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Pounds pay for preconditioning calves

Tradition is sometimes blamed for the apparent lack of interest in preconditioning calves up to now. For Oliver Schunicht, however, tradition is the very reason he continues to precondition calves on his farm near Strathmore, Alta.

“I’ve always preconditioned because I’m gathering 500 calves from seven or eight pastures and I can’t pull them off all on one day,” he explains.

His routine starts with a three-day weekend in early October when the calves are trucked from pastures to his feedlot where they receive booster vaccinations. The ration is a typical backgrounding diet of 25 per cent rolled barley, barley silage and hay fed for 60 to 80 days. That puts his payday in December most years.

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Preconditioning has paid off for him every year because the value of the weight gain on the calves has always been greater than his costs. Basically, he prices calves based on the market high the week they are weaned and then charges himself as though he was a feedlot customer including all of his feed and feeding-related costs, health care expenses, and yardage.

Another reason preconditioning works for him is he already has the infrastructure in place — pens, a feed mill and a feed truck.

To spread overhead and labour across more calves, he buys up to another 600 calves late in the year to background until spring. He employs two people year-round on the farm because he works full-time as a veterinarian with Feedlot Health Management Services at Okotoks.

Whether he gets the illusive preconditioning premium for his calves at sale time isn’t as clear-cut as the other benefits from his preconditioning program, but he has often noted good buyer interest in them. Some go to the same places in Alberta and several times out East.

He sells his calves through Calgary Stockyard’s TEAM electronic auction, where his preconditioning program can be outlined in the sale listing.

Staying in tune with the market paid off last year when, for the first time, he pre-sold his preconditioned calves for prevailing high prices in September for delivery in December.

In his books, profit comes down to the amount of weight gained during the preconditioning period. On this point he notes that a 30-day preconditioning program isn’t long enough to recover weight lost during the first week after weaning when calves are on hay alone.

“Even with the full complement of vaccinations at branding and boosters at weaning, some calves do get sick and the odd one dies. Overall, transitioning calves through weaning on the farm reduces losses later on, but there are going to be treatment costs during preconditioning,” Schunicht says.

To those thinking of starting a preconditioning program, he’d say success depends on how well the calves gain, and if you have the infrastructure, the feed and the time or labour to do it. And take the time to think about how you will market your calves.

He believes there’s more opportunity for success with preconditioning today than in the 1980s. Herd sizes are larger now, and big ranches have the resources to precondition their calves, and a greater chance of gaining a premium price by marketing large uniform groups of preconditioned, low-risk calves.

Larger operations also can spread their overhead and operating costs over more calves. Typically you need some drylot pens or portable feed bunks and a good water source for fenceline weaning on pasture, windbreaks and a setup to treat or vaccinate the calves.

Schunicht can’t really say whether pre-weaning or pre-vaccinating on the farm would be the most important to feedlot clients. Those who source calves for natural beef programs have stringent requirements, but on the whole most buyers don’t ask for preconditioned calves because there aren’t many to be had.

The term itself still means different things to different people; it could be any combination of calves vaccinated once, twice or three times that are weaned onto feed for a certain number of days (at least 30), dehorned, castrated, treated for internal and external parasites, bunk broke, and trained to drink from a water bowl. Implants are usually optional.

The premium is a bonus

In light of concerns about antimicrobial resistance, preconditioning has come into play as a strategy to reduce the need for antimicrobials and in turn help retain the effectiveness of antimicrobials used to treat animals.

Some of the renewed interest has also come about when prices hit record levels in the not-too-distant past. A fact sheet on preconditioning published by Canfax Research Services last fall indicated that feedlots are more apt to pay a premium for preconditioned calves when calf prices are high as a way to protect their investment.

What the research says

A 2003 study compared the health of 6,018 conventional calves, to 5,651 vaccinated calves (vaccinated against respiratory disease two times at least two to four weeks apart, and two to four weeks before going to auction and castrated and dehorned at least two months before going to auction), and 644 preconditioned calves that had been vaccinated, dehorned and castrated on the same schedule, plus weaned four weeks before going to auction. The treatment rate for respiratory disease was 20.20 per cent for the conventional calves, 13.7 per cent for the vaccinated calves and 3.9 per cent for the preconditioned calves.

Without a doubt, weaning is the most stressful day in a calf’s life. If you take weaning out of the picture it will set them up for failure at the feedlot, says Dr. Mark Hilton, who spoke on preconditioning at this year’s University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) beef cattle conference. Hilton, a clinical professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University recently joined Elanco Animal Health as a technical services veterinarian.

A 2008 Oklahoma study confirmed that weaning on the ranch is more important than vaccinating when it comes to warding off respiratory disease at the feedlot. Calves weaned for 45 days on the ranch, even if not vaccinated, did better than those that were vaccinated and taken right to the feedlot. The viral disease pressure when they are commingled with calves of unknown health status gathered from auction markets overrides the vaccination, Hilton explains.

An Iowa study showed that calves shipped at weaning were 3.4 times more likely to get sick than those weaned on the ranch.

UCVM’s Dr. Edouard Timsit’s 2012 research showed that M. haemo­lytica bacteria is normally present in the upper respiratory tract. When calves are stressed, M. haemolytica and P. multocida bacteria can escape to the lungs where they cause disease to set in.

“You can’t vaccinate your way out of this because the calves walk in with it. You have to prepare the calf so bacteria never get a chance to get to the lungs,” Hilton stresses.

“A sick calf in the feedlot is a disaster.” In 2004, taking into account death loss, treatment costs, average daily gain bonus, and carcass traits, the profit on a calf treated once was $85 less than a for a healthy calf. If a calf had to be treated twice, profit fell back $201. In 2014, the return on a calf treated once was $120 less than a healthy calf and $365 under if it had to be treated twice.

Premium pitfalls

Schunicht refers to Merck Animal Health’s U.S. research indicating that the premium for calves following its PrimeVAC 45 and PrimeVAC 45 Premium programs for home-raised calves was just over $6/cwt in 2013 and jumped to just over $10/cwt in 2014. The PrimeVAC 45 program requires two vaccinations against respiratory diseases and blackleg and weaning 45 days ahead of shipping, while the premium version adds a third vaccination as well as internal and external parasite control. The premium for following the PrimeVAC 34 and PrimeVAC 34 Premium, which require vaccinations but not pre-weaning, nearly doubled from just over $2 to $4/cwt. The premium was negligible for calves that were vaccinated once three to four months ahead of shipping.

The premium picture is much different in Canada. In a 1980s study when Alberta had a verifiable preconditioning program, an example herd realized premiums in each of the seven years averaging $2.75 to $6.49/cwt for steers and $1.42 to $5.90/cwt for heifers. The average return to labour and management ranged from $26.04 to $116.48 per calf per year.

Recent research suggests that premium has all but disappeared. A 2011-12 study found no consistent premium for preconditioned calves sold in the Alberta foothills and identified a premium of only $1.27/cwt for preconditioned calves in the Red Deer area. Across the border, Oklahoma price premiums for preconditioned calves in 2014 averaged $19.20/cwt, which was more than double the premium of $8.65 in 2013 and $9.23 in 2012.

The Oklahoma Beef Quality Network is one of many U.S. preconditioning programs that lay out the requirements and what must be done to verify that all of the requirements have been met.

A preconditioning calculator developed by Canfax and made available on the Beef Cattle Research Council’s website last fall is aimed at helping producers adapt preconditioning to their operation and environment.

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