I have a few comments in regard to DVM Mark Hilton's August article “Fix the problem”.
Our ranch annually sells 1,400 steer calves and 900 yearlings. We run in big country and sell our calves off the ranch. We vaccinate at branding and have a veterinarian, but aren't big on giving lots of shots. We believe in a quality immune system, and provide free-choice salt and mineral formulated to the forage quality in our grazing areas.
Feedlots like preconditioning and retained ownership because it reduces their health risk, but preconditioning doesn't mean you have good cattle. Considering that the average herd size in the U.S. is 40 head, I can see why our industry is in the situation it is. I would hate to have to source cattle from 300 different producers just to fill my yard.
We look for buyers who want the type of cattle we produce. Being able to market 1,400 head is a plus, but we also use electronic ID and are Beef Quality Assurance (BQA)- and third-party verified. We offer all-natural yearlings, a small group of preconditioned steers and 1,200 bawling steers.
There are calf buyers out there with land on which they want to graze or background calves, and don't mind bawling calves. These are the buyers we've done business with for years. The math shows preconditioning doesn't pay on our operation.
If the article's key takeaway is to know the health of your calves, that's spot on. All producers should have vaccination and mineral programs.
We do know the health of our calves. The trouble is, when 14 truckloads of our calves are exposed to 300 truckloads of someone else's, that's where feedlots see health issues. I've toured many feedlots, and most vaccinate calves upon arrival because they don't know or trust the previous management.
We provide documentation and all our employees are BQA certified. What troubles me most about this article and others is that preconditioning is presented as the answer. In my opinion, it's not.
The one factor that never gets brought up is Mother Nature. If the Midwest has wet or dusty fall weather, the calves will get sick, regardless of vaccinations or backgrounding.
We precondition 250 head of steer calves off our two-year-olds each year, not for the premium (we don't get one) or for the gain. We do it to help those first-calf mothers regain condition for the fall and winter. In good years, we experience less than 2% morbidity and zero death loss. In bad years (wet/dusty), we're closer to 10% morbidity.
Preconditioning is an option not a cure-all. Not everyone has the facilities, labor, etc., and not every feedlot needs a preconditioned calf. What they need is a good-quality calf coming from a reputable operation that knows its herd health.
Editor's Note: See Mark Hilton's response on page 20 of this issue.