Thinking About Weaning and Preconditioning Calves to Add Value? Know the “Lingo”

– Dr. Michelle Arnold, UK Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory

Traditionally, many KY beef producers with winter/spring born feeder calves market through Special Graded Feeder Calf Sales held in the fall. At these sales, feeder cattle are graded according to the USDA Feeder Cattle Grading Standards, are weighed and sorted into groups (load lots of 48,000-50,000 lbs) and are then sold. Buyers take advantage of these sales to buy larger groups of feeder cattle with similar traits. Most of these calves are weaned “on the truck” on the way to the sale, unvaccinated, and the bull calves are still bulls. With this marketing strategy, producers who work to improve genetics or have an effective herd health program do not earn premiums for their extra effort because calves are sold based on the average weight and grade of the group.

Preconditioning of feeder cattle has been recognized by industry experts as a way for cow-calf operators to add value to their annual calf crops. Most preconditioning programs specify two rounds of viral and Clostridial vaccinations, a Mannheimia haemolytica toxoid, deworming, castration of bull calves and healed, heifers guaranteed not pregnant, and a minimum of 45 days weaned. Some require producers to use one pharmaceutical company’s products. In addition, weaned calves are usually expected to know how to eat from a feed bunk and drink from a fountain or tank. Buyers prefer weaned calves that have been properly fed and vaccinated compared to similar non-vaccinated and non-weaned calves, which can translate to price premiums of $10 to $15 per cwt depending on the market that day. However, to capture this added value, this information must be communicated to the potential buyers prior to the sale.

When reading through the list of requirements for a preconditioning program, it is obvious that few of those words are used by the auctioneer to describe the health program. Instead, the industry has developed its own vocabulary to describe calves very quickly prior to the sale. The following list is meant to bridge the communication gap between industry and health program requirements. The examples listed are in no order and are not to be considered as endorsements by the University of Kentucky. (“BI” stands for Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health)

1. “Two Rounds Viral Vaccines”

a. “First round while on the cow or at weaning, can be killed or live (if live used while on the cows, the cows must have been on a live virus vaccination program to avoid risk of abortion)”

Explanation: The first round of a “viral vaccine” contains the respiratory viruses (IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSV) in either a killed or modified live (MLV) preparation and may be given 2-3 weeks prior to weaning (best) or after the stress of weaning is over. Only use modified live vaccines in calves nursing pregnant cows if the cows were vaccinated with MLV within the last 12 months because of the risk of abortion (check vaccine label for specific requirements). If this requirement is not met, a killed vaccine must be used until the calf is weaned. Examples: Killed-Triangle 5 (BI), CattleMaster Gold FP 5 (Zoetis), Virashield 6 (Elanco) MLV-Vista 5 (Merck), Bovi-shield Gold 5 (Zoetis), Pyramid 5 (BI)

b. “Second Round must be a live product”

Explanation: The second virus vaccine again contains the respiratory viruses (IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSV) and is almost always required to be a modified live vaccine (although it is referred to as “live”). Modified Live Vaccines (MLV) provide fast, broad immunity, are excellent stimulators of cell-mediated immunity, and have a long duration of action.

2. “Two Rounds of Blackleg”

Explanation: These are the 7 or 8-way Clostridial vaccine products. Most require a two-shot series, administered 2-3 weeks apart for protection. Examples: Vision 7 (Merck), Ultrabac (Zoetis), Bar-Vac 7 (BI)

3. “A ‘Pasteurella’ shot – calves must get at least one round”

Explanation: This is a Mannheimia haemolytica toxoid. This vaccine, commonly known as a “Pasteurella shot” or “Pneumonia shot”, is given to stimulate immunity against the leukotoxin (a white blood cell killer) produced by the bacteria to protect itself from the immune response. Some of these products also contain a Pasteurella multocida bacterial extract. Examples: One Shot (Zoetis), PresponseHM (BI), OncePMH (Merck)

Another option is to use a “Live Product with Pasteurella” as either the first or second round of viral vaccine.

