by: Heather Smith Thomas

Higher cattle prices are giving cow-calf producers an opportunity to hold onto weaned calves in the fall and add more weight and value to them for sale in the spring, or to sell fall-born calves as weanlings in a spring market. There is a good demand this spring for lightweight calves to go to grass or heavier-weight calves to go directly to feedlots.

There are several ways to make these calves more attractive to buyers, adding more value to groups of calves at sale time and building more demand for them. This can be a way to minimize health problems and maximize performance for the buyer. Bull calves should have been castrated at a young age, and all heifer calves Bangs vaccinated if there is any chance they might end up going into someone's breeding program.

Russ Daly, DVM (Extension Veterinarian/Associate Professor, South Dakota State University) says that any kind of preconditioning health care program will be beneficial for these calves. “Here in eastern South Dakota most producers typically wean calves in the fall. Some put them on feed through the winter months and background them, and then in April and May sell them into a feedyard,” he says.

“We do have a few grass calves purchased at that time, as well. In our part of the state, however, pasture is becoming a real premium,” he says. In some parts of the country, pastures are looking good for this spring and in other areas there's still drought and some concern about whether there will be enough pasture for stocker cattle.

“Most of the health preparation for disease prevention should have already been done by the time the calves get to this point. Weaning is the most stressful time, and this should be behind them,” says Daly. For fall calves, however, the weaning process should be accomplished several weeks ahead of when you plan to sell them in the spring or early summer.

“A good pre-weaning vaccination program is important, whether you wean in the fall or early spring, so that when these calves are stressed their immune system is already stimulated. Then we don't have to worry about the effects of stress and low nutrient intake (at weaning) on the vaccine response,” he explains.

“Pre-weaning vaccinations are the hallmark for any program—whether spring calving or fall calving. If the animals have already weathered those first weeks or months after weaning, they will likely remain healthy. Whether or not we'd recommend a booster vaccination in the spring for fall-weaned calves would depend on several things. One of these factors might be whether the calves will be transported long distaces to a sale or somewhere to grass. Booster of their previous respiratory and clostridial vaccines might be a good idea, to decrease the risk for illness after that transport,” he says.

“Calves that have pretty good weight and some age on them (yearlings or long-yearlings) may not need any kind of booster, because they generally will be at a lower risk for future illness. It's not a common practice to booster those animals before shipping to a feedyard or shipping out to grass. The people who receive them might have their own ideas about this, however,” says Daly.

The producer may want to discuss this with the buyer or a potential buyer. A booster vaccination may make those cattle more attractive to the buyer. “The buyer should find some value in that, especially if there will be various groups of cattle mixed to put out on grass or into a feedlot. Many of these health considerations tend to fall more on the buyer than on the seller, but if the producer is selling direct and has a relationship with the buyer, and can show that these animals are current on their respiratory vaccines, the buyer should find some value in this,” he says.

“This is especially true if the buyer is bringing several groups together from various sources. This makes it more important for those animals to have a good immune response on board when they get to their destination,” says Daly. If the cattle purchased from a certain producer always perform well and stay healthy, this will make that buyer more interested in continuing to buy those cattle in the future.

“We do see this in certain cases. People have good luck with certain groups of cattle coming into their feedyard and they seek those out again. A line of communication with the buyers, or some verification of the health program when your calves are going through a sale, can be helpful. If they've had recent boosters or are what we call current on their vaccinations, this should be mentioned at the sale barn. Some auction markets play this up and do a better job of selling this aspect of the cattle to the buyers—even on the video auctions,” he says.

Some sort of documentation is always good. “If the auctioneer has that piece of paper in front of him, saying these calves got this shot on such-and-such date carries a lot more weight than someone just telling him they got all their shots. Many veterinarians will provide this documentation for the clients for whom they have worked cattle or have provided vaccine,” says Daly. Respiratory disease is always an issue with cattle, but fortunately in that age group—older calves that have been on feed—that risk is less.

“There are other implications for health, including worms and other parasites in cattle going to grass. Internal parasites can be a problem for young cattle. These are mainly stomach and intestinal worms, but in some areas there can also be a problem with liver flukes. Our goal, going into spring and summer, is to try to reduce the number of parasites on the pasture, but this is more an issue for the person who is receiving the cattle. We could do a great job of deworming those young cattle (that have been on feed or on winter pasture) before they are sold, but that might not be perceived as valuable by the person receiving the calves.” The buyer, however, might have a problem if he has parasite-infected cattle coming in—that would contaminate his pastures, or bring drug-resistant worms from another region.

“Deworming might be something that the buyers would want to do, upon arrival of the cattle. But if the seller can communicate to the buyer that these cattle have been dewormed recently (perhaps at the same time they are given booster shots) this might be beneficial to the buyer, reducing the number of parasites shed out onto the pasture. This is something that the buyer should be aware of, especially if the animals are coming from different parts of the country. The types of parasites are pretty much the same all over, but they may have different drug resistance patterns,” says Daly.

“On the seller's side, all of these things are good health practices, but you won't get the benefit from doing this (such as a higher price for your cattle) unless the buyer sees the value in this. This is where the communication between buyer and seller is important.”

Another issue is implant programs. “The history of the animals is important; the buyer should be interested in what implants have been given, and at what times. Especially in heavier calves, proper timing and choice of implants is important, to ensure that adverse effects on carcass quality do not occur,” says Daly.

Some buyers may also prefer to get calves that didn't gain to their maximum potential in the backgrounding period, thinking that this may decrease the efficiency of the animal in the finishing phase. Good nutrition, however, lays the foundation for good health and future efficient gains in the feedlot.

“In reality, we don't see many health problems after we get those young cattle through the backgrounding process unless there's a long, stressful transport. Sometimes it can be beneficial for the seller's veterinarian and the buyer's veterinarian to communicate, especially if the cattle are entering or coming from a situation where there are certain problems like liver flukes. Those things can be worked out ahead of time, on the backgrounding/processing of these calves,” says Daly.

“Regarding any kind of preconditioning, it all comes back to what value the buyer is going to find in those calves. With grass cattle it may pay to have certain vaccinations in place, if there may be some issues like pinkeye, or even foot rot. If cattle have not been vaccinated for blackleg, this is another situation we see quite a bit. There are also pockets of anthrax in certain areas. Calves are usually less susceptible than cows and bulls, but this would be something you'd want to know going out to pasture, and might be of more concern for the buyer than the seller,” he says.

“It's great when we can have the buyer and seller encourage their veterinarians to contact each other and have a vet-to-vet talk.” They can compare notes on what diseases they see in their respective areas and know what the cattle should be prepared for when going to another region.

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