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Buying preconditioned calves is a feedlot’s ticket to profitability

Jerry Woodruff for Progressive Cattleman Published on 22 September 2017
Preconditioned calves

Even in times of such uncertainty and a volatile cattle market, revenue generated from value-added programs, which include a sound vaccination and preconditioning plan, certainly exceed their costs.

Cattle with a logical, well-planned vaccination protocol can handle stress conditions much better than calves that are weaned, separated from their mothers, loaded on trucks and hauled to a sale barn, stocker operation or feedlot.

Well-planned preconditioning programs help build a solid foundation for the future performance of a calf destined to enter a feedlot.

Proper preconditioning programs should involve quality forage and/or supplemental feed and nutrients, castration, dehorning, weaning, constant access to clean, fresh water and introducing cattle to the feedbunk.

It should also include a vaccination program that protects calves against respiratory, digestive and other disease challenges, and an anthelmintic program designed to control the types of internal and external parasites that may compromise the calf’s health status and ability to convert feed to gain efficiently.

All of these things prepare calves for the challenges they’re about to face and give buyers confidence in their purchase as they’re bringing new animals to the feedlot.

Shipping stressors

Shipping is a high-stress time for cattle. Stress contributes to immunosuppression, leaving animals more susceptible to developing disease. In addition to transporting, commingling with animals from other sources in unfamiliar surroundings also adds to the animal’s stress.

Cattle brought together from multiple sources are likely to bring in several different strains of respiratory disease pathogens – increasing the risk of disease.

Because preconditioned cattle have received multiple rounds of vaccines, they’re less susceptible to becoming infected with pathogens and can have a more rapid immune response to the various pathogens that cause bovine respiratory disease (BRD), commonly referred to as shipping fever.

BRD is the most costly feedlot disease in the U.S. and accounts for annual feedlot losses of $1 billion due to loss of production, increased labor expenses, pharmaceutical costs and death. The highest incidence of BRD occurs shortly after arrival to the feedlot through the first 45 days.

Once they’re off the trailer

Preconditioned cattle will have fewer out-of-the-ordinary things in their new environment to cope with than freshly weaned calves upon arriving at the feedlot. They’ll be able to adapt in a much more manageable fashion because they’ll be accustomed to eating prepared feed out of a bunk, drinking water from a tank and being surrounded by other animals in a more confined space.

At arrival, they’ll also have a better immune status to diseases like BRD and will suffer less immunosuppression than a non-preconditioned calf.

Research continues to show that calves preconditioned for 45 days or longer have lower morbidity and mortality rates once they enter the feedlot, as well as lower medicine cost, improved feed efficiency and a greater average daily gain.

To help calves succeed once they enter the feedlot, it’s important to provide comfortable, clean pens with adequate space and ventilation. Providing bedding in pens during inclement weather conditions can add comfort and reduce stress. Nutrition is also key.

Provide your new animals with a palatable mixed ration that has been professionally formulated for proper protein, energy, vitamin and trace mineral inclusion based on the size and age of animal.

Providing fresh grass hay for the first few days will help entice new arrivals to the feedbunk. It’s also important to pay attention to cattle-handling techniques to keep cattle calm and as stress-free as possible.

Monitoring for BRD during this time is crucial too, as 91 percent of calves diagnosed with BRD are diagnosed within the first 27 days after arrival. Classifying arriving cattle based on disease risk groups can be helpful in managing expectations – high-risk cattle will require greater observation and care than low-risk groups.

Preconditioned calves that have received at least two rounds of respiratory disease vaccines, came from a single source with low transportation stress, are castrated, dehorned and are bunk broke can be classified as low-risk.

High-risk calves, often times, are freshly weaned, have had no or minimal pre-arrival vaccinations and have not been introduced to feed. These calves are under a significant amount of stress, so there’s a greater chance they’ll become ill.

A preconditioning vaccination program allows the animal’s system to be better prepared immunologically to fight off some of those challenging respiratory pathogens from an immune standpoint, rather than getting the infection and having to treat later with an antibiotic.

Choosing calves that have an immune system better prepared to fight off infectious diseases and prevent the animal from getting sick in the first place, or at least reducing the incidence of that type of disease, will result in less use of antimicrobial therapy in the future.

This is good for the calf, the owner, the buyer of the calf and the industry because antibiotic therapy is relatively expensive compared to vaccinations. It’s also beneficial to consumers because it can ease some of their fears about excessive use of antimicrobial therapies.

While you may have to pay a little more at the time of purchase, a well-managed, preconditioned calf will have less health risk, lower treatment costs, less labor invested and much better likelihood of achieving its genetic potential for performance. It’s true when they say, “You get what you pay for.”  end mark

PHOTO: Preconditioned calves have a better chance of success in the next stage of production. Photo provided by Jerry Woodruff.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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