Weaning calves is similar to freshman year of college. It's tough to be starting a new adventure alone but it's a rite of passage. Read more in our editioral by our special sections editor, Courtney Love.

Finding the right set of calves in the fall is a challenge for stockers and feedyards, and prepared producers can expect better profits.

Paul Dykstra, a beef specialist for Certified Angus Beef, encourages cow-calf producers to take the time to prepare their calves before sending them to auction.

He said preconditioned calves are less likely to become ill in a feedlot. In the last 20 years, feed yards have seen an increase in deaths and sickness in their pens related to the purchasing of unconditioned calves. Precondition calves, who are weaned at 45 days or more, castrated and vaccinated compete better at the feed bunk.

This also gives cow-calf producers the ability to sell their preconditioned feeder calves at a premium. As the buyer, feed yards will also see an increase in their profits when they sell those feeder calves a 1,000 pounds later.

“They are less excited about feeding freshly weaned calves then they have ever been,” Dykstra said during the company’s Feeding Quality Forum on Aug. 26. “A weaned calf that’s ready to be on feed is a perfect product.”

Paul Beck, an associate professor of animal science at Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, advises the use of fence-line weaning over abruptly weaning calves.

Beck spoke on Aug. 26 during the Noble Research Institute’s three-day webinar series on preconditioning calves.

Cows and calves become stressed when contact is severed. Calves will go off feed and vocalize for almost a week or more, Beck says, and this can damage their respiratory tract.

Fence-line weaning has the “most potential,” he said. Cows and calves can keep a distance, yet have nose to nose contact, which eases the separation anxiety. Research shows that calves will exhibit some distress through pacing the fence and will cry for about three days. And it does require additional labor, as “those calves will find any weak line in your fences,” Beck said.

Producers can also use a nursing prevention tool, a nose flap, which limits a calf’s suckling behavior on their mother. The nose flap decreases the calf’s playing and ruminating activities. Over time, they will use their energy to consume grain or, if out on pasture, grass.

The only benefit for cows and their calves is that they can remain physical, and Beck said this can be counterproductive as calves take longer to wean off milk, which reduces their average daily gain.

Vacciations are another vital part of the package when selling weaned calves.While in the marketing channel, calves become stressed and are susceptible to respiratory disease.

Bovine Respiratory Disease costs the U.S. beef industry $1 billion every year, Beck said, and researchers have also found that calves that have recovered from BRD have an 84% decrease in their carcass value.

To prevent illness, producers should immunize their calves at 4 months for clostridial, BRD and mannheimia haemolytica, along with internal and external parasite control. Calves should receive boosters of of those vaccines four weeks before being shipped off the farm.

“When we add stress on top of stress on these auction market calves, that is when we see the train wrecks, and preconditioned cattle are able to withstand those,” Beck said.

Since 2006, most of the cattle coming to meat processors have an improved carcass quality; 83% of the cattle harvested have graded choice or prime, Dykstra said. Certified Angus Beef has also seen a growth in eligible cattle meeting their 10 quality standards, such as 10- to 16-square-inch ribeye area, 1,050-pound hot carcass weight, and free of capillary rupture.

These increases on the brand’s grid have been improved by the producers offering preconditioned calves to feed yards and packers.

“The box beef cutout has favored Certified Angus Beef over choice by more of a margin than we’ve seen it in the last handful of years,” he said.

By delivering preconditioned calves, cow-calf producers be able to receive an additional value of a $15 per hundredweight premium for the sale of those calves.

March and April is the best time to sell 550-pound calves, versus in October. Feed yards move most of their cattle into processing plants in April and May. They also move a quantity of cattle from mid-November to December for the holiday market.

With 43% of cow-calf operations selling their calves through an auction barn, Dykstra says these producers are missing out on an opportunity to receive more of a premium for their calves. He advised that producers network with stockers and feed yards and provide them with a “resume” of their calves. Including information on genetics, Beef Quality Assurance certification and feeding history, which all give their calves an advantage over those in a sale barn.

“Show that buyer — ‘Hey, the bulls we purchase fall into the top percentile of its breed for this or that trait’ — to help them digest and suggest why they should bid one more time,” Dykstra said.

Lancaster Farming

Special Sections Editor

Courtney Love is Special Sections Editor at Lancaster Farming. She can be reached at 717-721-4426 or clove@lancasterfarming.com