Some pointers to succeed with preconditioned calves.

Preconditioning (PC) and process verification for stocker/feeder calves can minimize sickness and death in calves as they move from the home ranch into the beef production system.

That same emphasis and an eye toward quality can also help producers sell calves in large groups of like kind, weight, condition and quality for higher prices than those same calves sold individually. It also allows producers to build a reputation for quality among buyers and produce a quality end-product for consumers.

The program includes:

- A minimum 45-day weaning period.

- A series of two modified-live respiratory complex (IBR, PI subscript 3, BVD, BRSV) vaccinations 14-21 days apart (preferably, the second vaccination will occur at least 14 days prior to sale).

- A series of two, 7-way clostridial vaccines on the same schedule as above.

- A Pasteurella vaccine given during the first round of vaccinations.

- Treatment for internal parasites (and external parasites if present).

It's recommended calves be held in the pen at least three to five days after weaning. Offer a high-quality PC ration twice daily. Have cool, fresh, clean water available.

The remaining 40-plus days of the program will likely be most economical and efficient if done in small or improved pastures and grass traps. Supplementing cubes, cake or a grain-meal mix may be needed to achieve the desired gain of 1-1.5 lb./day.

Remember These Considerations - Know the market price needed to cover your costs. If it's more than $5-$8/cwt. greater than the value of the calves at weaning, visit with commission company personnel or other market experts before proceeding with a PC program.

- Realize that a PC program won't change the muscle or frame score of feeder calves. If they're medium frame, # 2 muscle (M2) at weaning, they will still be M2s on sale day. Accurate assessment of the quality of the calves is critical to predicting their sale performance.

- Sort off any calves that won't fit load lots on sale day - color, quality, size, age, condition, weight, disposition, phenotype, tail shape or whatever - and sell them at weaning. Calves sold as individuals at the end of the sale typically sell at a discount to herd mates.

- Calculate realistically what the PC program will cost. Vaccines + anthelmintic = $6-$10/head minimum.

If you accept the minimum medicine cost above and want to keep the total per head cost of the program (before pasture cost, interest, labor, capital equipment, depreciation, etc.) at or below $25, you can spend no more than $15-$19/head on pasture, hay, supplement and/or feed. That equates to spending less than 35›/head/day. To put that in perspective, if a supplement is fed 40 days and costs $200/ton, maximum amount allowed (daily) is 3.5 lbs.

Realistically, $25/head is about the minimum a producer can expect to invest. On a 500-lb. calf, that is a $5/cwt. investment (ignoring postweaning gain).

- Evaluate realistically the magnitude of potential premiums. In a very strong feeder calf market, it might not be realistic to expect an additional $5-$8 premium on backgrounded calves.

Evaluate The Potential Pitfalls Timing - The minimum acceptable weaning period is 45 days. Longer periods won't necessarily bring additional premiums. Plus, days beyond 45 cost you more and increase risks of accidental death. So, plan your program as close to 45 days as possible. Precaution: long weaning periods have the potential to move weaned calves into a yearling market. There is very little (if any) demand for PC yearlings.

Sickness - Calves weaned and backgrounded on their home ranch typically experience few or no health problems. But if sickness occurs, the additional medicine costs and reduced performance could eat any potential premiums on sale day.

In addition, any fatalities quickly eliminate a PC program's profit. Facilities (corrals, pens) need to be in good working order before attempting this program.

Nutrition - Most producers spend too much on feed, hay and supplement. The 45-day gain target is 1.5 lbs./day. Few producers can realize this gain on grass alone, so supplementation is usually warranted. Contact an Extension specialist or beef cattle nutritionist for help. But, in general, remember that:

- Hay is expensive when you consider its efficiency of use to the gain it yields.

- Confinement feeding is seldom economically feasible.

- Forage quality is paramount; nutrient requirements as a function of body weight are at their lifetime high.

Freight - Carefully evaluate freight expense. Freight rates are cheaper ($/head transported) for trucks than pickup and trailer. Typically, truck rates are $2/loaded mile (50,000 lbs./load). Gooseneck trailer rates are $1.25-$1.50/mile for a 14,000- to 21,000-lb. load. Pooling calves with a nearby producer can fill a load and reduce freight expense.

Shrink - Backgrounded calves typically exhibit less shrink than fresh weaned calves, but predict the shrink and use it in your calculations. (If you've always sold at weaning and never weighed a calf on the ranch, you don't realize what shrink is doing to you.) Check with the host commission company about how they will handle shrink.

The sort - A heavy sort at the commission company can result in too many calves being sold individually, usually at a discount to the load lot price. Discuss your calves and the sorting procedure with the host commission company personnel.

Market slide - If the market is expected to drop during the 45-day PC period, proceed with caution. Even market declines of $2-$4/cwt., when added to the $5+/cwt. investment in the postweaning program, can become significant profit stealers.