For good feedyard results, buy good calves

By: Terri Queck-Matzie

The road to feedlot profits starts with a healthy calf.

Calves receiving medical treatment two times lose an estimated $365, according to 2014 figures provided by Dr. W. Mark Hilton, Clinical Professor, Food Animal Production Medicine, at Purdue University. The numbers come from a study conducted by the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futuri-ty (TCSCF).

At every stage of the beef production chain, profits depend on the absence of disease, and the calf’s ability to grow and gain. And that depends on getting things off to a good start.

“Health is so important to profit in the feedyard,” says Hilton. “I’ve seen too many places start with a high-risk calf (unweaned, unvaccinated, uncastrated). All those things are a risk of that animal getting sick in the feedlot.” Studies show weaning is the most crucial of all the preconditioning elements, with non-weaned calves coming into the feedyard 3.4 times more likely to get sick, according to TCSCF data.

Hilton says health starts before entering the feedlot, even before weaning. Health starts the day the calf is conceived.

Precalving nutrition sets the trend. “You can’t cheat the cow at any time,” says Hilton. Seventy-five percent of a calf’s growth occurs during the last two months of gestation. “But that doesn’t mean you can discount the early stages of development.” That time of organ and placenta development are just as important. Research shows shorting the cow of nutrition early in the gestation period can hamper calf lung development, leaving it predisposed to BRD 18 months later.

“When you’re buying feeder calves, wouldn’t it be nice to know the nutritional program of the dam?” asks Hilton, as he sites research that shows calves with adequate protein during gestation and ample high-quality colostrum are three times less likely to have BRD in the feedlot.

The dam’s vaccination program is also a factor, as is parasite control. The healthier the dam, the healthier the calf. Hilton says a heifer should have a body condition score of 6.5-7, cows 5.5-6, at the time of calving.

Calving conditions are also a factor in future calf development. Timing matters, with many producers “fighting nature” by calving in unfavorable weather. Hilton sug- ests abandoning tradition to calve at a time when the calf has the optimal chance for survival for the region.

Newborn calves also need protection from contamination. “The worst thing that can happen is a barn where cows and calves are allowed free access,” says Hilton. “That’s a recipe for disaster.” Even with the weather risks, calving outdoors is preferred for reducing risk of contamination from other animals. He recommends the Sandhills Calving System, which utilizes a rotational calving pasture pattern where cows with calves stay in their calving pasture and cows yet to calve are moved to a new pasture every 7-14 days.

“Every calf deserves the chance to be born into a clean environment,” says Hilton. “The goal is ZERO sickness.”

And of course genetics matter. Heterosis is 6.1 percent for calf vigor, 3.9 for weaning weight, emphasizing the benefits of a crossbred calf.

Genetic improvements have drastically increased a cow or heifer’s ability to produce milk, but that output requires adequate nutrition. Byproducts and hay can make great foodstuffs, but testing hay is vital.

While the feedyard or the stocker naturally wants to purchase calves at the lowest possible price, Hilton says it pays to buy calves with a resume. Genetics, handling, vaccination and nutrition programs (vaccination programs that include modified live vaccines are best), should be part of the cow/calf producer’s marketing plan. And the feeding sector of the business should expect and require it. “The feedyard needs to know if the calf will perform and grade,” says Hilton.

Calves that are well fed and come from a healthy environment pay all around, says Hilton. The cow/calf producer is able to market a more profitable calf, and the feedyard and stockers are able to capitalize on the good start.

Hilton says today’s genetics should enable a calf to gain three pounds per day in optimal conditions, and as every feedyard operator knows, pounds pay. So does efficiency, making the calf’s feed efficiency numbers a crucial part of the equation.

The line-up of desirable traits includes disposition. Research by TCSCF has shown disposition impacts average daily gain. Wild, overly active calves burn off calories.

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“The bottom line is calves need the genetics and nutrition to gain,” says Hilton. “The feedyard doesn’t get paid for maintenance.”

“We have control over genetics. We have control over nutrition. We even have some control over the environment calves are raised in,” continues Hilton, “and all that makes a difference in profits.”

Buying preconditioned calves means less antibiotic use, improved beef quality assurance, improved carcass quality and decreased labor at the feedyard. Data from TCSCF and the Ranch to Rail Feeding Program show higher quality calves do a better job.

Most importantly, the stocker and feedyard should demand verification of the preconditioning program, and avoid buying animals without it.

“Finding suppliers that “do all of the above,” who feed a healthy, profitable calf,” says Hilton, “will improve feedlot profit and produce the best possible product for the consumer.”

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