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Creating productive members of cattle society

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It’s every parent’s dream to raise a child who is a productive member of society. Cattle producers are no different. They aim to produce a calf that enters the food or reproductive chain bred to succeed.

Pre-conditioning calves prior to weaning is a way to add value to the animals. However, Dr. AJ Tarpoff, beef Extension veterinarian at Kansas State University, cautioned that pre-conditioning is one of the most loaded words in the beef industry today.

Simply by pre-conditioning, producers are trying to maximize health and well-being of the animals prior to and at weaning, not just post-weaning. “We are trying to make a productive member of our feedlot society or a reproductive heifer coming back into our herd,” Tarpoff said.

It’s important for the animal to be healthy early on, which leads into usability later in life. Tarpoff questioned what pre-conditioning actually means. Does it mean animals have gotten shots or are weaned? Or placed on feed or bunk broke or water broke?

“Or does it really just mean value-added?” Tarpoff said. “Depending on your management strategies and what type of verified program you choose to use, it could be a mixture of any of these or just one of these.”

Regardless of the program used for the calves, there’s still value, according to Tarpoff.

“When we use some of our animal health tools and management strategies, they’re value added,” he said. “We’re trying to get value into that animal for its production life, but it’s a two-stage process. We need to make sure we recoup that value whenever we sell these animals.”

Tarpoff said this is where verified programs can come into play.

“The list of verified programs is a mile long,” he said.

Verified programs have different stages relative to cattle age. They can go from a vaccination series at branding all the way up to a series of vaccines prior to weaning or at weaning.

“Maybe the animals are weaned and actually kept on farm for 45 to 60 days or longer,” Tarpoff said. “So there’s a wide array of some pre-conditioning programs that could be utilized.”

Tarpoff said verification programs provide documentation, plain and simple.

“We can prove dates, times, products, whatever has been given on the animal health and what the management strategy had been done to that group of animals—we can prove it,” he said. “And we can back it up.”

Proving it is critical, especially when taking the animals to the sale. It is important to make sure the value-added investment in these animals is recognized.

“We can maximize the value we can actually get paid for whenever we sell them, and that’s what it all comes from,” Tarpoff said.

Tarpoff has a theory as to where the perceived value comes from.

“It all comes down to cattle health,” he said. “Coming from the feedlot sector, understanding that value it changes the needs of those animals once they make it to the next stage of production.”

Tarpoff stressed the importance of cattle health and what it means during critical stages of the animal’s life.

“There’s a lot of different things we can label cattle health. I like to frame it as a balancing act, between the functional immunity of that calf during those critical periods of time, and the pathogen load they’re getting exposed to,” he explained.

Hurts and helps

Factors that play into the immune function balancing act include: nutrition, environment and pathogen loads, vaccinations and maturity. Quality nutrition starts during gestation, and leads to immunity functionality.

“The immune system is one of the most taxing systems in the body,” Tarpoff said. “It takes a lot of energy to combat illness and pathogens that animals are exposed to.”

A clean environment has a lighter pathogen load.

If the environmental pathogen load is high, there is a greater chance to upset the health balance and end up with disease. When animals are vaccinated, the animals are challenged, which help them get stronger.

“We challenge them. We challenge the calf’s immune system against specified pathogens for them to respond to build memory and antibodies against that specified pathogen,” he said. “They’re challenging to build antibodies of protection so they end up with a stronger immune system. We want a bump in immunity.”

Maturity is an oft-overlooked factor that helps with immune function.

“A freshly weaned calf doesn’t have the same immune function as a yearling steer,” Tarpoff said. “Think about that when you’re thinking about health.”

The older an animal gets, the more its been exposed to and the more immunity it has developed.

“They’re more protected later on in life,” he said. “Maturity has a lot to do with some of our immune status.”

The things that hurt

Stressors to the immune system include events like weaning, changes in feed, extreme weather and management practices.

“Is weaning a stressful time in the animal’s life?” Tarpoff said. “No, it’s the most stressful time in that animal’s life.”

Weaning is stressful and illness and sickness occurs most often following weaning. Change is hard in cattle, just like it is in people. “Changes in feed, in transportation, comingling animals—all of those could be detrimental.”

Timing of management practices like castration and dehorning can be stressful if not done at the proper time.

Mixing groups of cattle hinder the social hierarchy and stress can be an outcome of that.

“When we’re mixing cattle from different sources, we’re also throwing introduction of pathogens into the mix,” he said. These may be new pathogens that the animals have not yet been exposed to.

All those things are normal in many beef production systems.

“How do we manage that? That’s where preconditioning comes in,” Tarpoff said. “We can do things to help boost our immune system, like vaccines. We challenge that animal in a proper time in a healthy animal.”

It’s all a balancing act producers must find their own answers to in their own systems.

Kylene Scott can be reached at or 620-227-1804.

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