Explanation: A Mannheimia haemolytica toxoid and MLV Respiratory Virus Vaccine Combination product such as Pyramid 5 + Presponse (BI), Vista Once (Merck), or Bovi-Shield Gold One Shot (Zoetis) can be given to meet the “Pasteurella” requirement and one viral vaccine dose with one injection.

4. “Deworming-must include product and date”

Explanation: Deworming with an endectocide (examples: Ivomec (BI), Dectomax (Zoetis), Eprinex (BI), Cydectin (Bayer), LongRange (BI)) will control internal and external parasites, usually 30 days or longer (LongRange is an extended duration product of 120+ days). A drench anthelmintic or ‘white dewormer’ is given by mouth and has a short duration but very effective clean-out of internal parasites. Examples include Safeguard (Merck), Synanthic (BI) or Valbazen (Zoetis). A second product is often required for external parasite (lice/flies/ticks) control.

5. “Steers-Knife cut, banded (at birth or at weaning) or Clamped”

Explanation: Castration method may be either surgical (knife-cut) where the scrotum is opened and the testicles removed; non-surgical banding with an elastrator rubber band placed around the scrotum and above the testicles; or clamped with a Burdizzo Clamp to crush the testicular cords. No matter which method is used, the steer should be completely healed by sale day.

6. “Heifers Guaranteed Open”

Explanation: If heifers have been allowed to stay with the herd bull until weaning, most likely some are pregnant. A prostaglandin injection (for example: Lutalyse®) can be given to the heifers once they have been away from the bull a minimum of 10 days. These injections work best in early pregnancy so do not delay administration if needed. Often “guaranteed open” means pregnancy checked by a veterinarian by rectal palpation or “sleeved by a vet”.

7. “Weaned”

Explanation: For home-raised calves, this usually means at least 45 days prior to delivery.

In addition to preconditioning programs, calves can also be pooled in “value-added” programs according to further criteria for a marketing advantage. Most programs issue a visual ear tag for buyers to recognize participating calves. Some producers may choose to market their cattle in programs requiring source and age verification such as CPH45. To be eligible for the program, producers must be Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) certified, have a registered premise identification, and must be able to provide birth dates for source and process verification. Calves must be managed under BQA protocol, be tagged with official EID tags, and follow a prescribed health and preconditioning program. Other available programs often include restrictions on use of growth promoting implants, treatment with antibiotics (feed grade or injectable), and have not been fed any animal derived protein. These more restrictive programs such as GAP, NHTC, Verified Grass-Fed, Organic Certified and BeefCare, require a third-party onsite audit and the seller must be approved prior to offering the cattle for sale. For example, producers marketing “All Natural” cattle as Global Animal Partnership (GAP) certified must have specific documentation to verify the “All Natural” claim. “NHTC” cattle are non-hormone treated cattle (no implants) and are eligible to be exported to the European Union. The NHTC program is a USDA approved, third-party audit that verifies the source, age and non-hormone treated status of calves prior to the cattle being sold. NHTC cattle must be sold to an approved NHTC location and the buyer must also be NHTC approved to retain their NHTC approval status. Alternatively, there is Performance Advantage Certification, or PA, for producers with an emphasis on genetics. This certification is reserved for cattle A) sired by bulls that have successfully completed a recognized Performance Test Program or B) that have Yearling Weight (YW) and Weaning Weight (WW) EPDs ranking in the upper 50 percentile as published by the breed association for sire’s birth year.

In summary, adding value through preconditioning and other practices can only recapture the extra investment in time and money if the buyers know what was done to the calves prior to arrival at the sale. Health programs are desired because they substantially reduce the risk of disease and death at the next production level but they are not a guarantee of perfect health. In addition, very restrictive value-added programs have difficulty enrolling enough calves similar in frame and weight to create uniform loads. However, knowing the language used by the industry will help producers understand what practices are considered most important for buyers at the yards.