Enhancing profitability through preconditioning

Mar 22, 2013
by WLJ

Drought in Oklahoma and the rest of the southern Plains the last two years has made management decisions for cattle producers challenging to say the least. Producers often have mixed feelings about weaning and precondition practices in times of drought. Some believe input costs restrict profitability and they can market a calf directly off the cow without risk, while others will wait until they know the calf is on the right path no matter what the cost.

Whatever the thought, the question remains the same… are weaning and preconditioning programs still profitable? The answer is yes, if done right.

Pre-weaning health and nutrition of calves have significant impact. Virtually all early life disease protection comes from passive immunity of immunoglobulin in colostrum and, lacking that passive immunity or a good foundation, a calf is three times more likely to be treated for BVD in a feedlot. Unfortunately, calf blood immunoglobulin concentration immediately following birth is decreased when the dam is in negative energy balance and lower body condition, like she may be in drought. This is a reflection of the substantial increase in morbidity and mortality we have seen this winter in feedlots and grower yards.

Early weaning of calves at 6-8 weeks of age is a good way to reduce nutritional needs of your mature cow herd while, at the same time, maintaining body condition to prepare cows for breeding season or increase salvage value if a producer is culling the herd due to drought. Early-weaned fall calves may be a nice option if producers are waiting to see if standing forage is available for calves in the spring. They will still gain fairly well and if the drought persists, with little forage available, calves can then be marketed.

Spring-calving cows can be a little trickier. A producer must calve out those cows in early spring and hope forage is available throughout the summer for pairs. Once calves are old enough to be early-weaned, they can be turned out on cool season grasses such as wheat or rye, translating into high rates of gain on high-quality forage.

Facilities play a major role in the decision to proceed with a preconditioning program of ranch-raised calves and finding ways to reduce stress on cattle is the most important factor in a successful weaning program. Traps and pens don’t have to be pretty, just functional. This includes easy access to water for cattle and easy access to feed bunks for a producer.

In choosing a location to wean calves, using a fenceline weaning system to reduce stress should be a consideration. However, fences must be durable enough to maintain separation between sometimes anxious dams and their calves. After the initial “bawl” is out of the calf and it is comfortable finding water and using feed bunks, it may be beneficial to turn them out into a small trap. This will allow calves more room out of dust or mud, but still allow producers to keep a close eye on calves in case they “break” and need to be doctored. — Gant Mourer, Oklahoma State University Beef Value Enhancement Specialist