Preconditioning calves provide financial gains through weight gain

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Preconditioning prepares calves for life in the feedlot, but feedlots don’t pay extra and few producers are willing to do the extra work without financial rewards.

“If we properly prepare animals for the next stage, it is going to be much better for their health, their well being (and) for production,” said Brad White of Kansas State University at the recent international symposium on beef welfare held in Manhattan, Kansas.

Mark Hilton of Elanco recently told the University of Calgary beef cattle conference that more profits for the producer are possible, but extensive records are needed to compare profits over many years.

Hilton worked with an Indiana producer, whose records over 11 years showed extra money earned was based on better gains of preconditioned calves before they left the farm.

“As we add more days to those calves’ gain, our profits tended to go up,” he said.

He found that the preconditioned British-cross calves gained 1.2 pounds per day on the preconditioning program. Most of the profit was derived from added weight.

Profitability varied depending on feed costs, other inputs and current calf prices.

There are no set standards on how to precondition, said White.

However, it has been proven that weaning calves on the ranch before transport to a feedlot results in better health and performance during the subsequent receiving and feeding period compared to calves that were weaned and immediately transported.

“The timing of weaning relative to shipping is important. How long we wean those calves may not be as important,” he said.

Vaccination for diseases like bovine respiratory disease can be helpful to give calves an immune boost before they travel.

However, young animals often get their first dose when they arrive at the feedlot. At that point, the vaccination may not respond well if calves are stressed from weaning and shipping.

“We are asking for an immune response at the same time these calves are facing a disease challenge,” he said. “It is not surprising to me that we don’t see the best response in that area.”

Respiratory disease is the main problem in the feedlots.

The cost of treatment has in-creased but the incidence of disease has not changed.

Some studies show healthy calves that were never treated had a net return of $40 per head but those receiving treatment once netted $30 per head.

As a researcher, White tells producers calves should be weaned 45 days before shipping. Most producers said that was not reasonable, even though animals that are weaned and shipped the same day have higher disease risk.

“Vaccines are not going to take (the disease risk) to zero. They are a tool we can use to help, but unless we can combine them with the correct overall preconditioning program to reduce the baseline morbidity, it is not likely we can come in and just use vaccines to fix it,” he said.

Besides vaccination prior to leaving, the preconditioning period is a time when calves can gain more weight on the farm.

“The vaccines are only one component of our preconditioning program. We have to combine that with appropriate weaning, appropriate nutritional transition.”

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