by: Clifford Mitchell

Making better business decisions is the goal for most firms no matter what product or service is their lifeblood. Decisions are often made with all the information available and scrutinized to make sure there will be a profit at the end point. For most, this means carrying out the plan through many phases to make sure proper execution takes place.

Cow/calf operators face the same quandary as most businesses do, except not too many office buildings are threatened with a drought or a snow storm. Producers are operating on tight margins and face a stiff challenge from radical groups that would rather do away with agriculture. To have a chance at making a profit, they must continue to raise operating costs or add extra management. Numbers and charts are evaluated in the beef business just like they do on Wall Street, but these numbers are more likely to be about age, how many pounds did she wean and what was the price of our calves.

Weaning is a difficult time for most calves and ranchers have had to adapt to different protocols to ensure that calf remains healthy through the production chain. Science has shown the way, but the work must be done on the ranch to make this happen.

“Sometimes producers are leery of doing anything pre-weaning because of the costs and they are skeptical if it pays. It will cost a little bit, but producers will get return on the health and performance of those animals,” says Dr. Max Irsik, Extension Veterinarian, University of Florida.

“Historically, producers may not have gotten paid for the extra management. Cow/calf operators are leaving a lot of dollars on the table by not doing the basic things like de-horning, castrating and giving a few shots,” says Dr. Derrell Peel, Extension Economist, Oklahoma State University.

“The extra work and cost of the vaccines will pay for itself. If you don't prepare those calves for weaning you're asking for trouble,” says Gene Lollis, Buck Island Ranch, Lake Placid, Florida.

There are many different protocols for pre-weaning care. Obviously, each management system will fine tune the program to fit the operation. There is no blanket system approach, but outfits that take care of the calves pre-weaning are likely to receive benefit.

“Those calves need to be vaccinated, castrated and de-horned at least by the time they are three to four months of age. Get calves used to being around people and teach them how to be handled, they will be less flighty,” Irsik says. “Expose those calves to a creep feeder or some other form of feed pre-weaning. Good nutrition is important for the immune system to function properly.”

“The first working we'll castrate and de-worm all the calves. We'll kick them out and give that first round of vaccinations in three to four weeks. We early wean some of those calves and ship them west to a grow yard or grass. Those calves will get the second round of modified live vaccine (MLV) when they get there and we have had a lot of success with this protocol, plus it helps my cows stay in better body condition.,” Lollis says. “The calves we wean here at the ranch will get a MLV at weaning and then we'll ship them anywhere from 21 days to 60 days after we wean them. Every pasture has a water trough and the calves are used to different feeds stuffs other than grass.”

Some of these health guidelines may be a directive from an organized marketing group or how these calves will be marketed. Getting paid for extra management often comes down to the producer's ability to market the end product.

“Sometimes it is very difficult to capture the value of pre-conditioning, but there is a significantly better chance for producers to get paid if they do a couple things right. Smaller producers have always faced a lot of challenges just because of numbers. Get involved with a certified pre-conditioning program. In Oklahoma, we have the Oklahoma Quality Beef Network (OQBN); calves are treated with a certain protocol and the certification assures the buyers that the added value is there,” Peel says. “There are two parts of value for pre-conditioning calves, producer's have to be willing to make the investment to create additional value and then identify a market. There is some extra risk, but it does pay most of the time.”

“If producers do some of these management and health related things, they will be rewarded just by weaning a heavier calf. These protocols definitely help the calf, but the return to the owner may depend on how they're marketed,” Irsik says. “A calf that doesn't get pre-weaning vaccinations or hasn't had any shots will get discounted. Health will be scrutinized by the buyer because it adds value.”

“We used to get a premium for our health program and giving those extra shots. Now you better give them or you will be discounted heavily,” Lollis says. “All the little things that we can do pre-weaning add up. We're all trying to build relationships with our buyers, hoping to create repeat business. The cattle better be good or he won't be there to buy them the next year and if he is he'll want them for a lot less.”

Capturing the value generated by the health program sometimes takes the cagey veteran rancher or the wily newcomer. In the past, the only way to get paid for the extra management was to own the cattle through the system.

“There is risk involved with pre-conditioning cattle. Cattle should gain weight during the process, but there is no guarantee. Any given year the market can go up or down and moving cattle to a different marketing window sometimes traps producers in seasonal markets. Add value at the ranch level and find a buyer, this will help producers get paid for the extra management,” Peel says. “For years and years the market wouldn't assure the producer they would get paid for their work. We knew the value was there, but the only way to capture it was through retained ownership.”

Value-added or pre-conditioned sales have come to the forefront in a lot of areas. The acceptance by local sale barn operators and the video sales really highlight health in these marketing groups.

“There is a lot of interest in value added sales. Producers have to look for the opportunity to be part of something like this. There are advantages to selling feeder cattle in lots of 10 head or more,” Peel says. “Most of the health protocols associated with these sales offer some flexibility in the timing of management practices. These systems make the cattle healthy and reduce stress. There is also information transfer from the seller to the buyer because the health history is documented.”

