As the summer grazing season winds down and time is getting near for cow calf producers to wean calves, they might be asking themselves, with calf prices as good as they are, is it worth it for me to precondition my calves or just sell them right off the cow? For starters, what is preconditioning, and why would we do it? Preconditioning is a practice that gets calves ready for the next phase of production and done with proper management can add a few dollars into the cow/calf producer's pocket. In general, these are programs that are done for 30-60 days with 45 being the most common. During this time, calves are weaned, vaccinated, bunk broke, and water tank broke.
So how does holding these calves for 45 days actually make the cow/calf guy any money? They have the cost of feeding the calves, vaccinating, yardage, and death loss. Knowing feed cost and price slides are the key factors adding extra dollars through preconditioning. The goal is to be able to put on some cheap pounds of gain and add some value to the calf. With calf prices high, buyers are looking for quality calves that are less likely to get sick and perform well in the feed yards. Feedlot operators are often willing to pay a premium for calves that they can add to the yard and have very little problems with. A 2011 Kansas State survey of feedlot operators indicated those cattle were sick less often, had lower rates of death loss, better feed efficiencies and gain. The survey also indicated that the feedlot operators were willing to pay a range in premiums depending on documented practices on the farms. Last fall, even with record high feeder prices, reports from feeder sales indicated premiums were still being paid for calves that had documented preconditioning programs. The key here is to make sure you are proactive in documenting and letting your marketing partner and potential buyers know what you have done with the calves.
Here are some key points to take home as you establish your preconditioning program. The first is to remember we are not trying to get these guys on full feed. The goal should be modest gains of 1.5-2.0 pounds per day. As we go through the weaning process the transition needs to be smooth, so if you are preconditioning in a dry lot starting the calves on feeds they are accustom to like plenty of long stem grass hay and work grain into the diet over the course of next week or two. Make sure not increase grain too fast so you are not getting into issues with acidosis. This means keeping rations that are 50% or less of grains and concentrates on a dry matter basis over the preconditioning period.
Finally, the vaccination programs, make sure that you have been proactive in your vaccination and health programs. Consider castration and vaccines prior to weaning to reduce stress on the calves during weaning and this makes your vaccination program more effective. Also, time it so that boosters can be given after weaning. As you work on refining your health programs, make sure you have a valid Veterinarian Patient Client Relationship (VCPR). A VCPR can help establish a plan that works for you and can also provide the background and documentation for the buyers of your calves. The health programs are an essential piece of a complete preconditioning program.
It is important to do your best to let potential buyers and your marketing partner know what you have done to the calves when you market them to help capture value for preconditioning. UW Extension has a Pre-conditioing Record Form(pdf), that can be used to help show what has been done with the calves when promoting them. The form also allows for veterinarian verification as part of the VCPR. UW Extension also has a fact sheet on preconditioning programs. (Preconditioning Fact Sheet (pdf).
 Value of Preconditioned Certified health Programs to Feedlots. K-State Research and Extension MF3017, 2011