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Effects of Preconditioning on Health, Performance and Prices of Weaned Calves

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, to precondition is to condition, train, or accustom in advance.  There is no standardized definition for this term as it applies to beef calves prior to, during, and/or after the weaning and shipping period.  However, preconditioning is generally used to indicate management practices implemented around the time of weaning that are intended to optimize the animal’s immune system and nutritional status while minimizing stress.  The outcome of this process is added value to the entire beef production system.  This added value is realized through reduced incidence and associated costs of sickness, improved performance in terms of weight gain and feed efficiency, a reduction in drug use and the labor required to treat and manage sick cattle, and improved beef product quality.  Cow/calf producers benefit through the development of a reputation for high quality cattle, utilizing management skills and feed resources to add further value to home raised calves, and the opportunity to capture a larger portion of the revenue in cases where some level of ownership is retained.

 

Organized efforts to encourage standardized management of beef calves prior to weaning and shipment began in 1967.  In September of that year, approximately 200 animal and veterinary scientists met at Oklahoma State University to discuss the problems and scientific basis for developing and encouraging these management practices (Gill, 1967).  It was at this meeting that the concepts of vaccinating calves prior to weaning or shipping (pre-vaccinating) and “conditioning” calves were combined to coin the term “preconditioning.”  In beef cattle, the term “conditioning” generally referred to a combination of management practices such as dehorning, deworming, castrating, weaning, and training calves to eat out of bunks or water troughs.

 

Industry-wide adoption of the preconditioning concept has been painfully slow.  Controversy surrounding the topic is still prevalent today.  However, recent developments in the U.S. beef industry promise to propel the preconditioning concept forward at a faster rate.  Numerous value based marketing programs are now available to beef cattle producers.  This marketing approach serves to increase information flow and management coordination up and down the production chain.  In this way, stronger signals and incentives are created to encourage the adaptation of the best management practices, such as those associated with preconditioning.

 

The effects of sickness on performance and carcass traits

Previous work indicates that animal health and medicine costs are the most important animal performance measures determining feedlot cattle profitability (Gardner et al., 1996).  For example, compared with steers without lung lesions, steers with lesions plus active lymph nodes had around $74 less net return (Gardner et al., 1998).  The effects of sickness on performance and profitability are also clearly demonstrated in data collected on over 16,000 head of cattle in the Texas A&M Ranch to Rail program (McNeil et al., 2000)(Table 1).  In this data, animals treated one or more times for bovine respiratory disease (BRD) were considered to be sick.  The number of cattle treated for sickness in a given year ranged from 14 percent to 34 percent, with an average of 22.4 percent.  Average medicine costs for each animal treated varied considerably among years with a low of $21 to a high of $38 per head.  This data shows that the frequency of the occurrence of BRD and associated medicine costs is difficult to predict.  This difficulty arises from year-to-year environmental variation and management differences.  Consequently, the true value of preconditioning programs is a moving target and will vary over time and in different situations.

 

In the Ranch to Rail study, cattle identified as being sick gained 0.32 lb/hd/day less compared to cattle that were never treated. This reduction in weight gain translates to less sellable carcass weight.  Perhaps a more important question, and one that is yet to be addressed in published literature, is the affect of BRD on feed efficiency.  Sickness reduced the number of carcasses grading choice by 12 percent and increased the number of standard grading carcasses by 5 percent.  Obviously, this impact presents marketing limitations relative to grid pricing systems that are largely driven by quality grade.  When death loss, medicine costs, and reduced carcass value were considered, cattle that were identified and treated for sickness returned an average of around $88 less compared to cattle that were never treated for sickness.

 

In an Oklahoma study (Stoval et al., 2000), cattle that were not treated for BRD graded 66 percent choice, while cattle treated only once graded 59 percent choice, and cattle treated more than once graded 41 percent choice.  These experiments point out that the effects of sickness are variable but have the potential to dramatically impact animal performance, profitability, and product quality.

 

Table 1. Influence of sickness on performance, profitability and quality grade in eight years of the Texas A&M Ranch to Rail programa

Item Healthy Sick
Number of cattle 12306 4047
Medicine treatment cost, $/hd 0 27.03
ADG, lb** 2.99 2.67
Net return, $/hd** 67.32 -20.28
USDA Choice or higher, %** 39.6 27.5
USDA Standard, %* 10 5.25

aSource: McNeil et al. 2000

*Healthy vs. Sick differs (P = .02).

**Healthy vs. Sick differs (P < .01).

 

How does preconditioning affect post-weaning performance?

