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Preconditioning Calves Pays Off


Buyers gladly pay premiums for calves that won't spend weeks in hospital pens.

Preconditioning calvesProducers who follow a good preconditioning program don't have to worry about someone buying their calves. Buyers not only will compete for their calves; they'll pay premium prices to get them.

That's the gospel according to Mike Peacock, beef feed sales and marketing manager for Southern States. He says producers average about $2 for every $1 they invest in a well-designed preconditioning program. "Show me another program that lets you do that in 60 days," he challenges.

Preconditioning pays for both buyers and sellers, Peacock says. Buyers have reduced risks, lower death losses, reduced medical costs and better gains. Sellers get higher prices, resulting from buyer-preferred healthier, bigger calves.

"Producers who bring freshly weaned green calves to an auction have all of the strikes against them," Peacock says. "These calves will suffer more shrink and higher death loss. Buyers recognize this and heavily discount those calves, if they're even interested in them."

Bill McCoy of McCoy Cattle Co. at Lancaster, Penn., says 90% of his orders are for calves that have been weaned, are backgrounded and have received a full battery of vaccinations. He provides 12,000 to 15,000 calves annually, mostly for mid-Atlantic farmer-feeders.

Calves should be weaned at least 45 days before they're moved to market; 60 days would be even better. During that time, they should receive two rounds of vaccinations to protect against the viral and respiratory diseases they will encounter during transport. The last use at least 30 days before shipping.

"Calves need to gain at least 2 pounds per day to be profitable to both the producer and the buyer," Peacock says. "They can't do that on forage alone, because they can't consume enough."

Southern States offers two primary feed packages for producers in a preconditioning program: a 14% Jump Start and 13% Commercial Cattle Starter.

The co-op's 14% Jump Start is used in a creep-feeding program while calves are still with their mamas. When cows are removed, the calves remain on the same ration at 1% or more of their body weight per day, depending on forage quality. This ration helps calves remain at their comfort level, so they're aren't stressed.

The 13% Commercial Cattle Starter is for calves after they've been weaned. They should be confined in a pen and fed the ration at the rate of 2 to 2.5% of body weight per day for 16 to 21 days until they've passed through the postweaning stress disease cycle. Then they should be fed 14% Jump Start at 1.5% of their body weight per day, along with forage.

Using this program, cattlemen in a West Virginia marketing association pool calves for fall sales of certified quality preconditioned calves. Carl Hevener, a feed sales associate for Southern States and a cattle producer from Franklin, says the combined pools sold about 1,400 head last fall. These preconditioned calves are sold in lots via phone, based on the program's reputation.

"We usually have at least 20 active bidders," Hevener says. "Premiums have ranged from 3 to 18 cents more than local market prices."


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