by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Livestock Specialist Joe C. Paschal, PhD.
The concept of a value added calf (VAC) program is not new today, but in the late 1980s it was thought to have little value in some circles.
Randall Grooms, PhD., a beef cattle specialist in Overton with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (as it was then called), came up with the “Texas Value Added Calf” or TEX VAC program. The program outlined procedures to prepare calves prior to weaning to be moved into the next phases of the production chain, as stockers or feeders, and thereby adding value to them. Basically, it recommended vaccination for clostridial diseases and bovine respiratory disease (BRD) complex, castration of bulls and dehorning at an early age, internal and external parasite control, implanting steer calves, and teaching all calves to eat and drink out of a bunk and trough.
In 1991, the late Dr. John McNeill expanded the TEX VAC program to include weaning and post-weaning value-added components including a 45-day backgrounding period to create VAC-45. This program was recommended to all participants of the Texas A&M University (TAMU) Ranch to Rail Program (1991-2005) who fed five or more of their steer calves co-mingled in a commercial feed yard to obtain feeding, carcass and financial information. With only a few years’ data, it was shown that cattle that had been through the VAC 45 program gained faster, had better carcasses, less morbidity and mortality, and made more money for their owners than cattle that had not.
Preweaning programs are useful for all cow-calf producers, commercial or purebred, regardless if they are selling at auction or retaining ownership in the feed yard or selling breeding stock. Basically, you are preparing the calves’ immune systems with the appropriate vaccinations, shaping the cattle up to make them more appealing to potential buyers with identification and castration and dehorning at an early age, adding some weight with a growth implant, utilizing internal and external parasite control, and easing the stress of weaning with good pasture or high-quality hay, mineral, and a high-protein supplement. To be most valuable, the management practices (vaccination, castration, etc.) should be done well before weaning to have the most effect. Today there are many VAC-type programs.
I highly recommend you get your veterinarian involved in the vaccination decisions. I vaccinate my calves for clostridials and BRD and control for internal and external parasites, but which products you use is your decision. Chances are if you have a good herd health program to begin with, you already have this done. Vaccination shortly before, at or shortly after weaning is not recommended since the immune system is under the stress of weaning.
Research has shown (as you might suspect) that dehorning and castration are painful and have a significant effect on the immune system (dehorning more than castration). It has, also, shown that when these are practiced at an early age the effects are not as severe and recovery is quicker. All bull calves are born with testicles; some have horns, which can be removed surgically, or use can use polled bulls and that is the preferred method. Feedyards don’t dehorn much; they prefer to tip horns, as feed bunks are cheaper to build than dehorned cattle are to treat for sickness. But horns, tipped or not, can still cause bruising and loss of carcass value. There usually isn’t much of a discount for small horns. Feedyards will castrate bulls regardless of size so it should be done at the ranch and when the calves are small and young. Castration wounds at a later age (and weight) take longer to heal, reduce weight gain, increase sickness, reduce carcass merit, and can even lead to death. I know if you don’t retain ownership into the feedyard you don’t think you are getting paid for castration, but if you sell heavier bull calves you can get a substantial discount ($10-15 per cwt down here).
When you castrate bull calves, a surgical or knife-cut method is preferred. Banding is used by some, but research has shown more pain and a longer recovery period with banding. In addition, if banding, a tetanus toxoid should be given to prevent tetanus infection from the decomposing scrotum. As with any surgical procedure, a clean, sharp-cutting edge is best and a good disinfectant to wash your hands and equipment before and after is a must. Some prefer to put a salve on the wound. I don’t, but check with your veterinarian.
Treating for internal and external parasites is, also, often over looked. Probably the best bang for your buck, outside of growth implants, is timely and effective treatment for parasites when conditions warrant. It has long been known that internal parasites affect weight and recent research has shown that even low horn fly populations can reduce weaning weights by up to 20 pounds. I would suggest that your veterinarian be consulted as to what they recommend. For external parasites, a combination of methods is best.
Ear implants are another tool that improves gain and efficiency of gain in both steers and heifers preweaning. According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System, only about 10 percent of cow-calf producers implant their calves (as compared to 90 percent of cattle in feed yards). Implants use a hormone or combination of hormones and usually last 70-100 days depending on the implant. Implants are inserted under the skin of the ear, usually when castration is done. I think most folks don’t implant because it requires an extra piece of equipment (implant gun) and some expertise (or at least training). And it is hard to visually observe the average or 20 pounds or so increase.
The last step is to teach these calves to eat out of a bunk and drink out of a trough. Most calves are fresh weaned, often with a milk moustache, when sold, mostly at auction. If you plan on feeding your calves, or even if you don’t, it pays to take a little time to bring them up at weaning and secure them in a pen or trap with a good fence where their mommas can see them (fence-line weaning). This reduces stress on the calves. At the same time, if they’ve never drunk out of a trough, let the water run over for a day or so. Calves are curious and will learn where the water is. Also, you might put out a little feed like cottonseed meal or other high-protein feed with either good pasture or high-quality hay. You don’t want to fully feed them but just supplement to graze better. During this period, the calves can be gentled by walking or riding through them, getting them accustomed to people. After a few weeks, they can be turned out in a separate pasture as weaned calves for the next few weeks prior to shipping.
If you are going to feed your calves in a feedyard or merchandise as preconditioned or backgrounded, it will pay to conduct some of these VAC practices. If you are going to send them to an auction, probably not. Sending freshly weaned calves to a feedyard can be a disaster. If you prepare them, they still might get sick but the odds are against it.