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Preweaning calf management

published: September 8th 2017
by: Joe C. Paschal
The concept of a “value added calf” or “VAC” program is not new today, but in the late 1980s it was thought to have little value in most circles. Dr. Randall Grooms, a beef cattle specialist in Overton with the Texas Agricultural Exten-sion Service (as it was then called), came up with the “Texas Value Added Calf” or TEX VAC Program. The program outlined procedures to prepare calves prior to weaning to be moved into the next phases of the production chain, as stockers or feeders, and thereby adding value to them. Basically, it recommended vaccination for the Clostridial and Bovine Respiratory Diseases, castration of bulls and dehorning at an early age, internal and external parasite control, implanting steer calves, and teaching all calves to eat and drink out of a bunk and trough. 
Preweaning programs are useful for all cow calf producers, commercial or purebred, regardless if they are selling at auction, retaining ownership in the feed yard, or selling breeding stock. Basically, you are preparing the calves’ im-mune systems with the appropriate vaccinations, shaping the cattle up to make them more appealing to potential buyers with identification and castration and dehorning at an early age, adding some weight with a growth implant, utilizing internal and external parasite control, and easing the stress of weaning with good pasture or high-quality hay, mineral, and a high protein supplement. To be most valuable, the management practices (vaccination, castration, etc.) should be done well before weaning to have the most effect. 
I highly recommend you get your veterinarian involved in the vaccination decisions. I vaccinate my calves for Clostridials and BRD and control for internal and external parasites. Chances are if you have a good herd health program to begin with, you already have this done. Vaccination shortly before, at, or shortly after weaning is not recommended since the im-mune system is under the stress of weaning.
Research has shown that dehorning and castration are painful and have a significant effect on the immune system (dehorning more than castration). It has also shown that when these are practiced at an early age the effects are not as severe and recovery is quicker. Castration and dehorning wounds at a later age (and weight) take longer to heal, reduce weight gain, increase sickness, reduce carcass merit, and can even lead to death. I know if you don’t retain ownership into the feed yard you don’t think you are getting paid for castration, but if you sell heavier bull calves you can get a substantial discount ($10-15 per cwt).
Treating for internal and external parasites is also often overlooked. Probably the best bang for your buck, outside of growth implants, is timely and effective treatment for parasites when conditions warrant. It has long been known that internal parasites affect calf gain and recent research has shown that even low horn fly populations can reduce weaning weights by up to 20 pounds. 
Ear implants are another tool that improves gain and efficiency of gain in both steers and heifers preweaning. According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System, only about 10% of cow calf producers implant their calves (as compared to 90% of cattle in feed yards). I think most folks don’t implant because it requires an extra piece of equipment (implant gun) and some expertise (or at least training). And it is hard to visually observe the average or 20 pounds or so increase. 
The last step is to teach these calves to eat out of a bunk and drink out of a trough. Most calves are fresh weaned, often with a milk moustache, when sold, mostly at auction. If you plan on feeding your calves (or even if you don’t) it pays to take a little time to bring them up at weaning and secure them in a pen or trap with a good fence where their mommas can see them (fence line weaning). This reduces stress on the calves. After a few weeks, they can be turned out in a separate pasture as weaned calves for the next few weeks prior to shipping.
If you are going to feed your calves in a feed yard or merchandise as preconditioned or backgrounded, it will pay to conduct some of these VAC practices.

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