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Visible and invisible benefits of preconditioning

‘Truck weaned’ calves are highly stressed and ultimately suffer from a higher rate of shrink during trucking to a feedlot

Preconditioned is a general term for feedlot-destined calves that have been vaccinated, castrated, dehorned, weaned, have some feed-bunk/waterer experience and have been fed a nutritious post-weaning diet for at least 30-45 days prior to being sold to a feedlot.

Recently, I’ve talked to some cow-calf operators selling spring calves to feedlots in the fall, who see no problem in “truck weaning,” where calves are abruptly removed from their mothers, loaded onto a cattle trailer and transported to another yard.

Many of the truck-wean producers say the economics of preconditioning don’t pencil out. Their opinion is in contrast to an Alberta study (2012) showing pre-conditioned calf sales earn an $8/cwt premium per spring calf. Truck-wean supporters counter that this study has merit, but this extra $50 per 600-lb. calves ($8 x 600 lb./100) often doesn’t cover the extra costs of preconditioning — more evident during wide price variations due to heavier weight discounts and market seasonality.

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One person paying more for preconditioned calves is a buyer I met at a stockman’s meeting, whom purchases short-kept calves for backgrounding. One year she bought 800 unconditioned heifer calves, trucked them 1,000 miles and almost immediately regretted the purchase. Her experience involved a lot of extra time getting these unconditioned calves up to the feed bunk. She spent at least $25 per head treating sick calves, mainly injections for respiratory problems.

The following year, she bought a similar number of preconditioned 600-lb. calves which were transported to her yard. Although she didn’t disclose the premium paid for these preconditioned calves, she did say that the premium was worth it, because not one animal was needled and quickly got onto her feedlot starter diet.

I believe sellers and buyers of calves each have a plausible for/against case about the economics of preconditioning calves. Anyone planning to sell preconditioned calves, should roughly follow a three phase program that involves: (1) pre-weaned preparation phase, (2) viable weaning period and (3) 45-day post-weaning phase.

The primary goal of each phase is to reduce the amount of weaning stress in saleable calves, as well as dovetail into future feedlot feeding programs.

Phase 1

Starting with the pre-weaned phase, I recommend cow-calf operators talk to their veterinarian about a well-planned vaccination program implemented about three weeks before calves are weaned. Calves should also be dewormed, dehorned and male calves castrated.

Meanwhile, I suggest these pre-weaned calves be fed a nutritious 14-16 per cent medium-energy creep feed that helps develop their immature rumens, while it encourages them to eat from a bunk or self-feeder. I also like to see calves, roaming with their mothers, fed a well-balanced commercial beef mineral (and vitamins) to build mineral status for better immunity against disease, as well as help boost autumn vaccination titres.

Phase 2

Next comes the actual weaning of the calves. Luckily there are many practical methods that reduces weaning stress..

One recommendation is rather than separate the calves right off the cows, and move them into strange pens is to move the cow-calf pairs into a new feeding area that will be used only for the calves after weaning. Once the calves get used to the feed bunks and waterers, move the cows out. The idea being that the calves are no longer in a strange place and even without their mothers, will quickly get accustomed to what and where their new dinner will be.

Likewise, some people advocate calves can be effectively weaned with a strong fence separating them from their dams. The idea is that cows and calves are prevented from touching one another, but have visual contact to reduce stress on both sides of the fence. For example, a friend of mine, who raises about 100 cow-calf pairs uses this “fenceline” method with two fenced-in pastures separated by a road. He says cows and calves bawl for about a day and then seem to forget about one another.

Phase 3

In the next few days, settled weaned calves should be moved onto a 45-day post-weaning/preconditioning feeding program. This tends to be a high-forage diet that puts on modest gains to draw premium market value or dovetails with an advanced backgrounding rations when ownership is retained.

As a ruminant nutritionist, I often recommend the following 45-day preconditioning feed and management program.

  • A weaned calf gains two pounds per day or about 90 lbs. more of marketable weight.

Spring calves (500-700 lbs.) require about 65-68 per cent TDN, 13-14 per cent protein, high mineral and vitamins.

  • 14 per cent post-weaning ration consists of corn, oats, corn distillers, soybean meal, mineral-vitamin premix and medicated with monensin sodium at 22mg/kg.
  • Forage: Mixed adequate mixed hay (Substitute with fall pastures, green chop, or stubble grazing).

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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