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Bovine Respiratory Disease: Preconditioning Calves – 8.023   arrow

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by C. Shelley and C. Matney* (4/16)

Quick Facts…

  • Death and diseaseare mitigated through preconditioning when compared to weaning on the truck.
  • Preconditioning programs consist of a health plan, onsite weaning and a weight gain period.
  • Preconditioning may not always have financial merit. An economic analysis with a partial budget will help producers make an informed decision.

One of the most common and costly cattle diseases in North America is bovine respiratory disease  (BRD; Griffin 1997 and Taylor et al. 2010). Due to its widespread impacts, research efforts to  understand and reduce BRD began in the late 1800’s. Despite over a hundred years of research, BRD still continues to harm the cattle industry, especially feedlot and stocker cattle. Contraction of  BRD can cause significant rates of mortality or decreases in average daily weight gain, hot carcass  weight, dressing percentage, actual carcass value, fat level, marbling and yield grade (Holland et al. 2010). It has been estimated that approximately 75% of morbidity and 50 to 70% of mortality at  feedlots are caused by BRD (Edwards 1996; Galyean et al. 1999 and Loneragan et al. 2001). BRD is  very expensive to treat. Holland and colleagues (2010) found that a one-time treatment for calves  with BRD yielded a net return $40.64 less per head than for non-treated calves. Calves treated  twice yielded $58.35 less, and those treated three or more times netted an average of $291.93  less than non-treated calves. In 2001, Chirase and Greene estimated that the feedlot industry was  losing $800 million to $900 million annually in economic losses from BRD due to mortality, reduced  feed efficiency, and treatment costs. Due to the high cost of treatment, much of the research  occurring today is focused on preventing BRD through preconditioning or metapahylaxis (treatment  f an entire group of calves with an antibiotic upon arrival to a buyer). While metaphylaxis is an opportunity to control BRD for operators receiving cattle, preconditioning is an  opportunity for producers to improve the health of calves before they exchange hands.

Over the last two decades, preconditioning has been gaining in popularity as a means to increase feeder calf health (USDA 2000) with half of feeder calf producers retaining ownership beyond  weaning (NAHMS 2007). Preconditioning is designed to reduce mortality and decrease sickness in  calves. One strategy for preconditioning calves is to increase their weight. Recent research shows  that calf weight is linked to health, with heavier calves being less likely to get sick upon entrance  to the feedlot (Sanderson et al. 2008). Based on this research and benefits already observed by  feeders, many calf-feeding operations are now willing to invest more in preconditioned calves  (King et al. 2006).

Several programs are available to producers who are considering adopting preconditioning. Most  plans include a health plan, weaning period, and weight gain period immediately following weaning. Vaccination plans used, weaning methods, and criteria for feeding after weaning vary greatly  between programs. There is no perfect one-size-fits-all precondition program. There are pros and  cons to each program, depending on the situation and scale of the calving operation. In fact, cattle producers are fully capable of designing a unique or adapted preconditioning program for their own  operation. However, some programs are widely known and bring with them a reputation that  cattle buyers may recognize. Whether producers choose a well-known program or create their own, it is important to focus on building their reputation as a cattle producer that raises healthy,  productive calves.

There are some increased risks for producers investing in preconditioning their calves. The main  consideration is that producers are responsible for the health of their calves after weaning.  Although calves may not have the added stress of transportation, comingling, or novel feed and  environment; weaning can still be a stressful time. Vaccinating calves is one of the most critical tools in disease prevention after weaning, and it is one of the major tools determining whether preconditioning will be a success. Producers should work with their local veterinarian to develop a health plan and treatment regimen during preconditioning, regardless of the popularity of the initial preconditioning program selected.

Most preconditioning programs require 45 or more days of feeding calves after weaning. Producers should choose their preconditioning program with the buyer in mind. For instance, it makes sense to adapt calves to feed bunks and troughs if they are destined for the feedlot. Alternatively, if going to a stocker operation, calves can be fed much more economically on grass hay or pasture after weaning. Bottom line: knowing the end buyer of the cattle will allow producers to more effectively manage and market their calves.