Most calves are healthy when they leave the ranch of origin, but stress caused by weaning, transportation, inclement weather, nutritional deprivation, commingling, and processing lowers their level of disease resistance.  This lower resistance to disease comes when disease exposure is high.  Vaccination, deworming, and balanced nutrition are all intended to increase the level of immunocompetence (or disease resistance).  Weaning, castrating, dehorning, training the cattle to eat feed from a bunk, and other management practices associated with preconditioning are designed to reduce the impact of stress during the shipping and receiving period.  When disease exposure is combined with extremely stressful conditions, the disease challenge may override the cattle’s capacity for disease resistance.  In other words, the fact that cattle have been preconditioned does not guarantee they will not get sick.

 

Little research includes the large numbers of animals that would be required to estimate the true benefit of preconditioning.  Multiple years of data are necessary to determine the variability in the benefit of preconditioning due to year-to-year weather and pasture conditions.  Table 2 includes data from a study conducted with a large number of heifer calves from a single ranch (Cravey, 1996).  The comparison involved 380 preconditioned calves and 1,600 “weaned and shipped” calves.  Preconditioned calves received vaccinations and a dewormer at weaning.  Modified live vaccines were boostered 10 to 14 days later, and calves were shipped 45 days after weaning.  During the preconditioning period, calves were turned out on grass traps and fed a concentrate pellet with free-choice grass hay.  Finished cattle were marketed on a live weight basis.  Consequently, economic data presented in Table 2 does not reflect potential differences in carcass traits and associated carcass value.

 

In this study, preconditioned heifers had improved performance and feed efficiency. Preconditioning dramatically reduced medicine costs and death loss.  In fact, the preconditioning program added almost $61/head to the value of the heifers or $11.04/cwt to the initial weaning weight.

 

In a second and similar experiment, Cravey (1996) compared 15 lots of preconditioned cattle to 15 lots of similar, but non-preconditioned cattle (Table 3).  Cattle in the non-preconditioned treatment were purchased through order buyers and were of mixed origin and backgrounds.  The preconditioned calves had been certified through the Hi-Pro Producer’s Edge program, which requires two rounds of a modified live viral and Pasteurella vaccine, as well as a 45 to 50 day weaning period.

 

Similar to the previous experiment, animal performance was improved and medicine costs were dramatically reduced.  Remember that these cattle were marketed on a live basis, so potential value differences based on carcass quality are not reflected in the budget presented in Table 3.  The preconditioning program added almost $56 to the value of the cattle.  In other words, the cattle feeder could have paid $9.67/cwt more for the preconditioned calves and profited the same amount if the finished cattle were sold on a live weight basis. With this data set, the actual weight gain and costs during the preconditioning period are unknown; however, if we apply the same costs as used in the previous experiment ($40) and assume that the value of each pound of added weight is worth $.55, the breakeven weight gain during preconditioning would be 73 lbs, or 1.6 lbs per day for 45 days ($40 / $.55 per lb = 73 lbs).

 

More data is needed to identify the true value of preconditioning for various cattle types, phases of the industry (feedyard vs. stocker), time of the year, region of the country, and different management regimes.  Using the data available, preconditioning does appear to result in a substantial reduction in sickness, death loss, and medicine costs.  These improvements appear to result in better animal performance and lower cost of feedyard gain.  There is even more value to preconditioning when carcass quality is considered.  Based on the limited data available, it appears that premiums of $3 to $8/cwt may be justified for cattle that have undergone management protocols similar to the ones mentioned above.  Premiums in this range would encourage more cow/calf producers to adopt the practice, while preserving some of the added value for the stocker and/or finishing segments of the industry.

 

Table 2. Effects of 45-day preconditioning on feedlot performance and profitabilitya

Item Non-preconditioned Pre-conditioned
Performance    
Feedlot in wt. lb. 550 640
Feedlot wt gain. lb. 616 540
Days on feed 220 180
Daily gain lb. 2.8 3
Feed:Gain, DM basis 6.6 6.02
Medicine, $/head 34 4.33
Death loss, % 4.44 1.3
Feedlot cost of gain, $/cwt 62.8 54.75
Economics    
Preconditioning costs, $/head - 40
Feedlot cost of gain, $/head 386.85 295.65
Fed heifer value, $/head 795.33 804.88
Value minus total costs, $/head 408.48 469.23
Difference in net value, $/head - 60.72

aSource: Cravey, 1996 Southwest Nutrition and Management Conference.

