Over recent weeks I have re-ceived a multitude of questions concerning preconditioning and backgrounding of weaned cattle, newly received feeder cattle and so on. At the same time, as we examine the industry we find that this management practice is of greater interest and is being ap-plied more extensively every day. If you follow these articles you know that in past issues we have discussed preconditioning newly weaned calves on several occa-sions in a rather in depth manner. The questions I get from a lot of cattlemen revolve around what preconditioning and background-ing actually requires and how they can become involved. Pre-conditioning and backgrounding are two terms we use, in many cases, interchangeably. In most cases they both involve a process in which cattle are prepared, often before weaning, for the weaning process and the stresses involved both here and through transporta-tion to grass or to the feedyard. In this issue we'll review the definition of preconditioning and backgrounding and examine some fairly simple ways that a producer can develop a program of this nature.
The Beef Industry's Perspective
Preconditioning has been around in some form for many years. Any time a cattle producer weaned his calves, gave them injections of some type and kicked them out on grass with a little feed they were considered preconditioned or backgrounded. What the industry has found over the years is that all precondi-tioned (PC) cattle are NOT cre-ated equally. In many cases, even in recent history, cattle which were PC were not bought at a premium. This was true even though the producers who had done the work and spent the money to condition these cattle were told by industry, university and extension personnel that they were more valuable and would therefore command a premium. Through these earlier years what the feedyards found that while many PC cattle did, in fact, per-form better (less sickness, less deathloss, went on feed faster) this was not always the cases. They found that there was a lot of variability in how these cattle performed. Variability in per-formance in many areas of the beef industry plagues our ability to consistently hold market share and provide the type of economic returns we should be able to en-joy. So what was the difference? Wasn't a preconditioned calf a preconditioned calf? Apparently not. We have seen many factors play a role in consistency of per-formance. These include but are not limited to:
*How cattle are handled prior to weaning? Was nutrition ade-quate? Were the calves im-planted, castrated, given various injections prior to weaning?
*What part of the country are they from?
*Some parts of the U. S. are notorious for providing forages in which minerals are not well bal-anced.
*How were they handled upon weaning and when they entered the PC program? What injections were given? How long were they off feed and water? How were they handled as they passed through the chute? Are the still on the farm, off the ranch or out of the sale barn?
*What type of nutrition were they given as they entered the PC program. Was it well balanced? Was it palatable? What type of feeds/commodities/ingredients were used?
*Was clean fresh water pro-vided at all times?
The industry found that each of these factors as well as many others had a profound effect on how PC cattle performed. In many cases they actually came out better by buying non-PC cat-tle and handling the process themselves. However, times are changing.
If we look at how a feed yard operates and examine what takes place as cattle enter the yard and begin the growing and finishing process, we find that the period from the time cattle enter the feedyard, are processed and started on feed is, by far, the most expensive period of that animal's time in this environment. This is the period when the injections, worming, implanting, ear tagging, etc. occurs. This is also when cattle are the most stressed and when the greatest amount of mor-bidity (sickness) and mortality (deathloss) occurs. This period also requires the most labor to get all the work done that is neces-sary for these cattle. Similarly, fresh cattle come into a feedyard in many cases having never seen a feed bunk or trough and having never drunk water from anything beside a stock pond. This delays getting the cattle adapted to and started on feed. Interestingly, a few days delay can have a fairly significant effect on overall per-formance as well as carcass char-acteristics when the cattle go to the packer.
Feedyards have found that by spending a bit more on cattle that have been PC they can greatly reduce the amount they spend on labor, medication, etc. and subse-quently experience better per-formance from the cattle in terms of gain and carcass traits.
For this reason we are seeing an increased demand in the indus-try for cattle that have gone through a PC program. We are even seeing certain feedyards that have gone exclusively to receiv-ing cattle that have been through such a program. Before we re-joice that producers can make additional profits by adopting this practice, consider that we operate in an interest that is more accus-tomed to discounts than to credits. What we could eventually see is not receiving a credit for cattle that have been PC but significant discounts for cattle which have NOT been managed in this way. Either way, the demand for this activity will increase with time.
