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Manage your calves for a healthy start

September 2, 2014

By Jeremy Powell, Professor & Veterinarian, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture


When you gather your calves to sell this fall, make an effort to give your calves a healthy start by adding a preconditioning program.  Preconditioning programs are designed to minimize the likelihood of disease throughout the rest of a calf’s life.  By keeping illness to a minimum, we can improve gain performance, carcass value and most importantly, the lifelong health and wellbeing of the animal.


A calf’s health can be directly affected by stress factors such as a naïve immune system, poor nutrition and parasite burdens.  A University of Arkansas summary of data collected during 11 years of the Arkansas Steer Feedout Program (Table 1) clearly demonstrates that sickness from bovine respiratory disease (BRD) can directly affect calf performance and profitability in the feedlot.  The data summary identified that cattle that were treated for BRD demonstrated a reduction in daily weight gain of 0.13 lb/day.  Sick cattle also had an increased days on feed in the feedlot, and they also exhibited poorer USDA quality grades at slaughter.  Disease treatment medication costs averaged $18.49 for the calves that were sick.


Recent University of Arkansas research quantified the benefit in the selling price for calves marketed as preconditioned through Arkansas salebarns.  Their report referenced data that was accumulated from 38,346 calves sold through Arkansas livestock auction barns.  Calves marketed as preconditioned brought on average $6.84/cwt. more than calves that were not preconditioned.  These preconditioned calves are more desirable to calf buyers due to their potential for improved health and increased gain performance.


Calves not preconditioned may leave the farm of origin healthy; however, this may easily become compromised by stress caused by weaning, inclement weather, commingling, transportation, poor nutrition and parasites.  Preconditioning the calves would incorporate vaccination, deworming, castration, balanced nutrition, and weaning calves on the ranch for 45 days.  Improved health and performance can be expected when calves leave the farm as preconditioned.  This is not only an opportunity for producers to maximize the price they receive for their calves, but also in the best interest of the future welfare of the cattle.


Weaning can clearly be a stressful period for calves that can subsequently affect post-weaning weight gain. Fenceline weaning has been utilized to help reduce weaning stress. Fenceline weaning allows calves to remain in sight of and in close proximity to their mothers. This technique can also allow high-quality pastures to be used as the weaning facilities in place of dusty drylots. A recent study conducted at the University of Arkansas Livestock and Forestry Research Station near Batesville compared calves that were weaned either by abrupt separation or by fenceline weaning.  The average daily gain during weaning period was greater for fenceline weaned calves compared with traditionally weaned calves.  The fenceline weaned calves gaining 2.55 lb/day and traditionally weaned calves gaining 1.6 lb/day.

Development of disease immunity before calves leave the farm begins with preparing the calf through a preconditioning program.  Vaccination, parasite control, early castration and proper nutrition can lower risk of future disease.  Cattlemen should be doing what we can to properly prepare calves for a healthy start.  By doing so, we can improve animal wellbeing, reduce antibiotic use and improve consumer confidence in our product.  For more information about beef cattle management, visit your county Extension office.

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