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Keep managing now because preconditioning pays

Ed Reschke/Getty Images A dairy cow petting her calf in a field
RAISE PROFITABILITY: The preconditioning practices used on calves provide for potential increased revenue.
Buckeye Beef Brief: Cattle buyers have placed a premium on preconditioned cattle.

As we approach fall, now is the time to maximize the value of your spring calf crop. Cattle buyers have placed a premium on preconditioned cattle; and as preconditioning becomes more of the norm across the U.S., unweaned, uncastrated and unvaccinated cattle are receiving greater discounts.

Here in the Eastern Corn Belt where cow herds tend to be smaller, the No. 1 barrier to preconditioning calves is often a lack of facilities to wean, vaccinate and feed them. Even for smaller herds, the cost of workable facilities can prove to be a sound investment with the increase in value of a calf crop.

Here’s a look at the different processes involved in preconditioning calves and the potential for increased revenue from each practice.

Weaning. Across the industry, a standard for many preconditioning programs is to have calves weaned for at least 45 days. CattleFax, in its May 2020 cow-calf webinar, reported that calves weaned over 45 days had an average value of $898, compared to calves that were sold right off of the cow at $800. That said, calves that were “trailer-weaned” had an average increased value of $46 per head than calves “short-weaned” at 28 days or less.

Weaning is a stressful event, and those short-weaned calves have yet to recover from that stress at sale time, and they are often immunocompromised. The net gain of a 45-plus-day wean vs. unweaned calves equals $98 per head.

Starting on feed. Having calves started on feed has a threefold benefit at the time of sale. First, they are already used to eating out of a feed bunk. Believe it or not, cattle have to be trained on how to eat out of a bunk as they come out of pasture and are weaned. A second benefit to having calves started on grain is that the switch to a higher-energy diet mitigates some of the stress and acidosis risk upon first entering the feedyard. Another benefit of having calves started on feed is the additional weight gained at the time of sale.

Starting cattle on a higher-energy diet does have an increased feed cost. The key to starting cattle on feed is to not have cattle overconditioned in the fall. Overconditioned feeder cattle are more likely to be discounted at auction, than cattle that are in appropriate condition for their age.

Castrating. This is one management piece some smaller producers struggle with due to the lack of facilities or lack of experience in performing castration. Producers can either use elastrator bands or perform surgical castration using a knife.

In a commercial cow-calf setting, castrating calves earlier is typically better. Younger calves are easier to constrain and seem to experience less stress. For producers who prefer to castrate groups of cattle, running all bull calves through a chute at less than 3 months of age is acceptable. As a rule of thumb, a hot summer day is not a good time to castrate calves due to fly problems and potential infection. Looking at return on investment over an eight-year period in Kentucky (2010-17), 550-pound steers outsold bull calves by an average of $11 per cwt, for a net gain of $60 per head

Vaccinating. Vaccinating feeder calves is something we have been discussing in Extension for my entire career, and more so with the concerns regarding antibiotic use. Similar to castration, having workable handling facilities makes this task much more palatable. In the same CattleFax survey previously referenced, cattle producers indicated that by vaccinating at least twice, cattle averaged $869 per head — compared to $784 for calves with a single round of vaccine and $699 for unvaccinated calves.

For an effective vaccination program, a common recommendation is two rounds of modified live vaccine. Work with your veterinarian to develop a vaccination protocol. Weaning calves at least 45 days prior to sale creates a window of opportunity to complete two rounds of vaccinations, and it nets $170 per head compared to unvaccinated cattle.

Summary. A calf that has been weaned for 45 days, castrated (if a male), bunk-broke, and having received two rounds of modified live vaccine, should be toward the top of the market report, provided it is the right type and kind. That said, if a producer does all or just one of those practices, the next step is to market those practices to potential buyers. If selling at auction, be sure to inform the auction market of all the vaccinations the cattle have had, how long they have been weaned and how much feed they have been receiving.

By preconditioning calves, increased revenue and profit potential can be realized. If facilities are a limiting factor, consider investing some of this year’s calf receipts into improving your ability to sell higher-value feeder calves.

Ruff is the Ohio State University Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources in Henry County. He is also a member of the OSU Extension Beef Team that publishes the weekly Ohio Beef Cattle letter. Read it at



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