With an improving cattle market and what appears to be a good market this fall, several cattle producers have weaned or will be about to wean and precondition calves. Most agriculture economists believe weaning and preconditioning your calves will make you money nine out of ten years. The benefits in heavier weights, reduced shrink and a more favorable market for preconditioned calves make this a very viable consideration. If you are considering holding your calves with the possibility of higher prices in mind, let’s discuss a preconditioning program offering more flexibility in marketing your cattle this fall.
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 calves will be trained 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 consideration in a preconditioning program is to accept the fact 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 and no 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; the stronger the pen, the less chance of pulling up and finding your calves are 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 being weaned.
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.
You also need 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.
Finally, 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 consideration after pen selection will be nutrition. Cattle need to be started on a palatable and digestible feed. 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 providing 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 while it may 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 day 30 to day 45 of the preconditioning program. 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 feed cost on a cost-per-pound-of-gain basis. What might be your cheapest feed on a ton-basis might be the most expensive feed on a cost-per-pound-of-gain basis.
From a nutrition standpoint, it is important 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 consideration is a complete health and vaccination program. A complete health program will require cattle 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 keep in mind some of the cattle will get sick to some degree. Producers who precondition calves should look and walk through cattle at least two times daily to find changes in calves showing a sign of possible sickness. If you do have a calf that gets sick, isolate this calf away from the other calves until the calf gets well. Also, remember a sick calf will not eat and a calf not eating will get sick meaning a proper vaccination and feeding program is essential in a successful preconditioning program.
A final consideration is proper record-keeping. 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 your future programs.
I would also encourage you to tag and individually identify each calf. This will allow identification of calves that may be showing sickness and will 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. To do this, you must control sickness and death loss along with selecting a feeding program to 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.
Your local Quality Co-op is standing-by ready with products and knowledge in developing a successful preconditioning program. Each Co-op can provide you with fencing supplies, feeders, vaccines, parasite control products, mineral supplements and high-quality feeds to put you on the right track.