|Weaning and Pre-Conditioning Calves Will Make Money|
With an improving cattle market and what appears will be a good market this fall, several cattle producers have or will be about to wean and precondition calves. Most agriculture economists believe weaning and preconditioning calves will make money 9 out of 10 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 your 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 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 a producer must carefully plan their program to eliminate as many potential problems as possible.
The first consideration is to accept it is time consuming and there will be difficulties. If you make it through the 45-day period without any sickness and no other problems, consider yourself in the minority. Your next goal will be to have a small area with plenty of shade to wean your calves. The pen should be well-built and durable to reduce the chance of cattle getting loose. Fresh-weaned calves will put a lot of pressure on a pen and the stronger the pen the less chance of escape. It is also important the pen is not only durable, but adequate in size based on the number of calves. 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 them initially and will encourage the calves to start on feed in a quicker manner. You should also make sure to provide at least 18 inches of bunk space per calf to allow all calves to get around the bunk.
Another must is to provide a clean water source. Do not allow cattle to drink from a pond or creek, but provide them with water troughs 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.
You must also select a proper weaning location; making sure the area is well-drained and offers plenty of shade. Wet, muddy ground offers a lot of problems during the preconditioning program as well as inadequate shade.
The second consideration after pen selection will be nutrition. Cattle need to be started on a palatable and digestible feed. It does not matter how good you think the feed is or how cheap the feed 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 high-quality 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 2 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 occurs from day 30 to day 45 of the preconditioning program. The biggest key to a successful nutrition program is providing a feed that is palatable, nutritionally-fortified and readily-accepted by the calf.
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 consideration from a nutrition standpoint is to always provide a complete mineral and vitamin supplement at all times. It 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 to 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 forth through the Beef Quality Assurance program including location of shots and proper handling of vaccines. Also keep in mind 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 from the other calves until the calf gets well. 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 your success and will offer a way to make changes to improve your future programs.
I would encourage you to tag and individually identify each calf. This will allow identification if a calf becomes sick 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 the part of the producer, 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.
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.
Jimmy Hughes is AFC’s animal nutritionist. He looks forward to hearing from you or visiting with you in the future.