Preconditioning – Why it pays

– Kirsten Nickles, Graduate Research Associate and Anthony J. Parker, Associate Chair and Associate Professor. Department of Animal Sciences, Ohio State University (also published in Ohio Farmer on-line)

Our most commonly used weaning method may not be in the best interests of the seller, the buyer, or ultimately the consumer!

There are many preconditioning programs available for producers to choose from to increase calf market value. It is important, however, to think about what program works best for your operation and the reasons why these programs can add value to your calves. If the reasons behind certain preconditioning program guidelines are not understood, it is possible that you will be missing out on adding value to your calves.

The most common weaning method in the U.S. beef industry is abruptly weaning calves from their dams (Enriquez et al., 2011). This abrupt separation is commonly combined with vaccination, castration, transportation, and co-mingling with other groups of calves at the sale barn and/or at the feed yard. This multitude of stressors placed on calves causes morbidity and mortality from the bovine respiratory disease complex, which continues to be the most significant health problem facing the U.S. beef industry (Duff and Galyean, 2005). Bovine respiratory disease not only increases expenses to the feeder through treatment and labor costs, but it decreases growth and efficiency and has been shown to negatively affect marbling score, quality grade, and hot carcass weight (Montgomery et al., 1984; Roeber et al., 2001; Fulton et al., 2002). Therefore, preconditioning programs have been developed to better prepare calves for the next phase of production after weaning and decrease the chances that newly received calves will become sick. The question is – how do they work?

There are many variations of preconditioning programs to choose from, however, most of them have the same general specifications that calves must be weaned, castrated, vaccinated (clostridial and viral vaccines – i.e. infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, parainfluenza 3, bovine viral diarrhea virus, and bovine respiratory syncytial virus), wormed, dehorned, and accustomed to a feed bunk and water system. There are some considerations that should be discussed before you decide what preconditioning program to choose.

The first consideration is the length of time that the calves will be weaned before they are sold and transported. Most preconditioning programs require calves to be weaned for a minimum of 30 days, and more commonly weaned for 45 days. One of the reasons why calves must be weaned for at least 30 days is related to vaccine efficacy and the resiliency of calves to BRD once they are sold. Faber et al. (1999) reported that non-weaned calves were 3.4 times more likely to experience BRD than weaned calves. Additionally, calves that had been weaned for less than 30 days when they were marketed had a higher incidence of BRD (28%) compared with calves that had been weaned for more than 30 days (13%). This improvement in BRD incidence when calves arrive at the feedlot is partly due to the increased length of time that calves have to get acclimated to weaning, new feedstuffs, and water; but is more likely related to vaccine efficacy. When a calf is administered a vaccine, it takes approximately 21 days for the white blood cells to find the vaccine and transport it to the lymph nodes where the antibodies are produced. This is the reasoning behind why most vaccines indicate to give a booster shot one month after the initial vaccination, so that the immune system has enough time to create the antibodies and provide superior protection. This means that if you are following a preconditioning program that requires two rounds of vaccination, the first round of vaccination should be completed before weaning, and the booster should be completed about one month later. Producers should consider providing the first vaccine and performing castration prior to weaning to reduce stress on the calves during weaning, as this will make your vaccination program more effective. The common 30-45 day preconditioning period gives calves time to respond with an appropriate immune response that will make them more resilient to disease when they are finally sold and transported to the feed yard. If calves are sold at less than 30 days, they have not had a chance to develop an adequate immune response and are more likely to become sick at feed yard arrival.

The second consideration is castration and dehorning. It has previously been shown by Dr. Kenny Burdine of the University of Kentucky that over the past 11 years, 550 pound steers outsold 550 pound bulls by more than $60/head on average. Performing castration before calves are sent to market will bring a premium, as this is a stressful practice that cattle feeders want to avoid having to perform on arrival while calves are simultaneously being exposed to several other stressors. According to Ohio State’s Attending Veterinarian, Dr. Justin Kieffer, castration and dehorning should be done as early as possible, as waiting to perform these practices as cattle get older increase the risk of bleeding/infection and decreases feed intake.

The third consideration is calf nutrition during the preconditioning period. Feeding a balanced diet at weaning is critical to calf health and growth. Dry matter intake is often decreased at weaning as calves are transitioning to a new diet and eating out of a feed bunk while simultaneously being denied access to milk. To minimize this decrease in dry matter intake, the weaning diet should be nutrient dense and formulated to meet calves’ nutrient requirements. The goal of preconditioning is to get calves acclimated to eating out of a feed bunk and drinking out of a water system. This is an extremely valuable piece of the preconditioning program, as it will help ensure that cattle will get on feed quicker after they are sold and transported to the feed yard compared with calves that have never been acclimated to the feed bunk.

When considering preconditioning programs, it is important to develop a plan with your veterinarian and nutritionist. It has been previously demonstrated that preconditioning programs pay off for both the producer and the feeder in terms of profit and calf health. However, to maximize producer profit there needs to be a vaccination, castration, dehorning, and nutrition plan for the program that you are targeting.