Preconditioning boosts cattle profits

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

SENECA FALLS, NY — Want to get top dollar for your beef calves? Try pre-conditioning. Dave Wilson, a retired large animal veterinarian presented “Putting Profit in Your Pocket with Pre-Conditioning Practices” at the recent Empire Farm Days.

Wilson contends that although it’s hard to measure down to the dollar how pre-conditioning affects the bottom line, it does reduce animal stress and can result in traits favored by buyers.

Wilson strongly urges cattlemen to vaccinate, even in a closed-herd setting or when bringing in disease-free cattle.

“People say, “They’re healthy at my place,’ but they haven’t seen each other’s diseases,” Wilson said.

Close proximity to other herds, using a non-vaccinated bull and lack of hygiene among workers who have contact with other herds can all spread illness among closed herds. Wilson also pointed out that some vaccine manufacturers state their product is only 85 percent effective when used as directed. In less-than-ideal scenarios, such as when it’s used on already stressed cattle, the efficacy decreases further.

Wilson compared cattle vaccination to children receiving vaccination before kindergarten. Because of the broad exposure to others in a smaller environment, disease can spread quickly.

“A lot of viruses can be transmitted through flies,” Wilson said.

He wants producers to talk with their herd veterinarian or “emergency” vet to discuss prevalent bovine diseases in the area and what the producer can do to reduce their risk.

He advises a follow-up vaccination after four weeks.

“A killed vaccine product can be used at any time, but it’s not as effective as live vaccine,” Wilson said. “I prefer modified live vaccine for calves.”

Its safety makes it appropriate for young calves.

Calves that have received proper, timely vaccinations also receive a higher premium when sold. Other factors that boost the price include de-horning and banding bulls.

Reducing stress during weaning improves animal welfare and also saves farmers “from getting angry calls from neighbors from calves bawling for hours.”

Instead of separating mothers from calves abruptly and on opposite sides of the farm, he advocates keeping them nearby. He separates them by a three-strand fence, but with non-lactating cows among the calves. Calves can still see and smell their mothers, but can’t nurse. The youngsters’ new adult mentors can further teach them.

His fence-line weaning method helps eliminate anxiety.

For “Houdini” calves prone to slipping out of their pen, use physical blocks to prevent escaping.

“Weaning with the mother nearby shortens weaning time, and it makes it easier,” he said.

Again, he likened the calf’s experience to a child going to kindergarten. Some don’t care it’s happening; others feel upset for a while.

Wilson said many producers wonder why newly weaned calves ignore a feed bunk and watering trough in the center of a pen and wander around.

“He’s looking for mom,” Wilson said. “Put feed on the fence because that’s where they’ll find it.”

He also places filled-to-the-brim troughs near the fence. Since the water laps over the edge, calves can see, hear and smell the water.

“They’ll go check it out,” Wilson said. “They learn by mom, but when weaned, they’re stupid, like teenagers.”

Teaching calves about troughs and bunks also helps them after they’re sold because they will already know about these structures.

Calf stress isn’t only an animal welfare issue. Stress affects the animal’s weight gain, so reducing stress makes good financial sense as well.

“Wild temperature fluctuations can stress calves’ immune systems,” Wilson said.

Keeping calves comfortable for conditions can help them stay healthier.

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