Preconditioning reduces the stress between weaning and the next stage of a calf’s life

Weaning time is approaching for many cow/calf producers, and preconditioning calves for the next stage in their life can help make the transformation go smoothly.

Preconditioning is designed to reduce stress during the transitional period between weaning and going on feed or moving into the next production cycle. The basic concept of preconditioning programs is to boost the calf’s health status or immune system prior to exposure to stressors and pathogens. The typical preconditioning program involves a health protocol of vaccinations administered 21 to 30 days prior to weaning.

Preconditioning has also been shown to improve efficiency, and reduce the risk and cost of treatment for health diagnosis after weaning.

“We’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law – If it can go wrong, it will. Planning is an effort to make the outcome more desirable. Certain practices like vaccinating don’t work as well when calves are stressed or when booster shots are never provided,” Dr. Shane Gadberry, professor of ruminant nutrition for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said. “Vaccinations can be started ahead of weaning and castration can be done as young as possible. Pay attention to the markets and what factors are influencing market price to determine when is the best time to wean and market calves.”

Make Plans

Gadberry suggested making a checklist of vaccines and other needed supplies, as well as making needed repairs prior to the weaning process, and have a plan of action regarding calf care.

“It’s never a good idea for the calf to be weaned and immediately sent to the sale barn,” he said. “This is very stressful on the calf and producers may miss out on additional income from preconditioning these calves for market.”

He added that castrating in early life, deworming and vaccinating for clostridial and respiratory diseases according to vaccine label, good nutrition, and time between weaning and marketing all work together to help make a calf less likely to become sick after leaving the farm.

Preparing for weaning isn’t just about the calf either.

“Sometimes a plan for weaning may be a plan to wean early so cows can more easily gain back body condition before winter,” Gadberry said. “Weaning time is also a good time to preg check cows and make cow culling decisions.”


One of the most important things producers can do is get them adjusted to a feed bunk. If newly weaned calves do not eat properly, there’s an increased risk of disease.

According to the Iowa Beef Center, it takes one to two weeks for the rumen microbial population to adapt to new feedstuffs.

Newly weaned calves should be started with feeds they are accustomed to. If the calves have been creep fed, the feeds used in the creep should be part of the grain mix at least for the first few days. Calves are adapted to grass; so long stem hay for the first three to seven days is a normal recommendation.

Researchers suggest feeding both cows and calves a small amount of a supplement or the weaning ration out of a bunk prior to weaning when the calves are with the cows acclimate calves to feed.

“Preconditioning really goes beyond reducing weaning stress but preparing calves for market and their next home,” Gadberry said.


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