Producers should stay informed of current agricultural and commodity market data and predictions. Sale prices received at weaning may change by the time the preconditioning programs are complete. Additionally, when beef prices are high, there may be a “price slide” that is seen between different weight categories of animals. For example, a calf weighing 550 pounds, and bringing a price of $285/cwt may only bring $240/cwt when weighing 700 pounds. In this case, the overall value of the heavier calf only increased by $112.50 even though it weighed 150 pounds more than the smaller calf. Because of these potential situations, producers should always be mindful of whether or not preconditioning is the most economical option.

In all, preconditioning has the potential to increase overall calf health, improve calf quality, and increase sale margins, but preconditioning may not be an effective management tool every year (Avent et al. 2004). Markets, consumer preference, and feed availability can vary year to year. An economic analysis through a partial budget can be completed relatively easily and help producers make informed decision whether or not to choose preconditioning. For help with a partial budget or for any other preconditioning questions, livestock producers should consider contacting their local extension office.



Avent, R.K.; C.E. Ward; and D.L. Lalman. 2004. Market Valuation of Preconditioning Feeder Calves. Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics 36:173-183.

Chirase, N.K. and L.W. Greene. 2001. Dietary Zinc and Manganese Sources Administered from the Fetal Stage Onwards Affect Immune Response of Transit Stressed and Virus Infected Offspring Steer Calves. Animal Feed Science and Technology 93:217-228.

Edwards, A.J. 1996. Respiratory Diseases of Feedlot Cattle in the Central USA. Bovine Practitioner 30:5-7.

Galyean, M.L.; L.J. Perino and G.C. Duff. 1999. Interaction of Cattle Health/Immunity and Nutrition. Journal of Animal Science 77:1120-1134.

Griffin, D. 1997. Economic impact associated with respiratory disease in beef cattle. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice 13:367–377.

Holland, B.P.; L.O. Burciaga-Robles; D.L. VanOverbeke; J.N. Shook; D.L. Step; C.J. Richards; and C.R. Krehbiel. 2010. Effect of bovine respiratory disease during preconditioning on subsequent feedlot performance, carcass characteristics, and beef attributes. Journal of Animal Science 7:2486-99.

King, M.E.; M.D. Salmon; T.E. Wittum, K.G. Odde; J.T. Seeger; D.M. Grotelueschen; G.M. Rogers; and G.A. Quakenbush. 2006. Effect of certified health programs on the sale price of beef calves marketed through a livestock videotape auction service from 1995 through 2005. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association 229:1389-1400.

Loneragan, G.H.; D.A. Dargatz, P.S. Morley, and M.A. Smith. 2001. Trends in Mortality Ratios Among Cattle in US Feedlots. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 219:1122-1127.

NAHMS. 2008. Reference of 2007-2008 Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices. National Animal Health Monitoring System. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. United States Department of Agriculture.

Sanderson, M.W.; D.A. Dargatz; and B.A. Wagner. 2008. Risk factors for initial respiratory disease in United States’ feedlots based on producer-collected daily morbidity counts. Canadian Veterinary Journal 49(4):373-378.

Seeger, J.T.; M.E. King; D.M. Grotelueschen; G.M. Rogers; and G.S. Stokka. 2011. Effect of management, marketing, and certified health programs on the sale price of beef calves sold through a livestock video auction service from 1995 through 2009. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association 239:451-466.

Taylor, J.D.; R.W. Fulton; T.W. Lehenbauer; D.L. Step; and A.W. Confer. 2010. The epidemiology of bovine respiratory disease: what is the evidence for preventive measures? Canadian Veterinary Journal 51(12):1351-9.

USDA. 2000. NAHMS Veterinary services information sheet: Attitudes towards pre-arrival processing in U.S. feedlots. National Animal Health Monitoring System (HAHMS). Fort Collins, Colorado. No. N340.1100.

*C. Shelley, Livestock agent, Golden Plains Area; C. Matney, former range specialist, NE Colorado. 4/2016
Colorado State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado counties cooperating. CSU Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.