Preconditioning gives calves better start when entering feedlots

Calves that are properly vaccinated, given protein-rich feed and taught to use a waterer before leaving home tend to better manage feedlot stress

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Bovine respiratory disease is the leading cause of sickness and death in newly received feedlot calves.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure for these youngsters that may be immuno-compromised after weaning and transportation.

“When you look at the entire North American feedlot industry this disease alone and the losses associated with it, is $1 billion a year,” said beef extension specialist Katy Lippolis of Iowa State University.

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If calves are treated two times or more for pneumonia and other illnesses the carcass is lighter and quality may be reduced. That may be the difference between profit and loss on a per-head basis.

Lippolis recommends preconditioning calves before they leave home so they are sturdier and able to withstand sickness and other stresses in their early lives.

“This transition from when the calf goes from the cow-calf sector to the feed yard is the most stressful time in that animal’s life, especially when it is traditionally done,” she said at the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association annual meeting in Williams Lake, B.C.

It is also one way to address questions modern beef consumers have about production practices that may include giving antibiotics to prevent illness.

The United States beef quality assurance and Canada’s verified beef production encourage best practices in production and record keeping. Three of the four largest packing companies in the U.S. have said they will accept cattle only from feedlots that have been certified through the beef quality assurance programs.

Lippolis’s research in 2016 showed vaccination and a 30-day preconditioning program produced healthier calves that gain better.

There are a series of steps to get calves off to a good start.

“I don’t expect every single person to do every single one because it is not economically feasible. What I do encourage is to find one or two and try it and see how it works on your operation,” she said.

High-risk calves arriving at feedlots are often lighter weight, unvaccinated, stressed, exhausted, immuno-compromised and they have been without feed or water. They are newly weaned and do not know where the feed and water is or how to consume it.

“You see these massive disease outbreaks among these calves that haven’t really been prepared,” said Lippolis.

They are automatically treated with antibiotics as a preventive measure upon arrival and consumers do not like it.

Referring to Canadian and American data, she noted many producers make an effort. A 2017 survey from Canada showed about half tried low-stress weaning but less than a quarter of producers surveyed preconditioned calves. Three-quarters vaccinated for respiratory disease.

“My concern, at least with vaccination, is a lot of producers will vaccinate when it is convenient at stressful times like weaning. A lot of them don’t follow vaccination guidelines so the vaccine isn’t effective,” she said.

“If you give an injection at weaning, you might as well shoot it on the ground. That animal is extremely stressed and it is not going to respond to that vaccine,” Lippolis said.

Producers should talk with their veterinarians about what vaccines are needed for viral and bacterial disease control and protection.

More people are using intranasal vaccines. They work and provide natural immunity at the spot where the calf will have an infection.

Calves should also receive some high energy and protein-rich feed and they should learn to eat from a bunk and drink from a waterer. Highly digestible concentrate supplements can be offered before weaning. It can be expensive but a week or two before weaning helps calves prepare for coming changes. Also, if they receive concentrated feed before they leave, the rumen microbes have had time to adjust.

Here is Lippolis’s preconditioning checklist:

  • calves weaned 35-45 days before leaving the ranch
  • two rounds of vaccinations are given
  • calves are dewormed
  • calves dehorned and castrated
  • calves introduced to dry feed
  • calves are introduced and accustomed to feed bunks and waterers

The Beef Cattle Research Council has developed resources to calculate the benefits of preconditioning of calves.

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