Limiting stress will lead to healthier calves for most operations. Splitting up some of the management or making sure things happen in a timely manner could make for a more successful transition.

“During that first work, a lot of times we have a big end and a lighter end of our calves. Some of them aren't ready to be vaccinated. There is a lot of stress on those calves with castration and dehorning,” Lollis says. “I am not sure how well those vaccines work, if that calf is healing up or really stressed. Our protocol seems to work well for us. We shipped over 600 head of weaned calves 1,740 miles and less than 20 were doctored, and not all of those were for respiratory illness.”

“The younger you can castrate and dehorn these calves there will be less stress. They're still on momma she can baby them and get them back healthy. Sometimes a timely de-worming will add a lot of pounds. Fence line weaning may also decrease stress and we have found this works well for a lot of producers,” Irsik says. “People that will handle these calves properly pre-weaning don't have health problems. Once we stress a calf's immune system it takes three to four weeks to get back to normal.”

Pre-weaning care can come in different packages and often times, is more than just giving shots. A systematic approach must be taken and each step followed; otherwise, producers may be wasting their time.

“Nutrition is very important. Without good nutrition cattle don't have a very good immune system. If calves are nutritionally stressed, the immune system is the first thing that shuts down. Minerals are also very important, if calves are deficient their immune system doesn't function very well,” Irsik says. “Whatever system you're using, it is important to handle the vaccines properly. When immunizing and de-worming, injection site and dosage is very important, read and follow the label instruction on whatever product you are using. We do a lot of BQA training and this helps producers get the most out of their health program.”

“We're co-mingling cattle when we wean them here on the ranch because we're mixing different herds,” Lollis says. “If these cattle aren't properly vaccinated and don't have good nutrition, we're asking for a wreck. We have to follow each step.”

As the industry continues to evolve and face challenges from those outside agriculture, most ranch managers are studying the task at hand and getting better at what they do. The more those outside the animal world demand to know the raising practice or try to expose the industry's weaknesses, the more attention cattlemen pay to proper handling techniques.

“We are BQA certified and we handle cattle correctly. When we wean calves here at the ranch we walk through the pens to get them used to seeing people and I think this helps them down the road,” Lollis says. “We rotate cattle a lot from pasture to pasture and calves are used to being handled when we wean them.”

“Calves have to handled before weaning. Handle them correctly without whips and hot shots,” Irsik says. “Whatever management system producers use it is important to handle these cattle properly, no matter what you are going to do with them post weaning or how you are going to market them. Pre-weaning health and management practices are critical for most operations because cattle have to be healthy and perform.”

As cattlemen increase their management with the calf crop it can also have other benefits to the ranch. As producers learn more about the calf crop and spend time with the herd, increased culling pressure can be put on the cow herd and immediate return can seen with extra management.

“ID those calves when you work them. You can tie the calves back to the cow for a performance measure and see how she stacks up,” Irsik says. “In this type of management system there are a lot of aspects that need to be thought through and done correctly.”

“There is an opportunity for producers to add value through age and source verification with relatively little work,” Peel says. “Just a little paperwork and most of the time producers will see a good premium for that documentation.”

“Animal identification has been the best thing to come out of the extra management. We put an EID and a flop tag in every animal and it has made me a better manager. I can make keep/cull decisions a lot sooner,” Lollis says. “When we work cattle or I am in the pasture, I can make notes on poor performers or other reminders, bring it back enter it in the computer. These little reminders allow me to look at her a little more than just a cow in the chute. I always took notes, but I managed to lose them or spill something on the note pad. A good record keeping system is important.”

The beef industry will always face challenges those on Wall Street may know nothing about. To some of them the beef industry may be no more than a commodity that is bought and sold. As management teams refine their business model, extra management will be very important when looking at future profit.

Taking care of the little things, following protocol and building relationships with buyers or other cattlemen in the area will hold the key for success. Producers willing to adapt and find profit wherever they can will get to keep enjoying the lifestyle ranching brings to so many.

“There's something about being able to get up every morning and saddle my horse to go out on the ranch. I have to take care of what is generating the revenue before I spend it,” Lollis says. “Every day I have to look for an opportunity to make a profit. The dollars usually will take care of themselves, but the nickels and dimes are where the profit lies.”

“A specific protocol is key to all of this and the physical process of weaning calves. If calves are handled properly, they are much less stressed and there is less shrink involved,” Peel says. “There is another 45 days of feed costs, the cost for a second round of vaccine and there is always going to be added risk. Our data is variable from year to year, but we have been able to document over time producers will get paid for their extra management.”

“A lot of producers wean and haul their calves off in the same day because that system works for their management. If producers will vaccinate and start preparing these calves for weaning they'll get paid, I am not so sure producers get paid if they wait until weaning to start the vaccination process,” Irsik says. “We have to do everything we can do to minimize stress at weaning. This includes a proper vaccination schedule and handling that calf right so it can eat and function on its own.”


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