The Benefits of Pre-Conditioning Calves

“Pre-conditioning” your calves means preparing their immune system for exposure to new diseases that they will encounter upon entering their new environment at the feedlot. While pre-conditioning can include deworming, weaning, and transitioning to the feed bunk, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to address vaccination specifically. The term “pre-conditioning” itself does not designate any particular vaccine protocol.

The preconditioning vaccinations for any particular group of calves are almost always determined by the buyer. Some buyers require a strict vaccination and deworming program instituted at birth, that continues at branding, and then again at pre-weaning. Other buyers may only require a single vaccination pre-weaning (3-6 weeks before shipping).

So when a producer comes in and asks what they should do for pre-conditioning, I usually need more information. I need to know where the calves are going and the requirements of the sale. That being said, buyers are interested in protocols to minimize sickness and death loss in the feedlot. What is best for the buyer is not necessarily best for the producer and the cow herd.

My job as your veterinarian is to be your advocate.

The Benefits of Pre-Conditioning

The goal of pre-conditioning calves is that to give the animals a leg up in the feedlot. Pre-conditioned calves are less prone to get sick. They are healthier and they gain better than their non-preconditioned counterparts. The most common cause of pulls and deaths in the feedlot is respiratory disease. So when I talk about preconditioning, I’m talking about vaccinating calves for respiratory diseases. Some level of immunity against respiratory disease is going to help them remain healthy in the feedlot.

This is assuming that the calves are on a healthy plane of nutrition. They are not sick to begin with. And that they have had at least one 7-way vaccination at branding. The most obvious benefit of pre-conditioning is a price premium paid by the buyer.

There are also the intangible benefits of pre-conditioning. Greater satisfaction with healthy calves can lead to a better relationship with the buyer, effectively ensuring that the buyer will be back to bid on your calves again next year.

The other benefit is just knowing that your calves will do well. Most of my producers do not retain ownership of their calves after they leave the ranch. But they still care about them. They want them to be big robust calves that go on to do well.

Respiratory Pathogens

The most common respiratory pathogens that we are targeting at pre-conditioning are:

  • BRSV
  • PI3
  • BVD types 1 and 2
  • IBR

Some producers use an additional vaccine for Mannheimia haemolytica (commonly called Pasteurella and “Dust Pneumonia”).

There are vaccines out there that claim to be efficacious agains Pasteurella multocida, Histophilus somnus, and Mycoplasma bovis. I do not recommend using these vaccines if you can avoid it. If your calf sale necessitates any of these vaccines, please contact me so that we can discuss your options.

The Risks of Using Modified Live Vaccine

Modified live vaccine (MLV) can cause abortions in pregnant cows. If nursing calves are vaccinated with a MLV and allowed to return to pregnant cows that have not been vaccinated with a modified live vaccine, there is a risk of abortion.

Read the vaccine label before using.

Does Pre-Conditioning Make Me More Money?

When people talk about pre-conditioning being a “value-added” program, they mean that pre-conditioning makes the producer more money.

The truth is: It depends.

Like everything else in ranching, it depends on your operation. It depends on the year. It depends on the buyer. It depends on the market.

If you have any questions about pre-conditioning your calves, please call us.