The term preconditioning (PC) is gener­ally accepted as a way to adequately prepare a calf for a successful feedlot experience. Generally, this consists of calves being vacci­nated for viral respiratory diseases and 7-8 clostridial organisms, dewormed and treated for lice/grubs. In addition, bulls are castrated and horned calves are dehorned.

In most programs, calves are weaned for 30 days or more and trained to eat from a bunk and drink from a fountain/tank. Many PC programs also encompass a Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) component.

Nearly every study shows that a cattle feeder purchasing PC calves is finan­cially rewarded by these higher health status cattle. PC calves have re­duced morbidity and mortality in the feedlot and tend to have improved gain and feed efficiency compared to their non-PC contemporaries.

For some, the question remains whether the “producer” of PC calves receives equal financial benefits. We summarized 11 years of data from an Indiana beef farm to uncover four key factors in enhancing the profitability of preconditioning:

1. Team building

  • Developing a team – It takes time and practice to develop a beef management team for your farm and acknowledge skill building. Beef production is becoming increasingly complex, and relying on advisers in health, nutrition, finances, pasture management and genetics to help guide you will yield the best results. Your herd health veterinarian and Extension educator can be key resource people for your team.
  • Practice makes perfect – In our test herd, the owner averaged a return to labor and management of $37.28/calf during the first three years on the program, and $91.41/calf in years 9-11. Managerial skill building to successfully incorporate PC into the farm operation will take time.

2. Weight gain

  • Pounds pay – Research on the profitability of PC underscores that increased gain means increased profits. Calves gaining only 1-1½ lbs./day have the majority of their nutrition going to maintenance functions, while calves gaining 2½ -3 lbs./day have the majority going toward weight gain. You get paid for gain, not maintenance. Develop a ration where 2½-3 lbs./day gain is possible.
  • Efficiency pays – Newly weaned calves are very efficient in converting feedstuffs to beef. The cost per pound of gain generally increases as calves get heavier, so adding these “cheapest” pounds is very cost effective and best done on the farm of origin.
  • More days = more profit – In our study herd, there was a positive relationship between days precondi­tioned and overall profit. Newly weaned calves are stressed and weight gain the first week postweaning can be negative to miniscule. Thus, in a 30-day PC program, the first week of almost zero gain is almost 25% of the total PC period. If we PC for 70 days, the first week becomes an almost insignificant 10% of the overall PC timetable.

3. Herd health & nutrition

  • Nutrition is key – Newly weaned calves can con­sume a majority of their calories from co-product feeds that are high in fiber. Prices of these feedstuffs tend to be lower than feedstuffs with similar energy values such as corn and oats. Working with a nutritionist will allow the cattle to eat a balanced ration that optimizes growth rate while adding muscle, not fat.
  • Health during PC – Calves weaned in a low-stress manner at the farm of origin experience minimal health concerns. Morbidity rates under 2% and mortality rates under 0.5% are common. With a solid vaccination, weaning, nutrition and environmental plan, health concerns should be nearly nonexistent.

4. Marketing PC calves

  • PC bonus – Many papers on PC focus almost exclusively on the bonus that buyers pay because the calves have PC tags and/or paperwork. Our study revealed that 63% of the PC profit was due to added weight sold, and only 37% due to the bonus. Thus, we recommend producers focus on items 1-3 above, which provide the best opportunity to make PC pay.
  • Selling calves – If a bonus for PC is to be obtained, the herd owner must take a more active role in marketing the calves. This includes selling calves in sales where PC calves are featured, or by private treaty. If calves are sold through normal marketing channels, the chances for a PC bonus are remote.

Each beef herd is unique, and an assessment of cost-effective strategies should be examined with a team of advisers. In most herds, preconditioning calves before sale will have a significant impact on overall herd profitability.

W. Mark Hilton is a DVM in Veterinary Clinical Services, while Nicole Olynk is a PhD in agricultural economics, both with Purdue University.