A recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Vol. 229:9,1389-1400) compared calves selling after qualifying for a certified health program to calves with no history. The analysis showed an economic advantage to the cow-calf producer in the two most intensive programs each year in the 11-year study. The authors also noted that certified health program calves selling via video auctions increased from 16% in 1995 to 85% in 2005. The figures represent more than 3.2 million calves in 26,000 lots sold via video auction.

So why aren't all calves preconditioned (PC) prior to sale?

The No.-1 reason is a perceived lack of financial reward. If you're truly in the cattle business, you want a return on investment for any program. If it costs you $60/calf for feed, labor, vaccine, dewormer, etc., you must realize a return greater than $60 to make it a profitable proposition.

The second-most common reason cited is that the owner preconditioned some calves in the past but quit after they failed to bring a sufficient premium over commodity calves that sold the same day.

In each of the above concerns, the first step is to have an actual PC cost. The study cited above showed a range of $28-$63/calf for all PC costs.

Simply place a clipboard in the feed room, then jot down how much hay and grain is fed each day, and total the amounts when the calves are sold. Value the calves the day they're weaned — you'll need at least a group weight — and see if the price you received was more than their initial value plus your added expenses.

And don't forget to add in a 10% shrink on the non-PC calves if you weigh on the farm. The PC calves you're selling will have shrink figured in after weigh-up at the auction or upon delivery.

In nearly every case of selling PC vs. commodity calves, you should realize a profit to your PC efforts. Remember that producers often make more money from PC calves' added weight gain than the $/cwt. premium.

Doing it right

To get optimum weight gain after preconditioning, calves must be castrated and dehorned well ahead of weaning. The herd featured in my August 2006 BEEF article (“Pounds mean dollars”) had a 3.25-lb./day gain on steer calves during a 50-day PC period in 2006 without being overly fleshy, and their profit was $63.95/calf.

If your calves don't top the market on price/cwt., perhaps it's their genetics. Preconditioning won't make up for calves that are light-muscled, uneven or wild. Compare “apples to apples” when judging the influence of genetics on price.

Other roadblocks include small numbers of PC calves at the auction and/or small numbers in your herd. If this describes you, talk to your local cattlemen's association about PC calf sales. Your herd health veterinarian, Extension educator or auction market owner can also help organize larger numbers of calves into a few special sales.

In addition, many seedstock suppliers will assist you in selling your calves, either through a special sale or private treaty. Top seedstock producers realize their client service doesn't end when the bull is unloaded at the farm.

Another common roadblock to PC is the lack of facilities to process, wean and feed calves for 30-45 days. I've seen some very functional but inexpensive working facilities over the course of my career, and there's no excuse for not having a basic working facility. Search www.beefcowcalf.com for examples.

Two-step weaning

We've successfully utilized the two-step weaning method (“Stress-relieving weaning strategies,” BEEF August 2003) in herds that couldn't successfully wean calves from their dams without the calves getting back with their dams. The anti-nursing device is placed in the calf's nose five days before weaning, after which it is removed and the calf weaned. A single-strand electric wire is used to separate calves from cows with less than 2% of calves rejoining their dams. The feeding area for 30-45 days can include high-quality pasture and grain fed in a bunk daily.

In some areas, a lack of available labor is a roadblock to PC. Perhaps your veterinarian has a processing crew to assist in working your cattle. Or what about kids in your local FFA chapter?

With our studies showing a profit of nearly $59/calf for PC calves, hopefully you can shrink these roadblocks to just minor speed bumps.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical associate professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.