Preconditioning gives calves a chance to succeed

Sep 9, 2011
by WLJ

—Experience taught feedlot manager to be more particular on sale day.

The benefits of calf preconditioning programs are often touted as premiums for cow/calf producers on sale day.

But one feedlot manager says his experience proves these benefits stretch into the feeding phase.

Last fall, Warren Zenker of Gackle, ND, fed two pens of cattle that had a mix of health histories. Of the 240-head total, 182 went through the SelectVAC program and the remaining 58 were given a nondocumented vaccination protocol.

“We didn’t pull one SelectVAC calf, and we had to treat almost 80 percent of the other group,” he says. “Not only did this add up in terms of treatment and labor costs, but the calves we had to pull were 30 days behind the rest, which cost me almost $40 per head in cost of gains alone, and that’s not feeding $7 corn.”

Gerald Stokka, DVM, Veterinary Operations, Pfizer Animal Health, says the fact that SelectVAC is a well-researched, proven program can help feedlot managers know more about the calves they are getting.

“Preconditioning programs are designed to set up the calf and its immune system for the stresses that lie ahead,” he explains. “While producers should work with their veterinarian to ensure the program they are using is the best fit for their operation, following protocols from a well-known program helps buyers know what to expect, and gives them the extra level of insurance that calves will be ready to perform in the feedlot.”

Not only does Zenker base his purchasing decisions partly on the health program the calves come with, but he also uses it to determine on-arrival protocols.

“If calves come in that haven’t been preconditioned, we use a metaphylactic antibiotic treatment,” he says. “While we have had good luck with this program, it’s an additional step.”

Stokka says extra practices like this are just the beginning of the differences between calves that have been preconditioned and those that haven’t. In addition to improved health, part of the value of preconditioning comes from the required practices such as dehorning, castration, and water and feed bunk training—all of which set calves up to excel.

“Research has shown that when compared with calves with unknown health histories, calves that came with documented preconditioning claims gained 36 pounds more in the first 85 days on feed; took fewer days to reach the desired end point; were four times less likely to get sick; had more favorable quality and yield grades; and overall returned $33.71 more net income per calf,” he says. “It’s easy to see why buyers are willing to pay more for calves that go through a documented preconditioning program.”

Zenker says not only is he willing to pay for preconditioned calves, with a feedlot and an extensive farming operation, he can’t afford to buy anything else.

“I don’t have time to spend hours riding pens and pulling cattle. And after the situation we had last fall, I told our order buyers that if calves haven’t been through the SelectVAC program—I don’t want them,” Zenker says. “I’ve seen firsthand what kind of a wreck we can have, and it’s not worth the expenses or headaches to go through that again.”

Stokka believes Zenker isn’t alone in his bias toward preconditioned calves.

“As input costs continue to rise and feedlot managers are more particular about the calves they buy, cow/calf producers need to take advantage of every opportunity possible to make their calves stand out on sale day,” he explains. “Most likely, cow/calf producers are already using many of the practices required for a preconditioning program. By taking the final step of documenting these practices through a wellknown program, they can help ensure their calves will get noticed—and bid on—at the sale.” — WLJ