Backgrounding Calves

Published on Fri, 06/25/2021 - 9:44am

Backgrounding Calves.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Some ranchers hold calves over winter to sell as yearlings.  Some buy light calves in the spring to put on grass and grow to larger weight.  Some put weaned calves into a confinement program, feeding a growing ration until they are ready to go to a finishing facility.  All these scenarios are a form of backgrounding.

Dr. Bart Lardner (University of Saskatchewan) says several programs can be used to grow weaned calves at a targeted rate of gain, and ensure future performance when they get to the feedlot.

“Backgrounding aims for a controlled rate of growth, trying to maximize frame size before they start depositing fat.  That way we can produce a greater carcass weight at slaughter.  It’s all about muscle development and skeletal size, for the best potential growth,” he says.

“Every animal has potential to maximize its growth.  What that ultimate growth can be is controlled by genetics, but the part we control is the environment, and nutrition.  Most spring-born calves are weaned at 5 to 7 months and some go into a backgrounding program, depending on the end target.  A big-framed calf like a Charolais might go into a feedlot sooner, whereas a smaller frame-size calf might be backgrounded longer or might go to grass.”  Some light calves will be put on a growing ration during winter, then go to grass in the spring for several months.

It depends a producer’s situation and what’s available as feed.  “I tell producers that if they retain their calves (rather than selling them at weaning) and plan to background and grow them at that slower rate, they should make sure they have a target end weight in mind.  Are they aiming to put on 150 pounds?  Or 200 pounds?  What’s the target and the market at the end of a backgrounding period?  Rate of gain could vary from 1.5 pounds per day to 2 pounds,” says Lardner.

“In a drylot system we look at gaining 2 pounds per day, or a little more, but when calves are grazing we are generally looking at between 1.5 to 1.8 pounds per day, knowing that these calves won’t get the higher rate of gain you’d see in the drylot system.  It’s all about cost effectiveness.  You might have to keep them a little longer on grass, but if this is cheaper, it works.  Producers need to use the forage that’s available,” he says.

“Make sure that when calves get to the 700 to 900 pound target—whatever it might be—they will be going into a feedlot.  Then after another 150 to 200 days they will be right at finish weight of 1300 pounds.  Know your program and don’t jump into it without some pre-planning,” he says.

“The diet in a backgrounding system should be forage-based, something that’s 55 to 70% forage.  This gives us that lower rate of growth to put on more muscle rather than fat,” he explains.

“To start the backgrounding, we have to think about weaning. You don’t want to stress those calves, so fenceline weaning (or two-stage weaning with nose flaps) can help that transition, and get them on the forage diet and get them settled.  Then they start gaining the way you want them to instead of having a delay due to stress.”  The easier you can get them through weaning, the better they do, because they don’t quit gaining.

“Most drylot systems take in 500 to 600-pound calves after weaning.  Work with a nutritionist and NRC guidelines, to know the protein and energy requirements for that weight of growing calf.  If you want those calves to put on 1.8 or 2 pounds a day, for an end weight of 800 pounds when they go into the feedlot, figure out the amount of protein and energy required.  For example, the nutrient requirements for a 500-pound calf would be 11.4% crude protein and 63.5 TDN, with a dry matter intake of 15 pounds, to achieve an estimated 2 pounds a day gain,” says Lardner.

This means doing feed tests and knowing your forages and concentrates—the energy density and protein density.  “You can add different ingredients to come up with proper diet to make sure those animals are getting their requirements daily,” he says.

“In some of the programs we’ve looked at, we use our drylot system as a control—to compare alternative backgrounding systems that might be an option for a producer rather than having to set up feed bunks in a pen and use feeding equipment like a tractor and feed-wagon.  There might be some grazing systems that could work—such as putting 500-pound calves on a swath graze program.  The calves might be able to utilize a cool-season annual like barley or maybe a warm-season annual like a millet crop,” he says.

In a 3-year study, performance of backgrounded calves in a drylot system was compared to calves in a field grazing swathed barley or swathed millet.  “We put them out with some dry cows as ‘trainers’ to teach them where to go and be their security.  The calves settled right in and realized this was their feed source,” says Lardner.

“Over the 3 years we saw interesting results.  The drylot calves gained 1.9 pounds a day and the swath-grazed barley calves gained about the same.  The swath-grazed millet group gained a little less, at 1.3 pounds a day.  Nutrient value of the millet compared with the barley was less because the millet had a little more moisture.”  The calves weren’t getting the same amount of nutrients per pound of feed.

“We looked at cost of gain—what it cost for every pound put on.  The calves grazing swathed barley were roughly at 43% less cost of gain compared to our drylot system, due to less yardage cost and no manure hauling cost,” says Lardner.  

