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Weaning, Preconditioning Nutrition, and Economic Considerations for Beef Calves

Chris Prevatt and Kim Mullenix

During this time of the year, some producers may consider preconditioning beef calves prior to sale. This involves a multi-step process including weaning, a defined health protocol, nutrition, and marketing plan. The following article describes a few helpful tips for weaning and getting calves started on the right foot.

Reminders at Weaning
Weaning is a stressful time in the life of a calf. Using management techniques to reduce stress can improve calf growth, performance, and their ability to adapt to new environments. When considering a preconditioning feeder calf program, the producer should evaluate the length and value of gain of alternative or different feeder calf preconditioning programs. Longer preconditioning programs usually have a higher value of gain due to the increased weight gain. Additionally, buyers usually prefer a feeder calf that has been preconditioned for a longer period of time. Most sales require a minimum period of 45 to 60 days. Abrupt weaning via separation of the mother and calf, and taking the calf directly to sale can result in excessive shrink loss from the time spent walking, vocalizing, and eating less. This makes calves more susceptible to illness in the next phase of the production chain.
Practices to reduce the stress load of calves at weaning may include the use of nose flaps and/or fence-line weaning. When both of these techniques are used together, this is referred to as “two-step” weaning. Nose flaps are small, clip like inserts that are attached to the nostrils of a calf to prevent it from nursing but not grazing. There has been a renewed interest in the use of nose flaps in the western part of the US, although this practice is not widely adopted in the Southeast. While the quality of this technology has improved over the years, some producers may not want to have this as an “added step” in the process of weaning and preparing for the preconditioning phase. Fence-line weaning is a practice where cows are placed in the pasture adjacent to calves so that they can see, hear, and smell one another but the calves cannot nurse. This technique requires a good fence, and an area on the operation that can be easily monitored. A few days prior to weaning, move cow-calf pairs into the pasture area where the calves will be following weaning to allow them to become familiar with the area. Some studies have also shown that putting a cull cow or yearling into the pasture with calves during weaning may further reduce stress load and keep calves from walking the fence as much.

A good nutrition program can help support growth and performance of calves during the preconditioning period. During this time, calves transition from a milk diet to a forage/concentrate-based diet. Training calves to use a feed bunk or watering trough can be accomplished during the preconditioning phase. Place feed bunks perpendicular to fence lines so that calves can easily find feed when they walk the fence. Calves should have between 1.5 to 2 feet of bunk space per head to prevent crowding. Water troughs should be highly visible and accessible. Small troughs may be more attractive to weaned calves because 1) the water supply may turn over more quickly in small troughs than large ones, keeping the water clean and cool, and 2) they can hear it being refilled frequently.
Rations for weaned calves can vary and may consist of grazed forage and supplemental feed, or a drylot-based diet. Collecting weights at weaning can help producers estimate weight gain goals during the preconditioning period and better formulate an accurate nutrition plan. Have realistic expectations for gain during this time period. Weaned calves will often lose weight during the first week after weaning, but will slowly begin to regain within a two to three week period. Healthy calves usually begin to resume “full” feed intake potential beginning two weeks after weaning. During this time period, producers can begin to expect greater average daily gain and feed consumption among calves.

Calves should be slowly acclimated to supplemental feeds to prevent acidosis. Begin by providing 0.5% of body weight in feed, and increase to the needed amount by two to three pounds every three days. Calves should always have free-choice access to grazed or harvested, stored forage to support rumen health. Provide access to a free-choice mineral or mix into these rations to help meet micronutrient requirements.

Economic Considerations
There are many methods and inputs used to precondition feeder calves. Each producer will need to evaluate their preconditioning system to determine if it is profitable for their operation. Several significant economic factors to consider when determining whether to precondition your feeder calves include facilities, labor availability, genetic capability/performance, cost of feedstuffs, health inputs, death loss, shrink, and price premium for preconditioned feeder calves. Collectively these factors add value to feeder calves. Research has documented that preconditioned feeder calves are worth more to cattle feeders and packers. Preconditioned feeder calves have less death loss, lower medication and veterinary expenses (due to less sick pulls), higher levels of performance (average daily gain and feed conversion), and higher carcass characteristics (quality and yield grade) than non-preconditioned feeder calves sold at weaning. In summary, the economics of preconditioning feeder calves will depend on keeping your cost of gain lower than your value of gain.

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