By Lorie Woodward Cantu
Editor's Note: This is the second installment in a 12-part series on stocker cattle management. This series has been created in partnership with Chris McClure, Gold Standard Labs (bvd-pi.com), a lab services company based in Hereford that specializes in BVD-PI testing and blood pregnancy tests; and Danna Schwenk and Karla Whitmore, CattleXpert Management Software (cattlexpert.com), a software company based in Elkhorn, Neb., that specializes in feedlot and stocker management applications.
Preconditioning is a vaccination, nutrition and management program designed to prepare young cattle to withstand the stress associated with weaning and shipment to a backgrounding yard or feedlot.
Preconditioning gives cow-calf operators the opportunity to maintain ownership through weaning and add value to their calves. Because preconditioning establishes a foundation for good health, it gives stocker and feedlot operators confidence that the cattle are prepared to perform, not get sick and/or die.
While preconditioning adds additional expense, it can make a positive difference not only to the bottom line, but to the reputation of the person or program that produced those cattle.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the Sulphur Springs Livestock Auction, which is home base for the Northeast Texas Beef Improvement Organization (NETBIO). The program, which is a joint effort among the auction market, local cattle producers, agribusiness support industries and the Chamber of Commerce, was established in 1998 to help improve the reputation of East Texas cattle, while giving local producers the opportunity to increase their profitability.
"When we started this program, our region's producers had a reputation for pulling calves straight off of their mommas, without castration or dehorning, and dumping them straight into the marketing chain," Dwyatt Bell, president of NETBIO and Texas Heritage National Bank in Sulphur Springs, says.
"From the buyers' perspective, those cattle were problems waiting to happen. With NETBIO, we, working with local industry people, created a health and nutrition protocol that encouraged producers to implement best management practices so cattle could be sold in the organization's consignment sales."
The first sale, held in November 1998, featured 2,100 head sold in matched load lots and grossed $858,000. In 2010, NETBIO sponsored 6 sales, marketing a total of 38,527 head and grossing more than $23.4 million dollars. The effort has grown to include more than 500 member-producers in 40 northeast Texas counties and 4 neighboring states.
Buyers, who value the ability to acquire large numbers of uniform cattle quickly, now come from across the nation in person and via video auction.
"We've seen results that we could not have imagined," Bell says. "As our producers began realizing people are willing to pay better money for better cattle, there has been a concerted effort to improve the region's cattle herd by improving genetics. Not only have our producers enjoyed premiums, but as they've gotten more experienced at preconditioning, they've been able to increase their profit margins. Today, they're enjoying higher prices for bigger cattle."
While Bell noted experienced stocker operators figured out the principles of successful preconditioning through the school of hard knocks, he says NETBIO's framework can offer helpful lessons to those new to the industry.
Don't rush to market
Weaning is stressful, as are castrating and dehorning. NETBIO requires that calves be weaned and on feed and water 45 days prior to the sale. All calves must be castrated and dehorned and the last vaccination boosters given at least 30 days before the sale.
"Cattle under stress are more likely to get sick," Bell says. "Calves that have been off the cows and on feed and water are better prepared to handle the stress of transportation and marketing. They don't lose ground like freshly weaned calves."
He notes that freshly weaned calves lose 6 to 10 percent of their body weight, depending on stand time, when marketed through a typical sale. When NETBIO markets preconditioned calves, the organization takes a 2 percent shrink on the lot; the calves are normally weighed within 1 to 2 hours after delivery, so the producers' total shrink is much less on the preconditioned calves.
"Two percent is fair to both our producers and our buyers," Bell says. "In the end though, our producers, who have preconditioned their calves, are getting higher prices for heavier calves."
Consistent protocol important
All calves included in a NETBIO sale must undergo a series of vaccinations prior to the sale with appropriate boosters completed 30 days prior to the sale.
The required vaccinations include a 7- or 8-way clostridial (black leg) administered in the neck under the skin, not in the muscle; respiratory viruses (IBR, PI3, BVD and BRSV); hemophilus somnus and pasteurella hemolyticum, both given in the neck.
The last vaccination for IBR/PI3 must be a modified live virus. Two doses are required for both the IBR/PI3 and hemophilus somnus. The hemophilus somnus vaccine can be combined with the clostridial vaccine.
The pasteurella hemolyticum vaccine must be recognized as leukotoxin type. It may be combined with pasteurella multocida. The dose required is dependent on label recommendations.
While producers can administer the vaccinations, they must record the brand name, components, lot or serial number, dates administered and location of injection. For many people, it is convenient to use a computer-based record keeping system for efficiency and ease of access.
Before the cattle can be consigned to a NETBIO sale, they must be certified by a veterinarian.
"The biggest variable for stocker and feedlot operators is the health of the cattle that they receive," Bell says. "A load of sick cattle can destroy their profits. When they buy from a NETBIO sale, we want them to buy with confidence, knowing that the cattle have been managed to protect and maximize their health."
Uniformity is key
When cattle arrive at a NETBIO sale, they typically are weighed within 2 hours and commingled into uniform load lots of approximately 50,000 pounds of cattle. The weight variance between cattle in any given lot is 50 to 75. While the cattle are not all the same color, the lots consist of cattle of the same type.
"One of our big drawing points for buyers is that they can get a lot of uniform cattle quickly," Bell says. "In an afternoon, a buyer can put together a set of cattle that it would have taken him weeks to acquire if he were attending regular auction markets."
From a seller's perspective, commingling the cattle into uniform lots allows them to receive a premium price that they might not otherwise enjoy.
Accountability is vital
Every animal consigned to a NETBIO sale receives a NETBIO ear tag with an identification number that can be traced back to a specific producer using NETBIO's record system. If the buyers leave the NETBIO ear tag intact, and a problem occurs with a load of calves, they can contact NETBIO.
NETBIO maintains an audit committee of producers who can access NETBIO's health and management records to help troubleshoot problems.
"We want NETBIO cattle to work for the people who buy them, so our interest doesn't stop when the truck pulls away from the sale," Bell says. "If a stocker or feedlot operator is having health issues with a pen of cattle that originated with our organization, we want to know about it and, furthermore, we want to figure out why it happened."
While problems are rare, the audit committee has a plan of action, Bell says. The first thing they try to find out is if the cattle came from the same producer.
"If it ever turned out that the sick cattle all came from the same ranch we would know that we might have a potential problem, and that is something that we would be quick to follow up on with the producer; however, if the sick cattle came from a variety of sources, the causes are likely to be beyond our control," Bell says.
Examples of outside influences include poor weather conditions, overcrowding on the trucks transporting the calves from the auction market or poor handling when the calves arrive at their final destination, he says.
In his 13-year affiliation with NETBIO, Bell has never encountered a situation where all of the sick cattle came from the same producer.
The food business
The success of the NETBIO can be attributed, in part, to a psychological shift that took place within the organization.
"In the beginning, our members considered themselves cattle producers, but today we consider ourselves food producers," Bell says. "Our organization is designed to do what is best for our producers from conception to consumption, but we never forget that our product is destined to end up on someone's plate."
"Stocker Cattle: Preconditioning" is from theFebruary 2012 issue of The Cattlemen magazine.