These days there are plenty of options for selling preconditioned cattle, several definitions on what constitutes a preconditioned calf, and some key components to a deal that makes everyone happy.
I have been around long enough that I believe I remember the first preconditioned calf sale in Iowa. Certainly I had been practicing quite a few years when Tennessee veterinarians sponsored their first preconditioned calf sales.
I've observed that marketing health this way is the selling of cattle with reduced stress and of the reputation of the calf-selling beef producers, the sales reps and order buyers involved. Most of us have by now seen the studies that show successfully marketing preconditioned calves is worth 7-15 cents per pound.
Of course, the health aspects are the main price booster. But part of the reason is that commodity cattle are shipped in loads that typically weight 48,000-50,000 pounds. Fewer than 15% of beef operations in the U.S. own enough cows to put together a single-sex truckload fairly uniform cattle. For this reason, if no other, when there is an opportunity for buyers to put together calves from multiple farms and ranches into uniform truckload lots and have healthy calves at the end of the trip, there is a clear value.
Further, when you combine these factors which most preconditioned protocols involves, plus a few side benefits, there is a clear monetary value:
- Calves weaned 45 days or more
- Respiratory vaccines properly administered and boosters given at least 21 days prior to the sale
- Nutritional needs all met
- Castrations healed
- Heifers 100% open
- Parasites under control
- Calves that are bunk broke, people broke, truck broke and water-trough trained
This clearly makes sense when you think about what feedyards are after. They're interested in feeding cattle, not weaning, doctoring, bunk-breaking or dragging deads. The higher the price of calves and/or yearlings, the more this becomes true and the higher the premium that quality producers can receive.
The marketing of health has moved into other areas besides preconditioned calf sales. The list could include at least these six:
1. Locally harvested and sold cattle of all ages
2. Local grass-fed, high-grading cattle
3. Local grass-fed, but leaner cattle of various descriptions and ages
4. Commodity grass-finished steers or heifers going into the bigger programs
5. Direct-marketed cattle mostly grass-produced but short-fed on grain
6. Natural cattle of all stripes
I consider all of these markets to have a special emphasis on health. Whether perceived or proven, the health aspects of these marketing systems for cattle and consumer have built these markets and are now an important part of the industry.
I believe we still have too much variation in quality and uniformity of beef products, and this is likely more true in the grass-fed segment. Therein we hear reports of off flavors, toughness and differing fatty acid profiles, to name a few of the issues.
Antibiotics and hormones may not be scientifically important, but they certainly get a lot of consumer vocalization.
On the other hand, animal stress reduction, pathogenic bacteria elimination, nutrient density, and fatty acid manipulation receive less press but should be the major concern when producing or purchasing beef.
On the whole, consumers are still shopping for tenderness, taste, price and nutrient density. Those who lean toward the grass-fed segment also are looking for higher levels of non-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids in their beef. That market is growing and some large corporations have moved into the grass-fed business in recent months.
Either way, those of us growing cattle on grass should be developing dense, diverse pastures on healthy, well-mineralized soils. These type of plant communities and soils are far more productive but they also deliver healthy, nutrient-dense beef cattle to the markets.
As we keep producing better beef, we should seek to add the term "nutrient-dense" to the attributes our consumers are shopping for. Eating such foods, like well-cared for and well-fed beef, leads to better human health as well.