Winning at weaning: An early vaccination plan adds value to calves
For many ranchers, weaning and shipping means their once-a-year payday is coming. Many cow-calf systems follow routine practices, but for those who are willing to consider new ways of preconditioning or shifting practices even slightly may find increased value in their bawling calves headed down the road.
Experts say there are three key components of a solid preconditioning program that can add value to a rancher’s annual sale: vaccinations, antiparasitics and management practices. Weaning is likely the most stressful time in a calf’s life. Preconditioning give us the opportunity to prepare calves as much as possible to transition from a grazing and nursing scenario to their next stage of production, says Joe Gillespie, DVM with Boehringer Ingelheim.
Greg Lardy, vice president of agricultural affairs and former Extension beef specialist at North Dakota State University, says from the standpoint of overall system health, a pre-vaccination program is definitely recommended before calves leave the ranch. “If you look through the data over time, it’s clear that in addition to the health response, we see better performance in the feedlot and a positive response in terms of carcass quality.”
Bovine respiratory disease is the predominant concern in post-weaned calves. BRD is the primary cause of income loss and profitability, and probably the most likely cause of mortality of calves in our entire beef production system, says Gillespie. A general term for all respiratory diseases, there are a variety of factors that contribute to BRD. Environmental conditions such as heat or drought can contribute, as well as management practices such as processing or handling, transportation, social hierarchy disruption, and comingling, along with bacterial and viral pathogen exposure.
Vaccines that combat pasteurella multocida, mannheimia haemolytica, mycoplasma, parainfluenza-3 and others are critical in preventing these bacterial and viral infections. Bovine vaccines on the market come in a variety of antigen combinations, so consulting with a veterinarian on a program is important. Most pharmaceutical programs call for vaccinations to be given 21 to 28 days in advance of weaning to allow an immune response while the calf is still in the stress-free zone with the cow.
Although vaccines are important on their own, antiparasitics are critical as well as parasites can reduce efficacy of vaccines. “Parasite irritation can cause weight loss, and lack of appetite, and calves can have a low immune response when they are vaccinated because of high parasite load,” says Gillespie.
A study looking at preconditioned calves – those that had vaccines and antiparasitics – versus auction market calves with no known record of preconditioning showed 70 percent morbidity, or sickness, in the auction market calves compared to only 7 percent morbidity in the calves from a preconditioning program.
Despite an intrinsic benefit to the entire production chain, how do ranchers add value through the process when they are the ones paying for the pharmaceuticals and putting the time and labor into pre-vacing? A 2014 study showed less than 40 percent of all calves in the U.S. vaccinate prior to weaning. “A question I often get from the ranch is, ‘What’s in it for me?’” says Gillespie. “As you introduce vaccines and antiparasitics to your management program, you are going to incur costs. Those costs do come with benefits, but it’s real important to make sure we can capture that value.”
Two keys to added value are planning and communication.
“You can think of it as a two-fold process,” says Lardy. “One part is communication; the producer has to work to communicate to the buyer the details of the pre-vac process and what those calves have had. Secondly is finding value-added partners and programs that are going to reward you for the extra costs. That could be an alliance, a sale barn program, or an EID passport program.”
Lardy says research shows a monetary advantage for documented pre-vaced calves in the sale barns. Some data shows anywhere from a $1.43 to $6.15/cwt higher selling price. Gillespie cites research showing an average net return for preconditioning of $25 to $33 per head. Regardless of the numbers, most agree there is value added in the workload of rounding up all the calves and running them through the chute in the fall.
However, Lardy cautions, a producer must be prepared ahead of time with their information, and they will be more likely to see a premium. “The more lead time you can give your sale barn to properly advertise those calves, the better off you’ll be. Give them time to call their order buyers, tell them what is coming, and give specifics on cattle – especially the pre-vac programs they’ve had.”
Many pharmaceutical companies have a recommended protocol that details when and what products to give calves, as well as provides self- or third-party verification data that can be shared with potential buyers. Zoetis offers SelectVAC®, Merck has PrimeVAC™, and Boehringer Ingelheim’s program is called Market Ready™. All offer combinations of vaccinations, antiparasitics as well as management practices to optimize weaned calf health. Higher levels of certification often include three treatments – branding time, pre-weaning and post-weaning.
“Records give the buyer confidence that the calf is truly prepared for the next step – it comes down to value creation for everyone,” says Gillespie.
Gillespie says in addition to vaccines, there are management choices producers make that can reduce stress and ultimately BRD in the calves. Weaning techniques are one area.
Gillespie notes differences in three primary methods of marketing calves also impact weaning decisions. First, the traditional method of separating cows and calves and sending bawling calves to the sale barn or a backgrounding lot. This is the most stressful to the calves. Secondly, selling 45-60 day weaned calves, normally done on the ranch with methods like fenceline weaning or mechanical weaning, such as nose rings, to reduce the sudden impact of separation. These are less stressful scenarios for a calf and lead to less sickness, adding value to the calves. Thirdly, producers who choose to retain ownership are the most likely to see the full benefits of a rigorous preconditioning program – either with traditional weaning or gradual weaning – as they follow their cattle to the rail.
Lardy says despite the method, the goal should always be to keep weaning as stress free as possible. “Anything producers can do to make it easier for calves to transition is going to be beneficial to their wellbeing and health.”
Healthy calves are going to be worth more, especially as a producer works to build or maintain a reliable, reputable program.
Gillespie says we have to ask: Are we doing the things that are best for the calf, and are we doing things that allow you as a producer to be profitable?
“Our ultimate goal is to improve health, and by improving health, we are going to hopefully increase the value of those calves,” says Gillespie. “You can’t just chase the market and wean when the price of calves goes up. You have to truly have a plan and work toward that plan, and it will allow for success.”
For savvy producers, weaning is a window of opportunity to improve health, increase value, and capture that margin.