Preconditioning and Vaccines for Calves on the Ranch | Never Stop Learning

A catch chute used when processing cattle for vaccinations
A catch chute used when processing cattle for vaccinations

It’s Fall in Montana! Which means that the ranchers I work with are increasingly more difficult to get ahold of. Cattle are coming down from summer grazing, calves are being weaned and sold, and Fall working for cows is taking place.

At the risk of sounding stupid to other ranchers in the region, I learned something new over the past few weeks! Just like industries have certain jargon that only they can understand, you’ll find those distinct differences among different regions in the cattle business. So every once in a while I stumble upon a new use of a word that I’m not sure what’s being discussed. It’s kind of like the time I was told to look for the “shredder” in the Texas feedlot, and for the life of me couldn’t figure out they were talking about the brush hog.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing ranchers say they’ll be “preconditioning the calves today” and I’ve been a bit confused. I kinda knew what they had to be talking about, but it didn’t quite fit. So, I finally had to ask.

See, where I come from, “preconditioning calves” is process, which is why it didn’t make sense if the ranchers were doing it in one day. When my family weaned calves, they already had their first round of vaccinations, castrations (for the males), and dehorning when necessary. So “preconditioning” at the time of meaning, meant they went through the two to three week adjustment period to recover from the stress of weaning, adapt to a new diet, and usually wrapped up with booster vaccinations before being turned out to the larger pastures for the “stockering” phase (at least 45 days on pasture prior to going to the feedlot).

From what I’ve gathered so far, when ranchers in Montana refer to “preconditioning” calves, it’s mostly just the act of administering vaccinations in one day, prior to or at the time of weaning which is followed by a “backgrounding” period, which is their adjustment period after weaning.

A few of the common vaccinations for beef cattle include various respiratory diseases, clostridial, bacterial pneumonia, vibriosis, and pinkeye. For breeding age animals – trichomoniasis , Brucellosis, leptospirosis. Read more about cattle diseases and vaccinations from Utah State University in the chart below, or by clicking here.

Table via Utah State University. Read more here.
Table via Utah State University. Read more here.

Same process, just a different set of terminology. Never stop learning! Hopefully, I’ll be able to make it out to a ranch next week and we might see a little preconditioning in action if the stars align just right.


  1. We call it pre-conditioning here, or “fall shots”. We don’t usually wean until sale day, but often we will put the quiet wean nose rings in the heifers we don’t sell, on the day we ship, or get them in shortly thereafter and do that. 😉

  2. I like our ‘process’ just fine. But then, I can understand the reasoning behind the pressure with schedules, calendars, etc., that demand seems to keep forcing. I watch beef producers take so much heat. And every time I see a screaming post, I can’t help visiting my imagination, which longs to ask the burning question, “And just how many children have you had, that the rancher needs to feed?” Definitely a life of difficult choices.

  3. As for never stop learning the idiosyncracies this shows the value of why craftsmen are called “journeymen” after finishing their apprenticeship. In the mediaeval ages in Europe, and even to this day, the newly-examined journeyman would go on a literal journey, often crossing into other European countries even and learning different facets of his trade from other masters who themselves in their youth had made such a journey. Farmers tend to stay local all their lives and hence have much more local “vernacular” than those craftsmen would have had. However, thanks to the Internet (for all the vilification of globalization as such), this is coming to an end, as your article goes to show.

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