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Study shows preconditioning calves improves feedlot behavior

Calves going from the farm to the feedlot undergo numerous stressors within a short time: weaning, transportation, adapting to new environments and feed sources. These pressures increase the risk of bovine respiratory disease, which is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in feedlot cattle and can also lead to a decreased feed intake for up to two weeks after arrival. In fact, freshly weaned calves have double the treatment costs at the feedyard than those that have been preconditioned in a program such as MFA’s Health Track.

Controlled studies and Health Track data show that preconditioning weaned calves for six to eight weeks is beneficial to stocker and feedlot operations. This preconditioning period makes the transition process as easy as possible for the animal through gradual weaning, essential vaccinations, proper nutrition and environmental management.

Giving calves some extra time to adjust to weaning before marketing allows their immune system to mature and vaccines to begin providing protection. Preconditioned calves can also learn to eat out of a bunk and drink from waterers before arrival at the feedlot. In many ways, preconditioning minimizes the cluster of stressful interventions that non-preconditioned calves encounter, resulting in less morbidity and mortality, improved post-weaning performance and higher carcass quality.

Commingling calves from various sources is one of the biggest points of stress at the feedlot and can negatively impact performance upon arrival. Recently, Canadian researchers studied the effect of calf source—preconditioned, auction-derived, non-preconditioned directly from the ranch—and the impact of commingling on feeding behavior and activity during the first seven days in the feedlot.

The first objective of this research was to observe the time preconditioned beef calves spent eating and ruminating compared to ranch-sourced and auction calves. The second objective was to assess the impacts of commingling preconditioned calves with various proportions of auction calves (25%, 50% and 75%), looking at feeding behavior and activity among these groups in that same time frame.

The researchers found that, during the first seven days in the yard, preconditioned calves spent 11% more time eating (163.3 minutes per day) than ranch-direct calves and 15% more (213.7 minutes per day) than auction-acquired calves. In comparing the ratios of commingled calves, pens with a higher proportion of preconditioned calves also spent more time eating compared to pens with lower proportions of preconditioned calves. There was no difference in time spent ruminating between and within all pens, despite significant differences in time spent eating.

Bottom line, these results indicate that preconditioning calves at the farm can improve feeding behavior in the first week at the feedlot in comparison to ranch-direct and auction calves. Although the researchers pointed out that time spent eating is not a direct measure of feed intake, other studies have shown that preconditioned calves consume more feed in comparison to non-preconditioned, direct-from-the-ranch calves.

Taking source into consideration when studying the feeding behavior and activity of feedlot calves provides insight into how preconditioning could improve their health and performance at the feedlot. This positive outcome should encourage more investment in preconditioning practices at the farm and ranch level.
Health Track is one such option available to MFA customers throughout our trade territory. Participants give enrolled calves two rounds of vaccinations, provide MFA-recommended feed and follow a 45-day weaning period. In addition to helping ensure animal health before and after weaning, Health Track can help producers earn a premium price at the sale barn. It’s a proven system to help prepare calves for the next step in the marketing journey and add real value to your operation.

Visit with your MFA livestock experts for more information on preconditioning or visit online at

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