The Producer's Perspective
As a producer of commercial cattle, before you run out and decide to PC all your calves at weaning, it is important to under-stand that jumping through these hoops will not automatically guarantee you more dollars for your cattle. A successful PC pro-gram requires three important steps: 1) Design of a program which is sound in terms of health, nutrition and management, 2) implementation of the program designed and 3) Marketing. De-sign and implementation of a pro-gram of this nature is relatively simple and we'll address this more in a bit. Development of a marketing program can be more complex and time consuming. Effective PC programs require that you produce a quality, con-sistent product and that potential buyers know what you are doing and that you are accomplishing the first goal. This doesn't hap-pen overnight and generally re-quires a period of time when the producer must prove himself and that he knows what he is doing. Cattle marketed through a pro-gram such as this are generally not sold through the sale barn since the recognition that these cattle have been managed in this way is easily lost unless the sale is earmarked for PC cattle. The general weekly run will probably not produce more money for cat-tle you have preconditioned. When you decide to become in-volved in a program such as this it is very useful to develop a rela-tionship with some of the order buyers in your area. Order buyers commonly buy cattle for feedyards or other producers who graze or feed cattle in larger groups. In many cases they can buy your cattle from you for an individual such as this. Since you can convey to them what you have done with your cattle, this information can then be passed on. Preconditioning several groups of cattle and getting them marketed as such will help you develop a reputation as a pro-ducer of cattle that can be relied on to perform. It is very useful to follow-up on the cattle you sell to determine how they worked out for the buyer, getting as many specifics as you can including rate of gain, feed conversion, cost of gain, sick pulls, deathloss, etc. In this way you can document for future customers what your cattle can do. It also tells you if you need to make changes in your seedstock program, especially in terms of genetics.
Putting it in Place
Once you've decided that such a program is worth pursuing sev-eral factors need to be consid-ered:
1) What facilities do I have available? This includes headgates, squeeze chutes, work-ing pens, holding or feeding ar-eas, bunks or troughs, feed stor-age, feeding equipment, etc.
2) How and when are my cattle typically weaned? More specifi-cally, do you wean calves in lar-ger groups or do you commonly pull off calves one or two at a time as they are about sale weight? If you typically wean off larger groups of calves, lets say ten or more, this program works a little better. If you have a con-tinuous breeding season and cattle are weaned a couple of head at a time year round, this becomes more complicated.
3) How many cattle do I have available in a reasonably close weight range (50 to 100 lb. spread)? Cattle can typically be marketed more effectively if they are in somewhat larger groups. Truckload quantities (about 75 head) are ideal but not vital by any stretch. You may want to actually go out and purchase a few calves of similar weight and quality to what you have in order to increase group sizes and make your cattle more marketable.
3) How will my cash flow needs be affected by higher input costs and a delay in returns for an additional 45 to 60 days? Re-member, you will have to spend a few extra dollars for vaccines and other processing necessities as well as feed for a period of time until the cattle are fully precondi-tioned
4) How much and what type of labor do I have available and what will it cost? If you are do-ing it all yourself you have your own time value to account for. If you hire day labor that is a cash expense you need to consider. This can also be a factor as you get into the feeding period. De-pending on what equipment you have and the number of cattle you are feeding, this can be fairly la-bor intensive.
Once you have answered these questions you are better prepared to take the next steps. In some shape, form or fashion you need the following:
1) A squeeze chute, headgate or other means of restraining the cattle.
2) The necessary equipment to process the cattle (injections, cas-tration, dehorning or horn tipping, etc.)
3) An area for feeding. This can be a pasture, small lot or trap, etc. Depending on your feeding program the cattle need to be able to graze and/or receive free-choice hay along with a supple-ment or be full fed a total ration. Generally, bunk feeding of a sup-plement or ration requires at least one foot of bunk space per head. Use of self-feeders allows multi-ple cattle access to the same space and is not as restrictive sine the supplement is available all the time. A rule of thumb for self feeding is 10 to 15 head per foot of feeder space.
4) Feed Storage. Depending on what your feeding program may entail, you will probably need an area to store feed. I nor-mally recommend purchasing bulk feed for this purpose simply because it is typically $15.00 to 25.00 per ton less expensive than bagged feeds. Also, if you are self feeding, bulk feed can be delivered directly into the feeders. Depending on how complex you wish to get, including mixing your own feed, you would then need more storage as well as mix-ing equipment.
In the next issue we'll walk step-by-step through a relatively simple preconditioning program and discuss many of the common decisions you will be required to make.
Since this is the last issue for 1999, from everyone in the Blez-inger household I would like to extend to you and your family the most joyful and blessed Christmas ever and a very prosperous New Year. See you in 2000!
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutri-tional and management consult-ant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be con-tacted at P. O. Box 563 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.