While preconditioning your calves may not always put extra dollars in your pockets, it’s good for the health of the entire beef industry.
That was the message from veterinarian Cody Creelman during a recent Beef Cattle Research Centre webinar.
Preconditioning includes anything a producer does to a weaned calf that reduces shrink and chance of illness or death when it arrives at the feedlot, said Creelman of Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Airdrie. It can range from a single blackleg shot to a comprehensive herd health program that includes vaccination, top-quality nutrition, and a host of best management practices.
“If I was a producer, I would make sure that I knew my input costs as best as I possibly could,” said Creelman. “I could figure out which preconditioning system was going to fit my individual system of raising cattle. I would consult with veterinarians, nutritionists and marketing consultants and find a system that works for me. Feedlots do want these types of cattle.”
When calves between 500 to 700 pounds hit the feedlot, they generally receive antibiotics, vaccines to protect against respiratory and bacterial pathogens, and treatments for parasites.
The vaccines and antibiotics typically cost $30 per head (plus $12 in labour), but because feedlot operators don’t know the history of the cattle, they want to ensure they remain healthy.
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Calves have a five per cent chance of catching bovine respiratory disease (BRD) — also known as shipping fever — which will cut their daily gain by nearly a pound per day compared to other calves. But cow-calf producers can reduce the incidence of the disease and mortality at the feedlot by giving a respiratory pathogen vaccine any time between branding and three weeks before weaning. Some pharmaceutical companies guarantee “zero per cent BRD pulls” when their vaccine is used, and will compensate feedlots if a cow becomes sick and has to be pulled from its pen for treatment, said Creelman. The net effect is reduced antibiotic use and mortality, and increased feed efficiency and beef quality, he said.
“There’s also an increase in animal welfare and consumer perception of the industry,” he said. “All of this data is out there showing what preconditioned calves can do when they hit the feedlot.”
Reducing the risk of antibiotic strains of the disease is another big reason for preconditioning, he said.
“I do not look forward to the day when antibiotics do not work as well as they did. So we have to do more than we’re doing in our current system,” said Creelman.
And there’s no reason not to precondition calves, he said.
“You’re running those calves through for branding anyway, so why not give them all the vaccines they need to be preconditioned? Then when they get vaccinated at the feedlot, that acts as a boost, not a primary vaccine.”
Another part of preconditioning is to ensure calves are acquainted with feed bunks and water troughs.
“They can’t just go to the feedlot and wander around lost until they just one day bump into the feed bunk,” he said.
As well, producers should be ensuring their feed is high quality and, if need be, consulting with a nutritionist to learn more about the minerals.
“You can get up to three pounds of gain a day at home. It may take a bit of practice to get that, but if you can achieve that, that’s a lot of salable pounds at 30, 45 or 60 days that will put some extra cash in your jeans,” said Creelman.
He also recommended low-stress weaning and direct marketing to the feedlot.
“Decreasing the bug soup and kindergarten effect of going through the auction mart system can be a viable option when it comes to management as well,” he said.
Still, producers aren’t guaranteed a premium for the extra work involved in preconditioning. But if they don’t, cow-calf producers are just passing risk on to the feedlot, said Creelman.
“Even though we’re in the same industry, I feel like there’s a lot of us versus them out there,” he said. “There’s a lot of mistrust. For the good of the animal, we need to pull back together and work together to improve consumer perception.”
And while preconditioning information may not always be passed along to the buyer right now, that may soon change. Traceability programs, certified preconditioning, and electronic video auctions can all help ensure that information about preconditioning stays with the animal throughout the value chain, he said.
Producers can also sell directly to the feedlot, and build up a good relationship with the feedlot owner.
“Even with tools like BIXS, you can extract your carcass data out and then extract the personalized data to leverage buyers in subsequent years,” he said.