Warning: If you're 100% satisfied with the health of your calves from weaning to slaughter, and 100% satisfied with the price you receive for them, stop reading now. If not, I've got a few questions for you that may make you squirm.
First, let's talk health. All three writers of this monthly “Vet's Opinion” column have championed preconditioning in previous columns. The bottom line is feedlots want calves weaned and fully vaccinated. Calves that walk the fence bawling for their mothers and then get sick are a liability in the feedlot.
If you wean and precondition your calves, you obviously know if they stay healthy during the 45-day (or more) preconditioning period. Is your incidence of health greater than 98%? If not, that's not good enough. Tell your herd health veterinarian you want to improve your practices to reach your 98%+ health goal. In fact, we have records on many herds with zero sickness during preconditioning.
The next question is: Do you know the health of your calves after they leave your farm or ranch? If not, why not? Grab your cell phone and call the feedlot for the health report. You may be surprised.
Now let's talk price. Too many producers tell me they get inadequate prices for their calves. Many have gone to the extra work of preconditioning their calves but say they bring the same price as unweaned, unvaccinated, commodity calves.
If this is your story, I have one thing to say: “Fix the problem.”
When feeder cattle auctions have been studied to find which calves bring top prices, they find it is those that are healthy, weaned, vaccinated, third-party verified, castrated, dehorned, and in a lot size of greater than 40 head, with a large/medium frame, uniform weight, and adequate muscle and flesh.
Speaking of flesh, I'd like to ask why so many producers are terrified of getting their calves too fleshy during backgrounding. I realize calves can get too fleshy, but a recent study in Arkansas found fleshy calves were only 3% of all calves sold. Meanwhile, nearly 25% of calves were classified as thin or very thin.
We have records on a herd that limit feeds calves and consistently gets 2.8-3.0 lbs./day gain during preconditioning; the calves are never excessively fleshy when sold. The ration is high in by-product feeds and the genetics are superior. If you're getting less than 2.5 lbs./day of gain, fix it.
If you've sold calves and not gotten the best price, look at the list of factors mentioned earlier that help calves bring top prices. Remember that a preconditioning tag doesn't automatically make your calves worth more; your calves must carry the quality factors mentioned earlier. The problem is that 80% of producers feel their calves are above average in quality. That math just doesn't work.
If your auction market doesn't have special preconditioned calf sales, meet with the owner or board and see about getting one started. If they're not interested in helping you make more money, find a new team. You can also call your state cattlemen's association, seedstock supplier or Extension educator and work together to get something started.
I know a seedstock producer who sells only 12-15 bulls/year, yet helps market all the calves. Another supplier of more than 1,000 bulls/year hosts special feeder-calf sales for his customers. Did you know the state of Maine markets more than 60% of its calves as certified, preconditioned calves?
Your herd health veterinarian could also coordinate a preconditioned calf sale. Maybe your practitioner needs to help you make more money by getting all his clients together to have a special sale.
Stop making excuses and fix the problem; produce the kind of healthy calves that feedlots want while putting some extra money in your pocket as a reward for your hard work.
W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical associate professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.