Veterinarians tell how and why to get customers invested in preconditioning.

More cattle enter feedlots in March and May, say Cattle-Fax analysts, than any other time in the first half of the year. But, not all will arrive in the best shape.

There's still time, however, to work with customers to help ensure the health of their cattle and make it easier on everyone involved with arriving cattle.

John Kirkpatrick, associate professor of medicine and surgery at Oklahoma State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, says communicating with customers and letting them know your preferred procedures is the best way to avoid wrecks.

Kirkpatrick categorizes feedyard approaches to incoming cattle by 1) prevention and 2) treatment.

* "The prevention aspect is much preferred to treatment," he says. "When a producer visits your yard and is talking about feeding there, it's a perfect time to open up on what type of health practices benefit both of you, making feeding his cattle a better chance of a win-win situation."

He adds that at this point a potential customer is open to recommendations and when possible, adjusting his management to fit what works at your yard.

* On the flip side is the treatment aspect. You've already received a set of cattle, they're doing poorly and you've got a customer who's complaining about the number of sicks, the cost of gain, medical bills and practically everything else. Kirkpatrick says this is a great opportunity for customer education and to demonstrate the value of proper backgrounding.

"This is the time to sit down with the customer and compare the same quality and same pen size of cattle of owners that have practiced sound preweaning and immunization programs, either in stocker operations or on the ranch," Kirkpatrick says. "Sometimes, showing the value of a preconditioning program through experience and on paper is the only way to help customers understand the value of it."

Extreme Cases Cost Preconditioning isn't just a benefit for the yard customer; it's easier on yard personnel from top to bottom.

"The ideal situation is to get cattle from a producer who's paid heed to his cattle's genetics, taken advantage of a parasite control and preconditioning program in which cattle have been castrated, dehorned, and vaccinated either two to three weeks prior to weaning and at weaning; or at weaning and 21 days post-weaning and has the calves weaned and ready to eat," says Kirkpatrick.

Unfortunately, it's not always this way. You're likely to get a set of calves that have been moved from one sale barn to another, have never been commingled, never vaccinated and never dewormed.

"The only thing you can do in this situation is to handle the animals as high risk, exposed cattle," Kirkpatrick says. "You'll need to initiate a vaccination program determined by your yard's consulting vet. Metaphylactic (treatment after the disease process begins) use of antibiotics may be indicated in many instances. This often requires a prescription from your veterinarian.

Spiraling Costs "This poses more upfront costs to the feedlot because it takes more processing time, more labor to ride pens, more time to pull sicks and increased medical costs among other things. The costs keep snowballing and neither you, nor your customer are going to be in a truly profitable situation," he says.

It's not only the dollars that tally up, especially if you've got a lot of sicks on hand. An unmeasured cost is the drop in morale as pen riders have to work harder to pull sicks and the doctoring crew sees nothing but sick ones waiting to be treated. All of this, Kirkpatrick says, takes its toll on everyone involved.

Dee Griffin, feedlot veterinarian with the University of Nebraska, says stress on animals is another costly factor that can be reduced. "Move cattle from point A to B as fast as you can and minimize handling as much as possible. This helps reduce their susceptibility to stress-related sicknesses," Griffin says.

Talk With Customers Customers sending cattle can still take an active role preparing their animals for delivery to your lot. And, there's still time to help them accomplish at least some conditioning.

"A lot of the calves coming in are fall weaners that have been put on grass or have been on wheat," Kirkpatrick says. "Hopefully, the majority have been vaccinated, dewormed and weaned. If they haven't and they're going to the lot, they can go through the same vaccination program as a weaning calf at three to four weeks before going to the feedlot. The feedlot will have a program its consultant recommends."

Kirkpatrick stresses communicating and documenting any procedures performed since the feedlot will perform all procedures if there's any question whether they've been done or not.

"This is critical, especially when it comes to implants," Griffin says, "Feeders should encourage their customers to be up front about the kinds of implants that have used prior to arrival. Nutritionists who get misinformed about previous implant usage can't plan a nutrition program to maximize the performance of the cattle."

Good Cattle Help Business Good-performing cattle help the bottom line for you and your customers, Kirkpatrick says. "The Texas A&M Ranch to Rail report on the four-year average net return of $44.59 advantage in healthy vs. sick calves during the feeding period should be an incentive to use one of the value-added calf vaccination programs.

"The value of the cow-calf goes directly to the producer if he retains ownership or if he sells feeder calves because of increased weight gain during the starting period," Kirkpatrick says. "The feeder receives value from the reputation for performance and health.

"Alliances are increasing the number of producers incorporating backgrounding programs," Kirkpatrick adds. "Those who can't background effectively aren't going to see the economic advantages.

"Genetics are also important," he adds. "Feeders can help steer customers to cattle with genetics that perform, grade and have good feed efficiency and rate of gain.

Plus, Kirkpatrick claims, producers are becoming more cognizant of parasite control. They're becoming more aware of the advantages of viral vaccines because of the increased incidence of respiratory disease in the nursing calf and increased ability to rapidly identify the Bovine Virus Diarrhea virus in persistently infected animals in the cow herd.

Kirkpatrick says each of these elements help build your yard's reputation as one that delivers on animal performance and quality. The more pens you fill from customers who have genetics and health, the more profitable you'll both be.