Vet's Opinion

How To Receive Full Value For Your Calves

by W. Mark Hilton
Jul 30, 2013

Preconditioning's greatest value is in retaining ownership of the calves to the feedlot. In fact, CattleFax reports that retained ownership pays in most years, particularly if your calves’ health and genetics are better than average.

I’ve written many articles on preconditioning (PC) over the years, but few generated the response of my May BEEF column, in which some readers challenged my contention that everyone should wean calves before selling them. The common complaint was that it’s next to impossible to precondition calves on large, extensive ranching operations.

I listened to their arguments, did some research and asked veterinarians who work with large ranches to help me become more informed.

Was I too bold in my May BEEF column by implying that everyone can wean calves before selling? In a word, yes. While I received responses from DVMs with Western clients who operate on extensive acreages with no feed or facilities to wean calves, the good news is, I received many more responses from DVMs whose clients make PC (including weaning) work for them.

Here’s what I learned:

• Every DVM responding to my request for help said health and vaccinations are the easy part. Nearly all their top herds vaccinated for bovine respiratory disease in one of the following ways: branding and weaning, three weeks prewean and weaning, or weaning and three weeks postweaning. Treating for parasites and providing coccidia control are also musts.

• Nutrition is among the biggest obstacles. Some herds brought pairs to a meadow preweaning, then moved the cows and left the calves on this high-quality forage. Others fed cake to pairs preweaning, so the calves would acclimate to eating feed. Weaning rations can range from high-quality grass to a complete ration, or something in between. The system, however, must be adapted to the ranch.

DVMs said the key is to have a positive energy balance postweaning. The calf needs calories for a properly functioning immune system to respond to the vaccine and to fight off pathogens.

• A variety of weaning options surfaced. The “quiet wean” method of placing an antinurse device for 5-6 days was used by some, while fenceline weaning with a strong fence was advocated by others. One DVM said some ranches’ only option was leaving calves on high-quality grass, while moving cows miles away to lower-quality pasture.

• Facilities are another challenge on many ranches. Justifying the cost of a set of facilities, feed bunks, etc., for only 45 days is a legitimate question. However, one DVM cites a client who — using enterprise analysis — learned he tripled the profit on his calves with a 45-day PC program, vs. selling the calves off the cow.

 In addition, some producers rent neighboring facilities. Sharing facilities between ranches with different weaning times is another option. And if calves go to high-quality grass, this allows a minimal investment in equipment. 

• A marketing plan is critical for PC success. It’s important to call the auction market before you deliver calves in order to receive the calves’ full value. Selling at special PC sales also is highly desirable, as are video auctions or selling direct to the feedlot. As your preconditioned calves gain a positive reputation, the price should improve.


Enjoy what you are reading? Subscribe to Cow-Calf Weekly for more industry news straight to your inbox.


One DVM reports that his clients follow a popular PC program, with calves tagged appropriately. If his clinic does the work, he will apply an additional PC tag with the clinic’s name and telephone number. He reports excellent success with this program. Also, third-party verification can add additional value.

Numerous respondents said PC’s greatest value is in retaining ownership of the calves to the feedlot. In fact, CattleFax reports that retained ownership pays in most years, particularly if your calves’ health and genetics are better than average.

Sometimes it’s logistically very difficult to wean calves for 45 days or more before selling. But we do need to work to make this the exception rather than the rule in order for cow-calf producers to receive full value for their calves.

Do you have a PC tip to share? Send a note to for use in a future article.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.


You might also like:

Low-Stress Weaning Options

80+ Summer Grazing Scenes From Readers

Researchers Mobilize To Whip Summer Pneumonia In Calves

4 Beef Cattle Health Concerns To Think About This Week

Related Media: 

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Aug 5, 2013

I would like to see an accurate comparison of calves that are pre vaccinated before sale day as well as given a booster of that vaccination and then sold directly off the cow vs the pre conditioned weaned cattle. In our state we have a program that you can do either or and they are sold in the same sale and we have only been around 2 cents back from the preconditioned cattle with weights just as good or better than when we weaned and preconditioned. In no way does it pencil out to precondition calves in our setting. Also the feedlots have had minimal health issues with our unweaned prevaccinated calves.

on Aug 5, 2013

Preconditioning and weaning should perhaps be considered as two separate processes for those that feel they cannot get it all done prior to selling the calves. Pre-weaning vaccinations are probably the most critical part that needs to be done to prepare that calf's immune system prior to leaving the ranch. Additionally, if there are any horns that need to come off and late calves that need castrating, that can be done as well. Turn those youngsters back out with their mamas on the hay meadows to recover from the stress you just put them through. If you are real creative you can put up some hot wire and have those babies weaned while they are on those meadows and they will be ready to ship in a couple of weeks. I used to say it "can't" be done but it can with low stress handling and a lot of patience.

Please log in or register to post comments.