“We also did studies with grazing standing corn.  We compared it to the drylot system and barley swath grazing during a 3-year study and saw lower rate of gain compared with the drylot system where energy and protein intake was not challenged as much as it was on cold days out in the field.  But it all worked in the long run, and this is an alternative producers might look at.”

In the drylot system there were more health issues than in calves wintering out in the fields (on standing corn or swath grazing).  “We saw some coccidiosis in the drylot calves, but not in the extensive grazing systems,” he says.  Confined calves are generally more at risk for illness—sharing contagious disease or parasites (lice, coccidiosis, etc.).

Out in the extensive system calves seem to be healthier and hardier, though producers must be prepared to deal with wind chill factors and cold stress.  “Proper shelter or windbreaks is key,” he says.

“The drylot ration was a processed green feed with some concentrates (20%), but out in the extensive systems if we wanted those calves to consume enough forage to meet the targeted rate of gain there was more challenge.  We had to provide a range pellet—about 5 pounds per head per day.  These growing calves need more nutrients than pregnant dry cows that are just trying to maintain bodyweight.  We want these calves to grow and gain so they need a higher level of energy and protein.” This can be provided in nearly any form of protein supplement that can be provided economically.

Animal health is important, so calves should be well vaccinated prior to going into a backgrounding program.  “They need good wind protection, and in some situations bedding—so they are not lying in snow or on frozen ground.”  You want to avoid cold stress.

“If you are considering retaining ownership and backgrounding calves, pencil it out, and see if it’s economical to put on that extra 200 pounds with the resources on your farm or ranch.  Don’t just decide to background because your neighbor is doing it.  It must fit your own program and resources.  Do you have the land—if you are going to graze—or the facilities and labor if you are going to drylot calves?  What is the price advantage if you grow that animal to larger weight?  Make sure you have a good marketing option at the end of the backgrounding program,” he says.

“It might be a year where hay or some other forage is cost-effective, or growing the annual cereal or warm-season crop.  There might be an advantage for starting a backgrounding program on your operation, rather than selling calves at weaning.”

A few farmers take in grass cattle/stockers or utilize some of the crops they grow.  “With increasing costs of everything, feedlots tend to take in yearlings more readily than calves—depending on the month and the market.  There are sometimes advantages in taking weaned calves and growing them bigger on grass or crops,” says Lardner.

This is also a way to stretch the beef supply and have some cattle to market all through the year—with a steady flow of finished cattle from the feedlot—rather than having most of the animals coming to market at once.  “Backgrounding is a way to create constant supply.  Feedlots can source and purchase groups of calves that are all the same frame size.  It’s all about supply and demand.  Since most calves are born in the spring, backgrounding at different rates enables feedlots to find a constant supply.  They can come into the feedlot at different times,” he says.

“A Char-cross calf might enter the feedlot a couple months ahead of the Hereford/Angus calf because he already has the bigger frame.  A British backgrounded calf might be on a 1.5 pound daily rate of gain whereas the Char-cross or Simmental calf might be gaining 2 to 2.5 pounds per day,” he explains.

Backgrounding In Missouri
Eric Bailey, State Extension Beef Specialist, University of Missouri, says there are some regions in his state where a person can competitively buy calves and do well with them.  “In the stocker/backgrounding business the money is usually made on how you buy them.  In Missouri the average producer runs about 30 cows, so there are many small lots of calves being sold,” he says.

There are opportunities to buy small groups of calves inexpensively and upgrade them.  Lot size impacts sale price.  Also, some small farms may not dehorn or castrate; their cattle are like a savings account, and they sell a few when they need some money.   A person can pick up calves here and there and shape them up and eventually make uniform bunches to resell at larger weight.

To be successful, a backgrounder needs accessible and affordable feed sources.  “One advantage we have in Missouri is our proximity to the corn belt and we don’t have the freight costs that some folks do.  We also have access to many byproducts like distillers’ grains, gluten feed, soy hulls, etc.”

If calves are on pasture, most backgrounders will be feeding 5 to 10 pounds per head per day of some kind of mix of these commodities.  “The blend that most feed mills sell will be a pellet that’s a combination of distillers’ grains, corn, gluten and soy hulls.  The actual mix may change, depending on what they can buy, but this type of blend can be used for cows or backgrounding calves,” he says.

“The productivity of our land is a plus.  If a person is grazing stocker cattle, a good pasture might support one steer per acre.  If you are only keeping them a short time (90 days, instead of the standard 150-180 days), it might support 1.5 steers per acre, while the pasture is growing,” says Bailey.

Missouri produces nearly 2 million calves each year, but 85% of them leave the state at weaning to go elsewhere.  There is tremendous opportunity for backgrounding.  “We are not a fed-cattle state; we lack the large feedlots and slaughter capacity.  In the future, I believe our best asset is an 800-pound steer that is ready to go on feed somewhere, rather than a 500-pound steer that somebody else has to straighten out and then grow and then put on feed,” says Bailey.