There’s been much debate regarding the profitability of preconditioning (PC) calves. It’s similar to the one surrounding creep feeding; the question is always: “Does it pay?” My answer has always been: “Well, that depends.”

It depends on the factors I’ve come to understand both on our own operation and through nearly 400,000 head through the MFA Health Track program. They are season, genetics, critical mass, health, condition, shrink and, finally, actually capturing any premiums.

Season – In recent history in the Midwest, barring some exceptional corn price fluctuation, I’d argue the best you can do is to market an 850-lb. steer around Aug. 15. From then until year’s end, the price spreads between 500 and 900 lbs. narrow to negligible. Since feed cost trends downward through summer, and many times through new crop corn harvest, this tells me the ability to profit from added weight on spring-born calves should be significant.

Genetics – Calves bred to perform in feedlots will also do well in a PC program. Crossbreeding with bulls that have some frame and muscle, as well as feed-efficiency and weaning-growth accuracies, should pay off in this type of program. The more consistent a group of calves, the easier they are to feed. In other words, genetic similarity and a 60-day calving period are worthwhile goals.

Critical mass – The average U.S. herd is around 40 head; people tend to turn a deaf ear to this discussion, even though we all know that larger parcels increase efficiency and garner higher prices. But, tighter calving periods, combining producers, and PC programs that allow pooling are some options available to anyone looking to capture more market value.

Health – We’ve kept records of Health Track calves that get sick during the 45-day PC period. In our dataset, morbidity ranges from .35% to nearly 5%, based more on when the vaccinations are given, than on product brand. Using a modified-live virus 4-5 way preweaning as a first round provides the absolute best protection. Adequate nutrition plays a key role in developing immunity.

Condition – In the last 10 years I’ve worked with Health Track, there’s been significant change in the type of condition most buyers look for. Thin and fleshy are both negative terms today.

The right genetics can provide calves that can gain well and still not get fleshy. Medium-fleshed calves with frame and muscle will perform well and stay healthy; it’s as simple as that. Maximizing weight gain into the appropriate season’s market without getting them too fleshy is the best advice you’ll get.

Shrink – Is it the opposite of compensatory gain? Maybe, but it can also be a harbinger of health wrecks. A 5% shrink on a 500-lb. calf is 25 lbs. At $1.25/lb., that’s $31.25. If you can save that much shrink, you can save that much money per head. PC calves shrink less than bawling calves; it’s a fact.

Value-added market access – There are many practices that if properly documented, provide access to market premiums – access, not guarantees. We all know that the last person with his hand in the air gets the cattle and the price is only based on that.

There are well-documented premiums, but back verification is proof that cow-calf producers don’t always capture it. Weaned, vaccinated, VAC 45, process-verified, natural, NHTC and organic are all examples of value-added processes. There’s a cost to each; you have to determine if your marketing scheme will deliver the premium to cover it.

Weaning and vaccinating, and “maximizing weight gain into the appropriate season’s market without getting them too fleshy” is still the best advice you’ll get.

Mike John is a cow-calf producer from Huntsville, MO, director of MFA Health Track operations ( and past president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.