With a fluctuating cattle market, I have talked with several cattle producers who have weaned or are 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 that cattle prices will rebound 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 believe the cattle market will settle down when we are able to get a handle on grain prices.
The hardest part of the cattle business is being at the mercy of others when it comes to feed prices and what we are able to receive for our cattle. 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 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 lower death rates, 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, a 45-day weaning program, and cattle trained to eat from a bunk and drink from a water tank. To meet these standards, a producer must carefully plan his program to eliminate as many potential problems as possible.
You first must accept a preconditioning program 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 first consideration will be to have a small area with plenty of shade to wean your calves and shelter to keep them in the dry during the wet winter and early spring.
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 you 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 the cattle get 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 calves initially and will encourage them 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 must 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.
Finally, in selecting a proper weaning location, make sure the area is well drained. Wet, muddy paddocks offer a lot of problems during the preconditioning program and will decrease feed efficiency on your cattle.
The second consideration 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 little the 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 being weaned while they may take a couple of days before readily consuming feed.
Alabama Farmers Cooperative worked closely with CPC Cattle Company in Fountain Run, KY, in developing a calf growing program known as AFC Star Grow Program. This program is designed to get cattle started on feed and grow them in a way profitable for producers who utilize the feeding program.
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 they gain weight during the preconditioning program. Research also indicates most of the weight gain during a preconditioning program occurs from day 30 to 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 the feed cost on a cost-per-pound-of-gain basis. What might be the cheapest feed on a ton basis could be the most expensive feed on a cost-per-pound-of-gain basis.
Lastly, from a nutritional standpoint, 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 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, 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 that could show 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 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 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 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 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 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. He looks forward to hearing from you or visiting with you in the future.