Don’t Stop Managing Now: Preconditioning Pays

Garth Ruff, Extension Educator OSU Extension Henry County (originally published in the Ohio Farmer)

As we approach fall, now is the time to maximize the value of your spring calf crop. Cattle buyers have placed a premium on preconditioned cattle, and as preconditioning becomes more of the norm across the U.S., unweaned, uncastrated, and unvaccinated cattle are receiving greater discounts.

Here in the Eastern Cornbelt where cow herds tend to be smaller, the number one barrier to preconditioning calves is often a lack of facilities to wean, vaccinate, and to feed calves. Even for smaller herds the cost of workable facilities can prove to be a sound investment with the increase in value of a calf crop

Here we will look at the different processes involved in preconditioning calves and the potential for increased revenue from each practice.

Weaning. Across the industry, a standard for many preconditioning programs is to have calves weaned for at least 45 days. CattleFax in their May, 2020 Cow-Calf webinar reported that calves weaned over 45 days had an average value of $898 than calves that were sold right off of the cow at $800. That said, calves that were “trailer weaned” had an average increased value of $46 dollars per head than calves short weaned at 28 days or less. Weaning is a stressful event and those short weaned calves have yet to recover from that stress and are often immunocompromised. The net gain of 45+ day wean vs. unweaned calves equals $98/head.

Started on Feed. Having calves started on feed has a threefold benefit at the time of sale. The first of which is that they are already used to eating out of a feed bunk. Believe it or not cattle have to be trained on how to eat out of a bunk, as they come out of pasture and are weaned. A second benefit to having calves started on grain is that they switch to a higher energy diet mitigates some of the stress and acidosis risk upon first entering the feed yard. Another benefit of having calves started on feed is the additional weight gained at the time of sale.

Starting cattle on a higher energy diet does have an increased feed cost. The key to starting cattle on feed, is to not have cattle over conditioned in the fall. Over conditioned feeder cattle are more likely to be discounted at auction, than cattle are of appropriate condition for their age.

Castration. This is one management piece that some smaller producers make struggle with due to the lack of facilities or a lack of experience in performing castration. Producers can either use elastrator bands or surgical castration using a knife.

In a commercial cow-calf setting castrating calves earlier is typically better. Younger calves are easier constrain and seem to experience less stress. For producers who prefer to castrate groups of cattle, running all bull calves through a chute a less than three months of age is acceptable. As a rule of thumb during a hot summer day is not a good time to castrate calves due to fly problems and potential infection. Looking at return on investment, over an 8-year period in Kentucky (2010-2017) 550 lb. steers outsold bull calves by an average of $11 per cwt for a net gain of $60/head

Vaccination Program. Vaccinating feeder calves is something we have been discussing in Extension for my entire career, and more so with the concerns regarding antibiotic use. Similar to castration having workable handling facilities, makes this task much more palatable. In the same CattleFax survey previously referenced, cattlemen indicated that by vaccinating at least twice, cattle averaged $869 per head compared to $784 and $699 for calves that had a single round of vaccine, and unvaccinated calves respectively. For an effective vaccination program, a common recommendation is two rounds of modified live vaccine. Work with your veterinarian to develop a vaccination protocol. Weaning claves at least 45 days prior to sale, creates a window of opportunity to complete two rounds of vaccinations and nets $170/head compared to unvaccinated cattle.

Summary. A calf that has been weaned for 45 days, castrated (if a male), bunk broke with having received two rounds of modified live vaccine, should be towards the top of the market report, providing they are the right type and kind. That said, if a producer does all or just one of those practices, the next step is to market those practices to potential buyers. If selling at auction, be sure to inform the auction market of what all the cattle have had vaccination wise, how long they have been weaned and how much feed they have been receiving.

By preconditioning calves, increased revenue and profit potential can be realized. If facilities are a limiting factor consider investing some of this year’s calf receipts into improving you abilities to sell higher value feeder calves.


Aherin, Tanner. CattleFax Trends and Cow Calf Webinar. May, 20 2020. CattleFax. Centennial Colorado.

Burdine, Kenneth. The Value of Selling Steer Calves vs Bull Calves. March 30, 2018. Published by Drover’s Online. Lenexa, KS.

EDITOR’s NOTE: Preconditioning pays . . . in fact, during his presentation at the 2020 Ohio Beef Cattle Nutrition and Management School, Garth Ruff, OSU Extension Educator in Henry County, described how completing a relatively simple 45 day calf preconditioning and value added program can result in several additional dollars per hundred weight of each calf. Here, in two minutes, is what Garth had to say then . . .