Preconditioning programs are implemented around weaning time. Preconditioning typically consists of weaning calves at least 45 days before a sale, training calves to eat feed from a bunk and drink from a water trough, and following an appropriate vaccination program. It should also include castrating bull calves and ensuring that horned cattle are dehorned or tipped back to the hairline and fully healed.
Effective preconditioning programs increase the value of weaned calves by promoting calf growth, enhancing immune system function, and minimizing calf stress. Demand for preconditioned feeder calves continues to increase in the beef industry. This demand has grown along with the expansion of value-based marketing and information flow.
Preconditioning requires more labor, management, and expense for cow-calf producers. However, it also offers potential advantages, like developing a reputation for high-quality cattle, adding value to home-raised calves, and increasing income through retained ownership. Producers planning to retain ownership of calves through the stocker phase may also benefit from preconditioning management practices.
Markets for Preconditioned Calves
Start by identifying target markets for preconditioned feeder calves. Marketing alternatives may develop over time as a producer's reputation and quality of cattle become more widely known. Some producers develop relationships directly with cattle buyers, while others participate in organized feeder calf marketing efforts with other producers. For more information on feeder calf marketing alternatives, see Extension Publication 2552 Feeder Calf Marketing Alternatives.
Requirements differ among various preconditioned feeder calf sales, and documentation of preconditioning practices may be necessary. It is important to know a program's specific requirements to qualify calves for sale. Acceptable documentation may include herd health product or veterinary invoices or receipts, calf weaning records, and completed certification forms.
Preconditioning program guidelines often include ownership requirements. Often, a producer must have owned a set of calves for a minimum time in order for them to qualify for the program. Individual calf identification is critical for proper record keeping and can be accomplished in several ways. Unique ear tags are a common form of identification, but because ear tags can be lost, some producers choose to permanently identify cattle using tattoos or brands.
Preconditioning requires more time, labor, and expense than traditional weaning programs. It must be profitable so producers will want to retain calves through a preconditioning period. Some producers perceive the buyer receives most of the benefits and cow-calf producers are not adequately compensated for the added value. However, Mississippi feeder calf board sale results show that, if cattle are marketed in a way that advertises the management they received, they will bring a premium over the average market price. Develop a budget before deciding to implement a preconditioning program.
Estimate expected costs, returns, and production levels, and then monitor them throughout the preconditioning period. To be profitable, producers must keep cost of gain to a reasonable level while providing a nutritional program that produces acceptable weight gains. A reasonable feed cost of gain must be lower than breakeven feed cost of gain to be profitable.
Manage veterinary and other health costs for profitable preconditioning. The cost-effectiveness of a preconditioning program varies according to market and production conditions. Weight gains alone may not offset feed and overhead cost. In cases where added returns from weight gains alone do not cover preconditioning costs, calves must return an adequate premium at sale for preconditioning to be profitable.
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