Get off on the wrong foot with calf health, and you can spend a lifetime trying to catch up to the lost opportunity.

“A health program at the ranch has two benefits: maintaining the health of the herd and adding value to the calf,” says Ken Odde, vice president of veterinary operations for AgSpan.

There is no comprehensive study documenting the value that calf health contributes to a lifetime of production. Abundant evidence, however, suggests it pays to take more than a nonchalant approach.

On the pre-weaning side of the fence, Odde explains, “There are studies indicating that calves that have scours have reduced weaning weights of 15-20 pounds. I think most people view scours as increased death loss, treatment cost and labor, but the biggest loss is probably in lower productivity and foregone revenue.”

Even before a calf hits the ground, Odde explains, other research points to the value of healthy mother cows. After all, lower passive transfer levels in calves — antibodies passed to the calf via colostrum — equate to increased risk that the calf will become sick later in life, especially once it enters the feedyard.

Next, a growing body of evidence suggests there is net economic benefit to preconditioning calves. This includes vaccinating calves prior to weaning, then boostering the vaccinations at or near weaning and/or applying an effective nutritional program for 45 days prior to shipping.

For instance, Dave Lalman, Oklahoma State University Extension beef cattle specialist, points to a 1996 study that compared the performance of 380 heifer calves preconditioned and weaned 45 days to another 1,600 heifer calves from the same ranch that were simply weaned and shipped (Table 1). The preconditioned calves were vaccinated and dewormed at weaning time, then boostered with modified-live vaccinations 10-14 days later. These calves were turned out on grass traps during preconditioning where they received a concentrate pellet and free-choice hay.

When all was said and done, the preconditioned calves earned a net $60.72/head more than the cost of preconditioning through harvest. And, that's on a live-weight basis. Potentially, the net return, based on differences in carcass traits and value, was even higher.

In each of these examples, Odde emphasizes, “A herd health program and a good vaccination program are not synonymous. A good health program includes a good vaccination program… An organism contributes to disease, it doesn't cause it. It takes the organism plus other variables to make the animal sick.”

Lots Of Lost Potential

As obvious as this might seem, the majority of U.S. producers are leaving a stack of economic health cards on the table. According to the Beef ’97 study from the National Animal Health Monitoring Service (the most recent available), only 25% of cow/calf producers vaccinate their calves with IBR-BVD-PI3-BRSV between 22 days of age and weaning time.

Moreover, a full 42% of operations weaned their calves on the highway. Only 17.5% kept them for 1-31 days, and another 8.3% kept their calves for 32-61 days. This study was designed to account for 85.7% of all cattle and 77.6% of all operations with beef cows at the beginning of 1996.

Table 1: Effects of 45-day preconditioning on feedlot performance and profitability
Non-preconditioned Preconditioned
Feedlot in-weight (lbs.) 550 640
Feedlot gain (lbs.) 616 540
Days on feed 220 180
Average daily gain (lbs.) 2.80 3.0
Feed conversion 6.60 6.02
Medicine ($/head) 34.00 4.33
Death loss (%) 4.44 1.30
Feedlot cost of gain ($/cwt.) 62.80 54.75
Preconditioning cost ($/head) 0 40
Feedlot cost of gain ($/head) 386.85 295.65
Fed heifer value ($/head) 795.33 804.88
Value minus total costs ($/head) 404.48 469.23
Difference in net value ($/head) 0 60.72
Source: Oklahoma State University via Cravey, Southwest Nutrition and Management Conference.

Although the percentages have likely changed since then, the dearth of basic weaning vaccinations at that time make it a safe bet that the opportunity to exploit is still gargantuan.

When it comes to preconditioning specifically, Lalman says research indicates that procurement premiums of $5-10/cwt. may be justified for cattle that have undergone management protocols similar to the one mentioned above. In fact, premiums two and three times that much have been documented at auction sales that combine a documented health program with sorting, commingling and specific genetics.

But, premiums are never free.

“When calves are vaccinated, weaned and retained at least 45 days prior to shipment, preconditioning costs in our region realistically range from $35 to $60/head,” says Lalman. “And, cattle producers often ignore indirect costs such as interest, their own labor and equipment depreciation.”

He says the nutritional program for a 45-day weaning program typically makes up 45-60% of the preconditioning cost, so that aspect alone deserves careful consideration.

“Producers who have the luxury of grazing calves on high-quality forage after the weaning period have a much greater chance of being successful from a cost standpoint,” Lalman adds.

On the other hand, Lalman says preconditioning alone can conservatively capture an additional $50-75/head between weaning and harvest. Tack that on top of the added performance that comes from healthy calves prior to weaning, especially subclinical animals that are never detected, and you could be talking major jingle.

Or, in the case of the more cynical among us, these types of documented health programs may be at least worth a bid in the future.