 

Table 3. Effects of 45-day preconditioning on feedlot performance and profitabilitya

Item Non-Preconditioned Pre-Conditioned
Performance    
No. head 1492 1685
Feedlot in wt. lb 564 579
Feedlot out wt. lb. 1126 1173
Days on feed 217 205
Daily gain lb. 2.59 2.88
Feed:Gain, DM basis 6.45 5.98
Medicine, $/head 30.66 13.74
Death loss, % 2.61 0.53
Cattle pulled for treatment, % 62 19
Feedlot COG, $/cwt 56.7 49.68
Economics    
Feedlot COG, $/head 318.65 295.1
Fed cattle value, $/head 771.13 803.51
Value minus total costs, $/head 452.48 508.41
Difference in net value, $/head - 55.93

aSource: Cravey, 1996 Southwest Nutrition and Management Conference.

 

Does the industry currently reward cattlemen for preconditioning calves?

Research is now available that attempted to quantify the effect of value added health programs on the price paid for beef calves sold through “special” feeder cattle auctions or through video auctions.  Figure 1 includes sale prices for calves enrolled in Oklahoma Quality Beef Network over a 4 year period.  Sale requirements included the following:

  • Calves must be weaned for a minimum of 45 and vaccinated twice with IBR, BVD, BRSV, PI3, clostridial vaccine and Pasteurella Pneumonia 21 days prior to sale.
  • Within 45 days prior to sale cattle had to be castrated, dehorned and healed, dewormed, and treated for external parasites.

Actual sale prices were compared to cattle that were marketed at the same facility the same day either prior to or after the OQBN Vac-45 cattle were marketed. In 2010, 7,332 head were marketed as OQBN Vac-45 certified cattle. That number declined to 3,611 in 2011. This is due to cattle market reporting record high prices and cow/calf producers losing interest while at the same time buyers still paying premiums for certified cattle. Also, it was the start of a record drought so many producers found preconditioning cattle difficult. Figure 2 outlines cattle sold in 2010 and break them out by weight class and management group. The highest received premium received still encompasses all management strategies coupled with certification of those management strategies.

 

For several years, Superior Livestock Video Auction, Inc. has encouraged the use of standardized and certified vaccination and weaning programs.  Since, 1994, sale price on over 54,000 lots, representing over 6.5 million cattle have been recorded and evaluated for difference in sale price depending on vaccination and weaning status.  Table 4 shows the total number of lots for each year and the percentage of lots consigned and marketed under four different categories.

 

Enrollment in the two levels of certification shown here started extremely slow but continues to increase over time.  Since 1995, the number of cattle identified as having no vaccinations has steadily declined to 1.2 percent in 2012.  In 1995, only 15.6 percent of the lots included in this data set were enrolled in one of the certification programs, whereas in 2009, more than 81 percent of the cattle in the data set had qualified for one of the two certification programs shown.  Participation as a percent of total cattle is increasing in the certified program that includes a minimum 45-day weaning period (27.2 percent in 2012), despite that total number of cattle was more than 90,000 less in 2012, as compared to 2010, due to the liquidation of cow herds in drought stricken areas of the United States.

 

Table 5 includes the average price paid for calves that were not vaccinated or certified, as well as price differences (premium, $/cwt) paid for calves with varying vaccination, certification, and weaning status.  Using the data from 1995 through 2012, the average premium paid for calves identified as having one or more viral vaccinations with no certification, was $1.67/cwt.  When a standardized and certified vaccination protocol was used, the average 19 year premium was increased to $6.18/cwt. when calves were certified as being vaccinated and weaned under the Vac 45 requirements.  When calculated relative to total calf value, Vac 45 calves have returned an average premium of five to six percent.

 

Intuitively, the value of preconditioning should differ between cattle shipped directly from the ranch and those that are collected and marketed at central auction facilities.  Because the potential exists for greater exposure to disease and animal stress, the premium for preconditioned calves marketed through auction facilities should be greater compared to those shipped directly from the home ranch.  More data is necessary to adequately document whether this premium difference exists.

 

A Comparison of OQBN premiums for 2009-2012 using weighted average prices ($/cwt).

 

 

Figure 1. A Comparison of OQBN premiums for 2009-2012 using weighted average prices ($/cwt).

 

 

 

 

Fall 2010 premiums for specific practices and OQBN certification ($/cwt).

 

 

 

Figure 2. Fall 2010 premiums for specific practices and OQBN certification ($/cwt)

 

 

 

Table 4. Number of sale lots by year and value added health program for beef calves sold through Superior Livestock Video Auctionsa.

