Does it pay to pre-condition calves?

Producers must determine if the price premiums cover the cost of antibiotics, labour and improved rations

Producers often question the value of preconditioning calves because there is no guarantee they will be paid more if they do.

However, while there may be no financial rewards, the calves may do better once they reach a finishing feedlot, said an Alberta veterinarian.

“Preconditioning is basically anything you can do to a weaned calf so it shrinks less and it doesn’t get pneumonia and die at the feedlot,” said veterinarian Cody Creelman during a Sept. 28 webinar sponsored by the Beef Cattle Re-search Council.

Within a few days of arrival at a feedlot, calves can come down with shipping fever pneumonia. These require extra care and treatment with antibiotics.

A single case of bovine respiratory disease causes an animal to gain .8 pounds per day less than its pen mates, on average.

Poor weight gain as well as the cost of antibiotics and labour to treat a sick animal can add up to $100 to $175 per head loss, he said.

Preconditioning may include the full spectrum of immunizations and improved nutrition. It is more work for the producer, but calves are likely to better withstand the stress of transportation and their new lives in a feedlot, where they are exposed to new diseases and compete for feed and water at the trough.

Studies show only nine percent of cow-calf producers in Western Canada precondition calves, said researcher Brenna Grant with Canfax.

Producers might consider it when they have extra feed or when cattle prices are low. When prices are lower, producers may keep the calves longer to put on extra weight and then sell them when the market recovers.

“Right now when prices are at their highest level we have seen in a really long time, there is actually an opportunity for producers. The cost of death loss at the feedlot is at one of the highest levels we have ever seen and therefore there is potential of premiums becoming available because it is more profitable for a feedlot to pay that premium and have a calf that is going to survive,” she said.

The research council offers an online calculator to evaluate prices, gains and preconditioning costs for a given number of days.

Depending on prices, in some years there is not enough money in the marketplace to make it worthwhile.

As feedlot pens fill in the fall, calf prices slide and demand softens. Last year, producers could add extra pounds and still reap the benefits of higher bids.

“2014 was the ideal year for preconditioning but that is not necessarily going to be the case moving forward. Right now in 2015 we are looking at a more seasonal year,” Grant said.

Premiums for preconditioning in the U.S. more than doubled from 2014-15 but there are stricter specifications as to what was done at home.

Canada does not have a history of paying more for preconditioned cattle.

Preconditioning is anything from a single vaccination to a comprehensive herd health program focusing on vaccination, nutrition and the best management possible, said Creelman.

Typically when recently weaned calves arrive at the feedlot, they are likely to receive antibiotics, vaccines and parasite treatments, which costs $25-$30 per head.

“They have to do everything possible to get calves immunized and get them on antibiotics because they do not know that history and things can go bad,” he said.

As a bovine veterinarian, he sees the benefits in terms of animal welfare and knows the costs.

Preconditioning does the following:

  • It decreases BRD animals pulled for treatment.
  • It decreases deaths.
  • It reduces days on feed.
  • It increases average daily weight gain.
  • It improves feed to gain ratio.
  • It decreases the use of antibiotics.
  • It improves marbling and quality grade.
  • It increases hot carcass weight.
  • It reduces shrink.
  • It increases animal welfare.

The system begins on the farm with producers vaccinating their herd.

“Everything starts with that fetus, so make sure the cows are up to date with their vaccines,” Creelman said.

Calves should be vaccinated sometime between six and eight weeks of age and three weeks pre weaning against bovine viral disease, Haemophilus influenza, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR, mannheimia, histophilus, pasteurella and clostridial diseases.

If the calves are retained post weaning for 45 to 60 days, repeat vaccines boost their immunity.

On the nutrition side, calves need a transition time with high quality feed. They also need to learn to eat and drink from troughs.

With a balanced diet that includes minerals and salt, some calves at post weaning can gain about three pounds per day at home.

Calves should be properly de-horned and castrated.

Consider low stress weaning methods. Too much stress affects the immune system and calves can get sick. In addition, producers can keep track of their cattle to see how they performed. A good relationship with a feedlot that is willing to share information about calf health and growth is helpful.

Carcass data is available so producers can compare results and decide whether preconditioning was worthwhile.

“You have to make sure you are going to get more money out of this if you are going to do it. That price premium does not always equal more money,” he said.

Each operation is different and Creelman advises producers to study input costs and figure out which system works best for them.

When selling calves, veterinarians can provide certificates to indicate what products were used and which practices were carried out on the ranch.

Creelman can be followed at: @vetpracticevahs.

The preconditioning calculator is available through:

About the author



Stories from our other publications