Preconditioning and preparing calves for fall markets

By Jacques Fuselier, DVM, DACT, DABVP, Technical Services Manager, Merck Animal Health

COVID-related impacts on the beef industry have many producers wondering when is the best time to market this year’s calf crop and asking if it pays to hold calves and put extra weight on them. Livestock economists say the key this year may be maintaining flexibility in marketing calves so you have the ability to move calves when windows open.1

Preconditioning programs, such as PrimeVAC™ by Merck Animal Health, can put more money in your pocket. The Superior Livestock 2018 sales data demonstrates providing buyers with a signed certificate, especially one verified by your veterinarian, documenting the health history of your calves will result in a premium of $15 to $35 per head.

Preconditioning programs also give calves the best opportunity to develop their immune system and reduce the chances of them getting sick. This is especially important if you’re considering keeping calves longer and adding extra pounds.

Here are several practices to keep in mind as you wean and background calves:

Rethink abrupt weaning
It’s been well documented that abrupt weaning causes stress, which results in reduced function of the calf’s immune system and impaired ability to fight disease. Cortisol, which naturally releases under stressful conditions, suppresses the immune system. One type of white blood cell – called neutrophils – are the first line of defense against disease yet their functions are decreased for the first 7 days post-weaning. If the calf is vaccinated during this time, its ability to respond properly to a vaccine may be limited.

Vaccinate preweaning
A better option is to vaccinate calves prior to weaning. This allows the calf’s immune system to appropriately respond to the vaccine while on their cow, plus provides time prior to their next vaccination. It’s good to discuss vaccine protocols with your veterinarian and make a plan based on your operation’s goals, where the calves are headed post-weaning and the disease risk in your area.

Proper deworming
Calves with subclinical worm infections can have decreased feed intake, feed efficiency and poor immune response to vaccines. Using creep feed and feed and mineral forms of Safe-Guard® (fenbendazole) require relatively little time and labor, and can be highly effective.

If retaining ownership or selling and/or trying to add weight to calves post-weaning, then giving an implant preweaning is very beneficial. Research shows Ralgro® (zeranol) used in backgrounded cattle provides close to a 10 percent improvement in average daily gain (ADG).2-6 If cattle gain 2.0 pounds of gain per day without an implant in a 60-day preconditioning period, implanting with Ralgro will improve ADG to 2.2 pounds per day. This equates to 12 pounds additional weight gain in 60 days.

Creep feed and water training
Nutrition is the building block of health and performance. Providing creep feed – formulated based on the calf’s life stage – helps get calves used to eating on their own and prepares the rumen for the next stage of production.
Fresh, clean and cool water supplied via a water trough or automatic waterer versus water on the ground helps improve health and performance. Incorporating water training techniques where calves learn where the water trough is located and how to use it prior to weaning is helpful.

Low-stress cattle handling
There are lots of resources on low-stress cattle handling. Temperament impacts the health and performance of animals. If calves have been handled using low stress methods and learned to be comfortable around people, they will go on to be calmer in the next phase.
Experts say that even with all that has gone on in 2020, fall-weaned calves look to still price similar to a year ago and could be even higher than a year ago in fourth quarter.1 Developing a group of calves properly and preparing them for the next stage can help to minimize disease outbreaks and maximize profits. To learn more, contact your veterinarian and visit

1.Schultz Lee, Doran Beth. 2020. Preparing for the Fall Calf Market. Iowa Cattleman. Vol. 47, Issue 8. 38-39.

2.Simms DD, Goehring TB, Brandt RT, Jr, Kuhl GL, Higgins JJ, Laudert SB, Lee RW. 1988. Effect of sequential implanting with zeranol on steer lifetime performance. J. Anim. Sci. 66:2736–2741.

3.Mader TL, Clanton DC, Ward JK, Pankaskie DE, Duetscher GH.1985. Effect of pre- and postweaning zeranol implant on steer calf performance. J. Anim. Sci. 61:546–551.

4.Thiex, PJ and Embry, LB, 1972. Diethylstilbestrol, Melengestrol Acetate and Zeranol During Growing and Finishing of Feedlot Heifers. South Dakota Cattle Feeders Field Day Proceedings and Research Reports. Paper 13.

5.Embry, LB and Swan, WS, 1974. Diethylstilbestrol, Zeranol or Synovex-S Implants for Growing Steers. South Dakota Cattle Feeders Field Day Proceedings and Research Reports, Paper 4.

6.Embry, LB, Goetz, MS and Luther, RM, 1982. Implanting Site for Ralgro Compared to Synovex-S for Growing and Finishing Steers. South Dakota Cattle Feeders Field Day Proceedings and Research Reports. Paper 10.