less sickness, fewer days on feed and better performance in the feed yard over non-preconditioned calves. A proper preconditioning program will include a complete health and vaccination program, management practices like castration and dehorning, 45-day weaning program, and training to eat from a bunk and drink from a trough. To meet these standards, a producer must carefully plan their program to eliminate as many potential problems as possible.
The first main consideration in a preconditioning program is to accept it is time-consuming and there will be bumps in the road along the way. If you make it through the 45-day period without any sickness or other problems, consider yourself in the minority.
After realizing there will be pitfalls, your next goal will be to have a small area with plenty of shade to wean your calves. You should make sure the pen is well-built and durable to reduce the chance of cattle getting loose. Fresh-weaned calves will put a lot of pressure on a pen and the stronger the pen, the less chance of finding your calves loose and on the run. It is also important to build a pen that is not only durable, but adequate in size based on the number of cattle you will be weaning. I would recommend a smaller area for the first week until you get the cattle comfortable with their surroundings and settled down from the weaning process. A smaller pen will also allow you to keep a closer eye on the cattle initially and will encourage the calves to start on feed in a quicker manner. You should also make sure to provide at least 18 inches of bunk space per calf to allow all calves to get around the bunk.
Another consideration is to provide a clean water source. Do not allow cattle to drink from a pond or creek, but provide them with a water trough so they can learn to drink from such. Producers would be surprised to learn calves that have been drinking from ponds and creeks have a very difficult time learning to drink from a trough.
A final consideration in selecting a proper weaning location is to make sure the area is well-drained and offers plenty of shade. Wet, muddy areas offer a lot of problems during the preconditioning program as well as inadequate shade.
The second main consideration after pen selection will be nutrition. Cattle need to be started on a feed that is palatable and digestible. It does not matter how good you think your feed is or how cheap your feed cost,. If the calf will not eat it, it will not work. Start the calves on a complete feed that provides protein, energy, minerals, vitamins, digestible fiber and is medicated to help reduce any initial respiratory sickness. Feed at the rate of five pounds per head per day along with a high quality forage source. This high-quality forage will be very beneficial in keeping your cattle full and reducing any digestive disorders during the preconditioning period.
I would also encourage you to consider a low-moisture molasses tub like STIMU-LYX® during the initial weaning period. These blocks are very palatable and calves will normally lick these blocks on the first day they are weaned which is beneficial since it might take a couple of days before they readily consume feed.
After your cattle are consuming feed, prepare to feed them at a rate of two percent of their body weight on a daily basis. Keep in mind, you will increase the pounds of feed offered to cattle as cattle gain weight during the preconditioning program. Research also indicates most of the weight gain during a preconditioning program occurs from days 30 to 45.
The biggest key to a successful nutrition program is providing a feed that is palatable, nutritionally fortified and readily accepted by the calf. Again, if a calf will not eat the feed, then it will not help you. I would also encourage you to keep up with your feed cost on a cost per pound of gain basis. What might be your cheapest feed on a ton basis might be your most expensive feed on a cost per pound of gain basis.
A final consideration from a nutritional standpoint is to always provide a complete mineral and vitamin supplement at all times. A good mineral/vitamin supplement will reduce sickness, encourage feed intake and help prevent dehydration if a calf does get sick.
The third main consideration is a complete health and vaccination program. A complete health program will require cattle to be vaccinated and boostered for blackleg (7 way), IBR, PI3, BRSV and once for Pasteurella. Cattle should also be treated for internal and external parasites. Cattle should be vaccinated using standards set forth through The Beef Quality Assurance Program including location of shots and proper handling of vaccines. Also, some of your cattle will get sick to some degree. Producers who precondition calves should look and walk through cattle at least twice daily to find changes in calves showing any signs of possible sickness. If you do have a sick calf, isolate it from the other calves until it gets well. Remember, a sick calf will not eat and a calf that will not eat will get sick, meaning a proper vaccination and feeding program is essential in a successful preconditioning program.
A final consideration is proper recordkeeping. To determine the success of a preconditioning program, a producer must keep detailed records on cost, performance and problems. At the end of the program, detailed records will let you evaluate the success of your program and will offer a way to make changes to improve future programs. I would also encourage you to tag and individually identify each calf. This will allow you to identify calves that may be showing sickness and allow you to trace poor performing calves back to their sire and dam for potential culling from your herd.
While a preconditioning program takes a lot of planning and additional work on the part of the producer, it can be financially rewarding for you. On average, preconditioning calves is profitable nine out of ten years. To do this, you must control sickness and death loss along with selecting a feeding program that will put weight on your calves at the lowest cost per pound of gain. While I believe there will always be a place for stockyards, I also realize the cattle industry is evolving and your greatest potential for profit is to provide what the market wants. The market wants cattle that are healthy, ready to eat and source-verified, and they are willing to pay additional money for these calves.
As we celebrate the holiday season, I wish you and your family a merry Christmas and a prosperous new year.
Jimmy Hughes is AFC’s animal nutritionist.