With increasing value for each calf, the herd mentality may no longer be applicable, says Rick Sibbel, DVM, director of U.S. Cattle Technical Services at Merck Animal Health.

“The concept of precision agriculture that’s done in row crop farming can be moved to animal agriculture, looking at each animal as an individual unit with individual characteristics,” Dr. Sibbel says. “Does it make sense to have a minimalistic approach to raising cattle when they are worth more now than they ever have been before? We should know more about these individuals to make sure we are giving resources where they are necessary.”

In particular, vaccination timing can help prepare calves for better health with a little extra labor and time. Vaccination, weaning and shipping are all stressful events, which can impair the animal’s immune system. Spacing the procedures out can help ensure vaccinations work to the best ability.

Rick Sibbel, DVM, Merck Animal Health“If you want to create the healthiest calf possible, vaccination and weaning should be separate,” he says. “As you approach weaning time, vaccinate those calves while they are on their mom. Then, turn those calves back out and wait two to four weeks before weaning. Traditionally, we liked to wean and vaccinate in the same day, but it’s the absolute worst time. A calf is going through huge amounts of stress.”

The downside of this extended vaccination and weaning process is additional time and labor. However, that cost can quickly be earned back if one calf worth $1,000 is saved.

“It’s so very rare that a vaccine just doesn’t work,” Dr. Sibbel notes. “It’s more likely the animal’s immune system wasn’t optimized to receive the vaccine.”

Developing a careful preconditioning program starts even before the calf is weaned, notes Gary Sides, Ph.D., beef cattle nutritionist with Zoetis. Beyond simply choosing a product or a preconditioning plan, it involves getting animals familiar with a feed bunk and other tried-and-true management practices.

“It can be really easy to pass that management on to someone else, but those calves are worth less and don’t perform as well,” Sides says. “Everybody benefits when the calves are worth more, and we know what happens at the ranch affects what happens at the feedlot. If a calf gets sick on the ranch—from poor vaccination or poor colostrum—he’s more likely to get sick in the feedlot.”

Attention to preconditioning can also benefit producers who are keeping replacement heifers. Healthy heifers breed earlier and are generally more productive during their lifetime in the herd, he notes.

Ouzts Cattle Co. operates both a cow-calf herd and a year-round backgrounding operation. Working in two different market segments gives Ouzts perspective from both sides of the fence. He says it’s important to be transparent about the exact vaccinations administered to demonstrate the program was carefully considered. The true test of any preconditioning program happens after sale day.

Caylor Ouzts“It helps us to sell the cattle,” Ouzts says. “When you ship them, that’s when your vaccination program shows off. As high as cattle are, there’s no reason not to invest. Even when cattle are cheap, it will add to your bottom line quite a lot.”

Ouzts’ vaccination program doesn’t remain static. It’s constantly being evaluated based on new products or clinical cases, notes his veterinarian, Elizabeth Kidd, DVM, at Cairo Animal Hospital in Cairo, GA.

“Caylor is a smart producer, and he understands that there’s only so much we can do with physical exams,” Dr. Kidd explains. “Sometimes you need to know exactly what bacteria or virus you’re fighting, and that’s something he really gets.”

Her recommendation for preconditioning is based less on market conditions and more about the specific health challenges. However, treatment is one area higher cattle prices changed.

“We are aggressive in treating every single sick calf and trying to treat them faster,” Dr. Kidd says. “That’s how a lot of our producers are in the area. They are now more willing to treat than they may have been in the past.”