 

Value added health program administered to sale lots, % of total

 

Year

 

Total number of lots in data analysis

Not certifiedb

Not vaccinated

 

Vaccinated

Vaccinated

Not weaned Certifiedc

 

Weaned Certifiedd

1994 1930 88.3 - 8.3 1.8
1995 1576 43.7 38.6 12.4 3.2
1996 1793 34 33.9 27.7 4.5
1997 1902 29.8 33.2 23.1 4.5
1998 2410 18 26.5 21.3 5
1999 2600 17.7 32.8 30.3 6.9
2000 2406 18 47 26 9
2001 2414 14.2 29.4 43.4 12.9
2002 239 10.2 30 44.5 15.3
2003 3150 6.3 20.1 47.5 20.7
2004 3431 5.3 14.3 48.5 25.4
2005 3584 3.2 11.6 53 24.2
2006 3517 2.9 9.6 48.8 24.5
2007 4091 2.7 7.5 48.8 26.7
2008 3741 1.8 6.7 51.4 26.3
2009 3806 1.2 4.2 52.3 28.8
2010 3742 2.2 4.1 29.9 29.2
2011 3416 1.4 4.1 28 29
2012 2868 1.2 2.9 27.5 27.2

aSource: King et al., 1994 through 1998 CSU Beef Program Report and Pfizer Animal Health Final Reports, 1999 through 2001.  Average lot size was approximately 123 head each year.

bCalves in this category were vaccinated against one or more of the following viruses at some time between birth and the date of sale: IBR, BVD, PI3, and BRSV.

cVac 34. For certification requirements see King and Odde, 1998.

dVac 45. For certification requirements see King and Odde, 1998.

 

Table 5.  Effect of value added health programs on the price of beef calves sold through Superior Livestock Video Auctionsa.

 

Value added health program administered to sale lots

Year Not vaccinated, not certified, price, $/cwt Vaccinated, not certifiedb Not weaned, vaccinated, certifiedc Weaned, vaccinated, certifiedd
1994 83.8 - 0.77 0.25
1995 67.79 0.7 1.35 2.47
1996 61.79 0.43 0.99 3.35
1997 91.26 0.72 1.61 3.89
1998 73.86 0.75 1.38 3.35
1999 85.92 0.96 1.17 3.33
2000 100.06 1.27 1.76 3.66
2001 95.28 1.23 2.21 4.06
2002 76.95 1.1 1.8 5.01
2003 93.8 1.85 3.39 6.69
2004 116.05 1.71 3.47 7.91
2005 114.08 1.43 2.45 6.64
2006 119.96 1.92 3.41 7.61
2007 112.15 2.2 4.68 7.83
2008 104.9 2.19 3.57 8.2
2009 95.22 0.69 2.93 7.21
2010 112.28 1.15 3.02 6.14
2011 131.08 4.57 6.55 11.88
2012 152.3 5.26 6.72 12.06

a Source: King et al., 1994 through 1998 CSU Beef Program Report and Pfizer Animal Health Final Reports, 1999 through 2001.  Average lot size was approximately 123 head each year.

b Calves in this category were vaccinated against one or more of the following viruses at some time between birth and the date of sale: IBR, BVD, PI3, and BRSV.

c Vac 34. For certification requirements see King and Odde, 1998.

d Vac 45. For certification requirements see King and Odde, 1998.

 

What does preconditioning cost the cow/calf producer?

When calves are vaccinated, weaned, and retained for at least 45 days prior to shipment, preconditioning costs realistically range from $35 to $60 per head.  Cattlemen often ignore indirect costs such as interest, their own labor, and equipment depreciation.  The nutrition program typically makes up 45 percent to 60 percent of the total budget (Table 6), and should receive careful consideration.  High quality pasture, such as winter annual forages; stockpiled cool season grass species (fescue, brome etc.); and stockpiled bermudagrass should result in lower cost and greater returns compared to dry-lot feeding programs.  Calves can be held in a pen or dry lot for three to four days before being turned out to pasture or grass traps.  Personnel at the Noble Foundation, near Ardmore, Oklahoma, and several Oklahoma cattlemen, have had success weaning calves in the pasture.  Electric fence keeps the cows and calves separated.  It is suggested that a supplementation program be continued after the calves are turned out to pasture.  This trains the calves to feed and assists the producer in monitoring the cattle throughout the program.

 

In many farm situations and in years of drought, the high quality pasture alternative may not be available.

 

In these cases, hay coupled with supplementation or concentrate-feeding programs are implemented.  The number of nutrition program alternatives is virtually unlimited.  Table 6 shows budgets for four different scenarios:   hay with a low level of supplement; hay and one percent of body weight feed; free-choice receiving feed; and pasture with supplement.  Obviously, feed prices, labor availability, and buyer preferences will have an important influence on these calculations; therefore, these budgets must be viewed only as examples.  An OSU designed computer program (OSU Precon) can be used to estimate costs of preconditioning and breakeven sale price for the cattle.  This program is available through county Extension offices or can be downloaded through the Internet at www.ansi.okstate.edu.

