by Bruce Derksen

The choices that ranchers, feedlot owners and cattlemen make in their day to day practices and the results that are realized from them, affect and reach into all corners of their operations, including herd health. Anything from base dam and sire genetics, quality and quantity of feed provided, and expected moisture conditions have a distinct effect on end results. Overall health of the herd and the operation in general needs to be the desired outcome for all decisions made, for at its basic core — good health means enhanced productivity and efficiency which equals increased financial profits.

Herd health can be thought of as the goal of numerous choices and work processes or expressed as links in a chain. Distinct plans of action represent these links and depending how and when they are attached in the sequence of events, can help to reach this ultimate goal of herd health, whether realized in a producer’s own pastures and pens, or in the commercial grow lot or finishing feedlot.

The first link in the chain would be the work process needed to wean calves in the best possible condition that is supportive of the next link. It is important to examine what is practical for each operation considering all factors and circumstances. What is the status of the existing infrastructure? How much pasture or feed is available and what quality is it? What about finances?

Constructing goals and strategies to reach them is essential but care should be taken to not allow this process to become too rigid. Completing tasks in the same way they have always been done may be easier and more convenient but might not provide the best results for both the producer and the animals.

The most obvious and accepted link in any overall chain is controlling and limiting the stress of the calves. Less stress is the key to better health which in turn will assist in producing all the attached positive benefits such as higher weight gains, better feed conversion and superior carcasses.

It should not be ignored that each link in the chosen chain must be supported by sound management practices or the chain will be weakened and eventually break. It is not enough to choose a direction such as truck weaning or preconditioning of calves without installing the proper infrastructure, fencing, vaccinations, experienced manpower, knowledgeable pen riders and barn workers, quality feed and veterinarian-based expertise. Each link must be reinforced to support its neighboring link, or the result of optimum herd and overall operation health will never be reached.

Sale Barn Weaning

For spring calves, there are different processes or chains to choose from with the easiest being weaning directly from the cow to the auction barn. This is the most limited chain with very few links along the way. Gathering and sorting the calves and arranging their transport to auction completes the process. The herd health results of these calves are usually an unknown and while there is nothing wrong with this approach, it can deliver limited positive outcomes for the producer and the receiving lot.

A report by the Beef Checkoff of the National Cattlemen’s Association in Centennial, CO., showed a myriad of factors negatively impacting weaned calves regarding trucking and shrinkage alone that may play into a producer’s decision to wean directly to auction. Transportation pressures coupled with the co-mingling of cattle can greatly increase stress, shrinkage and the incidence of respiratory diseases for the feed yards that purchase them, making them potentially less desirable.

Pasture Weaning

Many producers choose to wean their spring calves on pasture and while this system can be less stressful for them, if bouts of sickness take hold, it can be harder to carry out proper treatments if infrastructure is weak or non-existent. Will planned vaccinations and parasite control, castrating or dehorning to qualify for certification in preconditioning programs be a link in this chain? Timing is key, as a buffer period should follow these processes before weaning to ward off potential sickness. To limit the stress of the calves, many producers leave them on the original pasture and remove the cows which in turn requires extra pasture land. New Mexico State University research showed that pasture-weaned calves had greater average daily gains than dry-lot weaned calves for the first three weeks post weaning but were over-taken by the dry-lot calves after that period of time, so producers need to realistically assess their operation’s abilities and choose the next link in this chain carefully.

Dry Lot Weaning

The conventional dry-lot method of weaning provides more flexibility for the producer by offering a wider variety of links and routes for this chain to travel but it is also dependent on more work processes and resources. Pens or pastures to hold and maintain the calves need to be in place. Different choices can be made to either sell the calves at the end of the short weaning period before they hit the sickness wall, or to hold them for longer periods of time waiting for desired price outcomes. With the flexibility of choices in this chain comes the higher risk of illness. How strong is the feed supply link? Are booster shots for earlier vaccinations required? Is full-fledged preconditioning an option? This chain can be strong if the calves will be retained and fed or backgrounded at the farm or ranch of origin but can be weak and faulty if an extended plan is not in place at the time of weaning.


The chain of preconditioning calves is another good option as it can be a part of both dry-lot or pasture weaning processes. Although it requires the most work and management practice links, it can also yield higher positive results when it comes to overall operation and herd health. Pre-planning is needed to limit the number of stressors by arranging booster shots 4 to 6 weeks after weaning with all vaccinations, castrating, branding, de-horning and parasite controls administered earlier in the season when the calves are still nursing, but veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies can still offer solid advice and protocols to help qualify calves in other productive programs if windows of opportunity are missed.

Feedlots desire preconditioned groups of calves to avoid bringing in singles and doubles to fill orders and pen lots. These calves have less propensity for sickness, will go onto feed quicker and usually demand a premium. The vaccination protocols involved assume the necessary time for a calf’s immunity to raise their level of resistance to viral and bacterial pathogens before being challenged by disease.

There is no doubt that on average preconditioned calves will realize higher weight gains, plus potentially lower morbidity and mortality rates. An 11-year Purdue University study of Illinois farms showed that 63 percent of weaned calf profits came from the added weight sold of preconditioned calves. Every correctly focused management practice or link in the chain aimed at reducing the stress of the volatile weaning season will undoubtedly increase the possibilities of this extra weight being available for sale.

Overall operation and herd health, cattle performance, weight gain, feed conversion, carcass yield and grade quality are all links in a chain that a rancher or farmer chooses for their own enterprise or a feedlot of destination. Whether spring calves are weaned directly onto the truck destined for the auction barn, pasture or dry-lot weaned with improved flexibility of sale dates and conditions, or enrolled in a preconditioning program to be moved to a grow lot or feedlot, if the management practices and work processes are not sufficiently supported to ensure the strength of the desired chain, the goal of overall operation and herd health will never be achieved.

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