Preconditioning is a set of management decisions relating to vaccination, weaning, nutrition and housing that maximize health and future growth potential of cattle in the feed yard.
By: Joe Darrington, SDSU Extension Livestock Environment Associate
Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) not only focuses on injection site location and vaccine handling, but also speaks to how we transition our calves to the feedlot. Decisions made relating to how facilities are managed can make significant impacts on overall health.
One goal of preconditioning calves is to train them to eat from a bunk. This can be done either before or after weaning depending on your management practices.
- Dry Lot - Calves should be offered access to feedstuffs in a bunk with a minimum of 18” bunk space per head if fed once per day. For example, one 3’x10’ rectangular bunk in the pen would be sufficient for 17 head and equivalent to a 26’ fenceline bunk. If feedings occur twice a day, bunk space can be decreased to the range of 9”-11” per head. In both feeding schemes more space can be offered to ensure minimal competition for feed as the calves learn how to eat from a bunk. Free choice hay can be offered as well for individuals that do not figure out the bunk right away.
- Pasture – Calves should be offered supplemental feed in a bunk with a minimum of 18” of bunk space per head as described above if fed once per day. Creep feeding is one effective way to introduce calves to eating from a bunk. However, care must be taken to avoid risks associated with overeating if utilizing a creep feeding program. Talk with an SDSU Extension Beef Specialist, nutritionist, or your veterinarian about management strategies to introduce calves to feed on pasture.
Adequate water space should be provided at a rate of 1’ of access for every 16 animals. For example a group of 100 should have at minimum 6.25’ of access (A 2’ diameter round tank with access on all sides, or a 4’x2.5’ rectangular trough split on a fence-line). Sometimes calves have difficulty finding water coming straight from pasture. An open tank or trough can be placed near a mechanical waterer to assist them. You can also help them find the water source by allowing water to slowly overflow the tank by adjusting the float. Be careful to avoid creating a mud hole around the water source however. This practice can be stopped after 3-4 days or once you notice that all calves are drinking from the waterer.
Water sources are easier to find for calves if they are along the fence line of the pen as well. Calves tend to walk the fence when they are in a new environment. An additional consideration is that the water source must be able to deliver 7-15 gallons/head/day to meet requirements across a wide range of temperatures.
If calves are going to be housed in a building there must be adequate space, bedding, and ventilation/air movement to minimize ammonia and moisture levels. Ammonia is a potent irritant of the respiratory tract. Concentrations above 20-25 ppm can impair clearance processes from the lungs, and can lead to increased incidence of respiratory disease. Weaned calves are already at a high risk of respiratory disease; minimizing crowding and increasing ventilation/air quality are important factors to consider in your preconditioning program.
- Walk through your working system prior to processing your calves. Look for anything protruding into the animal space (nails, board ends, any sharp objects/edges) that could cause an injury or impede cattle flow, and fix these issues before bringing cattle through.
- Adjust the width of the chute alleyway to the approximate width of the calves to be worked, if possible. Running calves through cow sized chutes and alleyways can lead to multiple animals side by side, and can increase the incidence of calves becoming stuck next to each other, potentially going down, or turning around. This interrupts cattle flow, increases stress, and can cause injury.
- Standard width recommendations for weaned calves around 600 lbs are 18” wide for vertical sides and from 13” at the bottom to 20” at 4’ high if the chute has sloped sides, see figure 1 above.
Properly sized head gates and chutes are important when working weaned calves to limit their movement. If available, squeeze and neck extenders should be used as needed to allow for easy administration of injectable products. A rope halter can be used to aid in restraint if squeeze and neck extenders are unavailable. Inadequate restraint can result in animals going down in the chute, injuring themselves, injuring workers, bending/breaking needles, and can lead to incomplete administration of products.
Many head gates and chutes are adjustable, it is important to take the time to prepare for working weaned calves.