 

The nutrition program has a direct influence on cattle fleshiness, fill, future performance, and  price.  Smith et. al. (2000) found that cattle classified as “full” were discounted  $3/cwt to $4/cwt compared to cattle with average fill. Similarly, cattle classified as “fleshy” were discounted one to two dollars per cwt compared to cattle considered to be in average condition (Smith et al., 2000).  Previous research has shown that a faster rate of gain during the growing period results in a slower rate of gain during the subsequent grazing or finishing phase.  However, if the calves are sold after preconditioning, nutrition programs based largely on hay are seldom profitable.  This is because hay is a very expensive energy source when evaluated on a cost per pound of weight gain basis.  Slower rates of gain during preconditioning, and minimum nutritional inputs are justified when all or a percentage of ownership will be retained in the cattle.  It is recommended that a moderate rate of gain (1.5 to 2 lbs) be targeted in situations where cattle will be sold, concentrate feeds are inexpensive, and labor availability is adequate.

 

Table 6. Example budgets of 45-day preconditioning programs with varying feeding managementa.

Item Hay and Supplementb Hay and 1% of body weight feedc Free choice ration with hayd Pasture and supplementc
Costs, $/head        
Interest 6.46 6.58 6.74 6.41
Health products and medicine 8 8 8 8
Death loss 2.57 2.57 2.57 2.57
Labor 4 6 4 2
Equipment 2 3 3 1
Hay 16.88 11.25 5.63 5.63
Feed 16.88 31.5 77.34 12.6
Pasture 0 0 0 15
Total 56.79 68.9 107.28 53.21
Breakeven Projection        
ADG, lb 1 1.6 2.25 1.75
Sale weight, lb 545 572 601 579
Sale price, $/cwt 163.96 160.24 155.26 149.05
Breakeven price, $/cwt 164.83 159.07 154.78 154.53

a Hay used in each situation is bermuda, sorghum sudan or cool season species with > 10%   protein and > 52% TDN.  Value of weight gain beyond 500 lb weaning weight = $0.85 per lb.  Sale price assumes no premium for preconditioning calves.

b Supplement contains 20% protein and cost is $175 per ton.

c Feed contains 14% protein and cost is $150 per ton.

d Ration contains 14% protein and cost is $145 per ton.

 

Summary

Bovine respiratory disease costs the beef industry because affected animals have reduced performance, increased cost of production, and reduced carcass quality. Based on the limited data available, preconditioning (defined as the combination of appropriate vaccination, 45-day weaning and balanced nutrition) significantly reduces morbidity and mortality as well as improving weight gain and feed efficiency. Data is not available documenting the potential benefits of preconditioning relative to carcass quality. Further information is needed to better identify the true value of preconditioning programs in different situations. This information is necessary to forecast a realistic price that buyers can pay for preconditioned calves, while allowing cow/calf producers to reap some of the added value. Conservatively, preconditioning may capture $50 to $75 per head of additional value from weaning through the packing phase compared to a production system where weaning, vaccination, and other management practices associated with preconditioning occur after shipment from the ranch of origin.

 

References

Cravey, M.D.  1996.  Preconditioning Effect on Feedlot Performance.  In: Proc. Southwest Nutrition and Management Conference, p. 33.

 

Gardner, B.A., H.G. Dolezal, F.N. Owens, L.K. Bryant, J.L. Nelson, B.R. Schutte and R.A. Smith.  1998.  Impact of health on profitability of feedlot steers.  Okla. Agr. Exp. Sta. Res. Rep P-965:102.

 

Gardner, B.A., S.L. Northcutt, H.G. Dolezal, D.R. Gill, F.K. Ray, J.B. Morgan and C.W. Shearhart.  1996.  Factors influencing profitability of feedlot steers.  Okla. Agr. Exp. Sta. Res. Rep. P-951:164.

 

Gill, D.R. 1967. Management of calves and adapting the calf to its future environment. In: Proc. Preconditioning Seminar, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. p 59.

 

McNeill, J.W. and F.T. McCollum III.  2000.  Texas A&M University Ranch to Rail Annual Summaries.  (1992-2000)  Available at:  http://animalscience-extension.tamu.edu/frameset.html.  Accessed December 20, 2000.

 

David Lalman
Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

 

Gant Mourer
Assistant Extension Specialist

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