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Cashing in on healthy calves

Illustration by Pat HannahCattle producers want the best price for calves. Unfortunately, you can’t control the market price on sale day, but you can control the quality of calves sold. Managing calf health adds value to calves and can lead to increased profitability for cattle producers.

“Calves that stay healthy are more profitable,” said Dr. W. Mark Hilton, clinical professor at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. Healthy calves are more efficient, perform better in the feedlot and hang better carcasses. Hilton said producers should build a resume for their calves that adds value. This will prove profitable for both the producer and feedlot owner. “I want somebody that buys my calves to make a pile of money on them,” Hilton said.

Start before the calf hits the ground. Cowherd health and nutrition have a large impact on calf health and performance. “It all starts with pre-calving nutrition. If I have fabulous nutrition on my animals, we can have little things go wrong and the animal still stays healthy,” Hilton said. A majority of the calf’s growth occurs in the last two months of gestation. “There’s no question fetal programming is effective,” said Mike John, MFA Health Track operations director. “Protein supplementation in the last trimester is important. The amount and quality of what you feed the dam both have lifelong effects on calves born from those cows.”

John recommends feeding a product high in vitamin E and selenium that provides adequate energy, like MFA’s Ricochet. Nutrition provided in this kind of feed builds cow immunity and includes additives to produce high quality colostrum. “Benefits in calf health and reproductive efficiency from products like Ricochet are more documented every day,” John said.

Hilton said calves that receive plenty of high quality colostrum are three times less likely to contract bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in the feedlot. But proper cow nutrition is crucial throughout the entire nine months of gestation. “Environmental factors the mother cow is experiencing early in pregnancy cause genes to express themselves differently,” Hilton said. He cited a study by Dr. Rick Funston in 2010 that showed decreased nutrition in early gestation can affect lung development of the fetus. The study indicated lack of development could increase the calf’s risk of BRD 18 months later. “The bottom line is you can’t short the cow nutritionally anytime,” Hilton said.

Nutrition is the foundation for animal health and timing is a factor. “Parasite control and vaccines are good animal health tools, but those things don’t work right if the nutrition and feeding programs aren’t there,” said Dr. Tony Martin, MFA animal health manager. “The animals have to make good use of the products we put in them. They can only do that if they’ve got the right kind of condition and nutrients to support their body activity.”

John said calf health is best when they receive two rounds of modified-live vaccines before weaning. “To do that by label direction, you literally have to have cows and heifers that are vaccinated annually with a modified-live vaccine,” John said. “That vaccine makes sure the cow is properly protected during her high-risk period in that first trimester. It protects against diseases that cause abortion or persistently infected (PI) calves and prepares her colostrum to have the right antibodies.” It’s best to vaccinate cows 30 days before breeding. “Days 30 to 120 of gestation are a critical time where the bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) virus can cross the placenta and permanently infect the fetus. If you wait until after breeding, you leave the door open for possible PI infection,” Martin said. Vaccinating at breeding is less effective. Vaccines draw on the cow’s immune system and nutrients, pulling the biological focus away from reproduction. “I’ve seen vaccines used at breeding totally wreck the conception rate,” Martin said. “You want your strongest protection throughout the pregnancy. If you want immunity at its peak through the entire pregnancy, you should vaccinate pre-breeding.”

Parasite control is another critical factor for cow health. Deworming helps cows maintain body condition and use available forage. Martin said effective parasite control requires proper pasture rotation. Deworming causes the cows to shed parasite eggs. Producers should plan their grazing rotation so cows move to a fresh pasture after deworming. This prevents them from contracting the eggs shed.

“I like to have them dewormed before spring turnout and right after the first frost so you’re not feeding parasites through the winter,” Martin said.

Martin pointed out that vaccinations and parasite medications don’t keep animals healthy by themselves. “The animal’s body works in concert to make those products work at all. That’s why all the vaccine labels say its best for use in healthy livestock,” Martin said.

Preconditioning pays

Calves experience high levels of stress at weaning. Their immune system can be susceptible to disease if they aren’t vaccinated ahead of time. As manager of Health Track, John knows preconditioning works. Health Track has documented more than 500,000 calves in the past 15 years. John said the Health Track protocol works to reduce or eliminate sickness post-weaning. “We’ve seen in the Health Track database that calves given two rounds of a modified-live vaccine before weaning have practically zero treatments post-weaning,” John said.

John said this year could prove to be a profitable one to precondition calves. “Profit will depend on the price of feed, the feeder futures market and the price spread ranges. Anytime you have near-normal feed cost and a normal price spread, the value of gain is going to greatly exceed the cost,” John said.

Preconditioning adds value to calves through efficient and inexpensive weight gain. “When is a calf more efficient than when he weighs 550 pounds?” Hilton asked. “The more days we precondition calves, the more profit they make.”

Hilton added that calves gain better the last weeks of preconditioning. “We’re expecting the calves to only gain 1.5 to 2 pounds each day that first week. By the end, we’ll have calves gain over 3 pounds each day. The longer we can precondition those calves, the less of a deal that first week is,” Hilton said.
Hilton recommends feeding calves for at least 45 days. He said studies show calves weaned 45 days are more than 3 times less likely to get sick in the feedlot than if they were weaned for less than 30 days. Hilton said calves were 2 times more likely to stay healthy in the feedlot if vaccinated with a modified-live BRD vaccine at least three weeks before weaning.

According to John, health and genetics are key factors that add value to calves for feedlot owners. “Feedlot buyers seek either older calves that have been processed or younger calves that have a documented preconditioning program,” he said. “We’ve taken great care to document what steps are in the Health Track program and communicate that to the buyer so they know what they’re getting.”

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