Tips for ensuring a preconditioning program works the way it was intended.

Preconditioning (PC) means different things to different folks. For our purposes, PC is the process by which calves are weaned and "conditioned" before moving to grass or a backgrounding yard for growing or straight to a feedyard for finishing.

PC can be done at the ranch or at facilities that specialize in managing fresh-weaned calves. In this article, we will focus on the PC of calves on the ranch.

The PC process improves a calf's chances of dealing with future stressors and exposure to pathogens. Bridging the management gap from suckling calf to weaned calf isn't that difficult when done at the ranch. It involves enhancing and managing the immune system, controlling stress and preventing overexposure to pathogens during this brief period of time.

PC is a value-added management practice. Calves that have fewer health problems after they leave the ranch:

- require less medication,

- suffer less death loss,

- perform more efficiently and

- potentially have higher value carcasses.

In the past, it's been difficult for producers to realize the added value in the PC calves they have sold. However, this appears to be changing with more opportunities through both direct sales and auction markets.

Here are a few considerations in PC calves.

- Allow adequate time to plan, evaluate and implement the program.

- Identify your market. A key to realizing PC calves' added value is finding outlets with buyers seeking PC calves. This effort must start well before the calves are weaned.

- Once market outlets have been identified, know what the buyers expect. Plan to deliver. This may include certain vaccination and parasite control practices, nutritional management, number of days weaned, weight, cattle type and individual animal identification.

- Evaluate the economics. Just because it seems easy to do and is beneficial to the calves and the industry, doesn't mean that PC will be profitable to the ranch.

If cattle are being prepared for retained ownership, then PC is a necessary production step. But, if cattle are being preconditioned for sale, carefully consider the economics.

The ranch should be ready and willing to retain ownership if it can't receive adequate compensation for PC efforts. Likewise, absorbing the loss might be the best alternative if retained ownership doesn't appear profitable.

- Identify your costs to avoid losses or surprises at marketing. The buyer's requirements will dictate some of the costs. Feed and opportunity costs account for the largest portion.

Be sure to charge interest against the value of the calves the day they are weaned. If you borrow operating money, this interest is the cost of not paying down the loan when the calves were weaned. If you don't borrow, the interest represents income you could have realized by putting the money in savings.

If you graze your own pasture, charge the PC program a reasonable rate for use of the pasture. This ensures that money is being set aside to pay land rent or payments.

If stocking rate of the ranch has to be lowered to support PC, it adds expense to the enterprise. If the land is owned and debt-free, this charge represents income. If the PC program breaks even, the ranch still pocketed some income. Some may prefer to leave this cost in the cow herd expenses.

Likewise, account for use of equipment and facilities, fuel, labor, utilities, etc. Assign a daily yardage charge for each calf in the program. Some may prefer to allocate the expense to the cow herd. Be sure to add in marketing costs.

Finally, in order to evaluate a PC program, project the weight and sales price of the calves at the end of the PC program. Certainly, premiums are a factor, but an equally important is seasonal market fluctuation. Does the market typically go up or down during the PC period?

The difference between the value of the calf the day it is weaned and at the end of the PC period is the money available to pay for the PC program and provide some extra ranch income. Projecting this margin allows you to determine if the program is feasible.

Other guidelines for a successful PC program include the following:

Control your costs. Shop for health products. Check with market outlets for purchase arrangements on the required products.

Feed is a major cost. Utilize on-farm forage and feed resources as much as possible. If pastures can be managed to provide good quality forage to weaned calves, then preconditioning becomes a viable option.

Though it varies by region, the most economical way to manage calves during the PC period will involve forage and supplement. In some areas, raw feed commodities and by-products are inexpensive and fit well in a PC program. In other areas, manufactured feeds are the only option and often at a higher cost.

If harvest forage has to be purchased for feeding any time other than the first five days post-weaning, evaluate the profit potential. Minimize feed purchases and scrutinize these costs closely.

The objective is to harden the cattle up and prepare them for the stresses to come. The amount of feed that can be purchased and fed to ranch-weaned calves is limited.

Weaning on the ranch is different from PC-purchased and stressed calves in a PC yard. Ranch calves will not need mixed feed to maintain a positive plane of nutrition or to maintain their health.

Follow Beef Quality Assurance guidelines. Don't cut corners on nutrition and health programs or the calves may have problems once they leave the ranch.

PC has routinely been done over 14-45 days, with a standard of 21-30 days. Only recently have the benefits of 45-day programs been documented.

The Texas A&M Ranch-to-Rail program has documented feedlot performance of steers relative to days weaned and vaccination programs utilized in the ranch PC programs. Calves weaned 45 days had the lowest medical expense and loss of production. Calves less than 30 days had the highest treatment rates and the greatest reduction in performance.

Thus, keeping calves longer may offer additional insurance against sickness at relatively little expense.

Be realistic. Performance of calves during preconditioning depends on feed resources and how calves respond to weaning. Rate of gain can vary from less than 11/42 lb./day to more than 2 lbs./day.

In most PC programs, achieving an average daily gain of 1-1 11/42 lbs./day over the 45 days will be adequate. This rate of gain can be achieved economically with a range of nutritional programs. Higher rates of gain can be achieved but perhaps not economically. If calves are contracted, calculate the desired rate of gain to meet the target and make sure it is realistic.