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Tips provided for adding value to the calf crop

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Capturing additional value for calves this fall will be even more important with drought conditions and high feed prices continuing, resulting in increased annual cow costs for producers. Adding value can mean implementing management practices allowing for the possibility of premiums on sale day and avoiding or minimizing discounts.

When considering how to add value to this year’s calves, a good starting point is to look at factors influencing the value of feeder cattle. Some of the primary factors include weight, sex of the calves, information available or history, time of year, shrink and location. Additional factors influencing value include health, uniformity, quality, weaning status, preconditioning and value-added programs.

Management practices 

Management practices can help avoid discounts and increase the quality of calves. Several practices include dehorning and castration. Horned cattle can receive significant discounts as indicated with a 2012 research study reporting horned cattle received a discount of $3.15 per hundredweight (cwt). In today’s markets, this discount is likely higher. 

In the feedlot, horned cattle require additional bunk space and can cause bruising, decreasing carcass value. Similarly, bull calves generally receive a significant discount, with steers bringing approximately $5 to $10 per cwt more than bull calves. As bulls get bigger and older, this discount increases due to the increased risk and weight loss associated with castration.

Additionally, ensuring calves are sorted into uniform lots can help minimize discounts on sale day. Consider sorting calves by sex, weight, size, muscle score, color, etc., to create more uniform lots or loads of cattle. Producers selling a small number of calves may consider working with other producers to put together larger groups of calves of similar breed composition, weight and sex to help capture additional value.

Weaning considerations 

Cow/calf producers can also add value to calves prior to sale through health, weaning and preconditioning practices. It is recommended calves receive two rounds of respiratory and clostridial vaccines. Often, calves receive the first round of vaccinations at branding and the second round at or around weaning. Providing Mannheimia haemolytica and Pasteurella multocida at weaning when booster vaccinations are administered can provide additional health protection. Depending on marketing strategies, producers should consider enrollment in value-added health programs to help capture the value of health and vaccination programs.

Weaning practices can also significantly impact feeder cattle value, with weaned calves bringing a premium over unweaned calves. Weaning at least 45 days is the most common preconditioning program protocol. Preconditioned calves have improved health, gain and feed efficiency in the feedlot, as well as increased carcass quality. Enrolling preconditioned calves in a certified program and marketing them in advertised or special value-added sales can help capture the added value associated with preconditioning.


Preconditioned calves tend to sell at a higher price compared to non-preconditioned calves; however, preconditioning will result in additional feed, health and labor costs. Producers should compare the value of gain and the cost of gain to assess the cost versus return and ensure preconditioning calves will provide a positive net return. When evaluating if preconditioning is the right fit for their operation, producers should also focus on factors such as weight gain, length of the preconditioning period, feed availability and cost and different marketing options.

Additional weight gain can also be added through the use of growth-promoting implants. Administration of a growth-promoting implant in suckling calves has been reported to increase gains from four to eight percent, resulting in an additional 15 to 30 pounds of weaning weight. For two dollars or less per head, the additional weaning weight garnered from administration of a growth-promoting implant can be worth over $20 per head.

Producers should evaluate additional marketing programs such as age and source verification, natural or organic programs, branded programs such as Certified Angus or Hereford Beef, or non-hormone treated cattle to determine if additional value can be added to calves through participation.

Comparing the cost versus return and assessing the economic outcomes is essential in determining if implementing different management or marketing strategies is the most profitable decision for the operation. Spending the extra time to develop a marketing plan may allow producers to capture additional value from the calf crop and increase profitability.

Shelby Rosasco is the University of Wyoming Extension beef specialist and an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming in the Animal Sciences Department. Rosasco can be reached at

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