Making sure calves are bunk broke and water tank broke before they head to the feedyard is one of the best ways to ensure a smoother transition.
Making sure calves are bunk broke and water tank broke before they head to the feedyard is one of the best ways to ensure a smoother transition.

Will there come a day when preconditioning of beef calves becomes the requirement for them to move on through the marketing system to feedlots? Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, Beef Cattle Institute, Kansas State University, believes it could happen. And believes maybe it should.

Preconditioning beef calves is more than just the programs done at a certain age. “When I think about preconditioning, I think about a lot of the issues that we are facing in the beef industry,” Thomson says. “I think about the difference in antibiotic usage between highrisk and low-risk cattle in feedyards. We keep facing issues on animal welfare such as castration, dehorning, pregnant heifers and health issues on a day to day basis. When we take calves and properly prepare them at the ranch for our marketing system and feedyard transfer, we take them from a high health-risk animal to a low health-risk animal at the feedlot which is an animal health and well-being game changer. It should be common sense.”

More secrutiny is being placed on the welfare of beef cattle by animal rights groups, and it behooves the industry to start examining some of its management procedures before forces outside the industry dictate how cattle are raised. “In the beef industry, animal welfare is an issue that we need to talk about, whether it’s guaranteed open heifers going into the feedyards, early castration, disbudding instead of dehorning, and acclimating calves to bunks/water tanks before they go to feedyard,” Thomson explains. “It all goes back to decreasing stress through proper calf management on the ranch and improving animal well-being through improving animal health. These practices will also improve predictability of performance and profitability.”

Thomson believes that all preconditioning programs need to be verified along with a system that identifies and follows each calf through the beef industry to slaughter. “The question is at the end of the day do we have a system that assures the packer and their customers that the animals have gone through the preconditioning program? We used to have preconditioning sales for properly managed calves. Now we are even seeing Beef Quality Assurance/preconditioning sales. In the future, will BQA/preconditioning sales become the norm in the beef industry and the sale of cattle not prepared will be the ones off the beaten track?”

Thomson says we’re seeing more of a transition and more producers are preconditioning as we move forward, and he expects it to continue. “Preconditioning will become the norm, not the exception, 10, 20, 30 years from now when we look at our industry,” he says.

Bunk-breaking is ground zero

Thomson believes one of the best, and probably simplest, things that gets calves off to a good start is being a minimum of 30 days weaned, or more, and broke to the feedbunk and water tank. “Most everyone would say that at least 30 days of an animal being weaned on the premises, broke to a bunk, to a water tank, is what we want to have as far as a minimum number of days on those calves in a preconditioning program.”

Thomson says some programs recommend 45 or 60 days weaning period, which can be even better. “There is a huge difference in calf health at a feedyard in cattle that have been vaccinated and weaned to a bunk for 30 to 45 days than a calf that was only vaccinated without weaning suffering from maternal separation. Those are two different beasts, both animal health and animal production-wise.”

Improving health status

There are numerous preconditioning programs on the market, whether they are affiliated with an animal health company, a university or even a state. Each one has its nuances regarding vaccination, parasite control, weaning and more, but Thomson says they all have good, sound recommendations. “If there’s a point in time in the life of that calf to immunologically prepare the animal for transfer through our market systems and change of address, this is the perfect time. We can vaccinate them initially and then give them a booster vaccination so that it actually does do what we want it to do which is to build immunity before they are exposed to IBR or BVD or other pathogens. Preconditioning programs give the calves the time to get that anemnestic response that will help protect them when commingled or exposed to pathogens at the feedyard.”

Most people would classify “high-risk “ calves as those that have been mismanaged, weaned on the truck, not vaccinated and sent through the sale barn as opposed to “low-risk” calves that have been exposed to some kind of preconditioning program or entering the marketing system as yearlings. “The difference is higher morbidity patterns and a lower price at the time of sale,” Thomson says. “What follows higher expected morbidity is higher expected mortality. I have an issue when we buy a group of high-risk cattle and project 10% death loss with 5% verses projecting a 1% death loss in low-risk cattle entering the feedyard. Although it has a direct impact on the economics of our business, I do not think that death of the animal can be accepted just because we bought them cheaper due to the fact we knew they were mismanaged on the farm of origin and not prepared for marketing system or feedyard entry.”

There is also a wide variation in health with mismanaged calves. Some may never have problems, but the next group might have 50% morbidity. “On average, high-risk calves have higher morbidity than low-risk calves in the feedyard. However, what might be more of an issue is the variation in morbidity patterns in the high-risk cattle making it harder to predict what is going to happen,” Thomson says. “It’s not to say that preconditioned calves can’t get sick and you can’t have disease outbreaks in them, it’s just very highly unlikely compared to the highrisk calves.”

Premium or not, preconditioning pays

A common objection from producers for not implementing preconditioning programs is that they are not always guaranteed a premium for those calves, and they are hesitant to spend money on calves when it’s perceived that only the feedyard will benefit from better calf health. However, Thomson says that veterinarians need to not only educate producers on ways to improve the health and well-being of the cattle after they leave the farm, but also to show them the increase in profitability that can be realized through pre-conditioning.

“There are papers by Dr. Mark Hilton and from Texas A&M’s Vac 45 program that show that if you don’t get a premium every time you precondition and you are getting paid the same amount per pound for a heavier calf, you are making money because you have more pounds to sell than if you didn’t precondition,” Thomson explains. “More pounds equal more money. Veterinarians need to work with their clients to learn ranch calf profitability is not just the price per pound you get at the sale barn, it’s the total price you get per animal minus the cost to prepare the animal.”

Thomson says work done by Hilton and others has shown that over an 11-year period, producers made $30-$115 per head more when they preconditioned calves.

What about the small producers? The average beef herd size in the U.S. is around 40 head. With an 80% conception rate, that means 32 calves to market annually. If 50% are heifers and held back, that may only be 16 going to market. But Thomson says as the number one influencer on your producers’ operations, veterinarians have the opportunity to encourage even their small clients to implement preconditioning programs.

“The veterinarian’s role is education,” Thomson says. “We’ve seen people like Dr. Brad White and Dr. Dan Goehl put together cooperative plans for smaller producers to market calves to make load lots. That’s one option for smaller operations.”

The veterinarian always has in mind what is best for their producers. Most all veterinarians know that preconditioning is the right thing to do for the calves, Thomson says. “They know it’s the right thing to do for the producers and for our industry long term. I think that most veterinarians are on board with it. I look at this as another value add for veterinary practices to be able to go out, look at the nutrition of these calves when we wean them, implement vaccination programs and some of the other production medicine practices.” Veterinarians can also be a resource for programs in the marketplace. It might be something that helps them do a little bit more on the farm and develop new programs for clients.

“Everyone thinks of animal welfare and animal rights and animal abuse and preventing bad situations from happening,” Thomson states. He says animal welfare is not just animal handling and animal abuse prevention. Animal welfare is the combination of animal husbandry, veterinary medicine, environmental studies, ag economics and production management.

“It’s all interrelated for animal health and well-being, and there has never been a bigger animal welfare opportunity for the beef industry than properly managing calves for market transfer. This is something we can all work together on to improve. It gets back to education, market signals and doing what is right for the cattle.”