The Case for Preconditioning and a Clear Definition of What It Means

According to the Western Canadian Cow Calf Survey completed in 2015, 72 percent of calves in Western Canada are sold at weaning, with 80 percent being sold via an auction market.

The combination of stressors calves face in that short time from weaning to auction to entering a feedlot has major health and economic implications, says Brenna Grant, manager of CanFax Research Services.

“What we see is the majority of our bovine respiratory disease occurs in the first 60 days of freshly-weaned calves derived from auction markets in the feedlot,” she notes.

The high stress process also puts pressure on antibiotics, as feedlots administer antimicrobials to help calves back to full health.

Preconditioning sees those stressors spread out over a longer period, improving health and weight gain in animals entering a feedlot, explains Grant in this conversation with RealAg’s Debra Murphy.

“We want this to be a win-win-win. Not only does society win from reduced antimicrobial use, but the feedlot should win as well…even if he’s paying a premium to the cow-calf producer, he should be able to pocket the gains from improved performance,” she says.

So how long should a cow-calf producer precondition their animals? What does this look like?

The problem for Western Canadian producers is there’s currently no clear definition or financial incentive.

In the U.S., the two main criteria in preconditioning programs are that calves have been weaned for a minimum of 45 days and vaccinated, as well as boostered, at least 21 days before sale. Some programs also include requirements for castration, dehorning, identification and veterinary verification, explains Grant.

In theory, feedlots benefiting from reduced morbidity should be willing to pay a premium for preconditioned calves, but that’s not happening to any major extent in Western Canada:

“Right now, because of this ambiguity, and there’s no trust between our cow-calf and feedlot guys, there’s no premium being paid in Canada. All of the economic gains for the cow-calf producer are really coming from the additional weight being gained, and in that case, you’re not looking at 45 days. You’re typically looking at 60 days or longer.”

Grant refers to research showing preconditioning for over 60 days has proved to be profitable, noting the Beef Cattle Research Council has a preconditioning calculator (found here) for helping producers determine the economic costs and benefits of preparing calves for their stressful move to the feedlot.

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