As we continue to enjoy very strong cattle prices, it is very easy to wean our calves at a very light weight and to move them into the marketplace. While I realize it is hard to hold onto light calves that are bringing so much in the market, I would encourage you to consider all options before selling them.
The first question is: Will it be profitable for me to hold my calves to a heavier weight and sell them as preconditioned cattle in the fall? Most agriculture economists believe weaning and preconditioning 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 the 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 that 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 will be trained to eat from a bunk and drink from a trough. To meet these standards, producers must carefully plan their program to eliminate as many potential problems as possible.
The first consideration in a preconditioning program is to accept that it is time consuming and there will be bumps 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. Make sure the pen is well-built and durable to reduce the chance of cattle getting loose. Freshly-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 adequate in size based on the number of cattle. I would recommend a smaller area for the first week until the cattle are 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 quicker. You should also make sure to provide at least 18 inches of bunk space per calf to allow them all to get around the bunk.
Also 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, when selecting a proper weaning location, make sure the area is well-drained and offers plenty of shade. Wet and muddy ground offers a lot of problems during the preconditioning program as well as inadequate shade.
The next consideration is 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 the 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 forage will be very beneficial in keeping your cattle full and reducing any digestive disorders.
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 as cattle gain weight. Research also indicates most of the weight gain during a preconditioning program occurs from day 30 to day 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 point from a nutrition 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 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. They should be vaccinated using standards set by The Beef Quality Assurance Program including location of shots and proper handling of vaccines.
Also be aware that 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 away from the others until it 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.
The 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 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 you to identify calves showing sickness and will allow you to trace poor performing calves back to their sire and dam for potential culling.
While a preconditioning program takes a lot of planning and additional work on your part, 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.
As you make the decision whether to precondition cattle, let me leave you with some thoughts. You invest time and money in your cowherd; therefore, it is advantageous for your cows to put as much weight on your calves as possible. The cow is your greatest investment, but, at the same time, this will be the cheapest gain you can put on your calves as that cow is eating grass and producing milk. Let the cow put the weight on your calves and sell a heavier calf.
I would also encourage you to look at the future market on cattle for the fall. While not 100 percent accurate, it will give a very good indication of what cattle would be expected to bring this fall. With this information, along with expected feed cost, cost per pound of gain and labor cost, you can decide if it’s profitable to hold your calves and sell them at a heavier weight this fall.
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 Co-op is standing by ready with products and knowledge in developing a successful preconditioning program. Each store can provide you with fencing supplies, feeders, vaccines, parasite control products, mineral supplements and high-quality feeds to put you on the right track.
Jimmy Hughes is AFC’s animal nutritionist. He looks forward to hearing from you or visiting with you in the future.