by: Heather Smith Thomas

Some ranchers hold calves over as yearlings to sell later/bigger, and some people buy light calves in the spring to put on grass and grow to a larger weight. Some put weaned calves into a confinement program--fed a growing ration until they are ready to go to a finishing facility.

Bart Lardner (Research Scientist, Western Beef Development Center, University of Saskatchewan) says that after weaning there are several programs that can be used to grow calves at a targeted rate of gain, and to help ensure good productivity and future performance after they get to the feedlot. “Backgrounding aims for a controlled rate of growth, trying to maximize frame size before 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.

“What that ultimate growth can be is controlled by genetics. The part we can control is environment, and nutrition. Most spring-born calves are weaned at five to seven months of age and may be put onto a backgrounding program, depending on the end target. A big-framed calf like might go into a feedlot sooner, whereas a smaller frame-size calf might be backgrounded longer or go to grass.” Some light calves are put on a growing ration during winter, then go to grass in the spring.

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

“In a drylot system we are looking at gaining two pounds per day, or a little more, but in extensive field systems where calves are grazing we are 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 feedlot system. It's all about cost effectiveness. A person might have to keep them a little longer on grass, but if this is cheaper, it works. Producers should use whatever forage is readily available,” he says.

“Make sure that when calves get to that 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 the targeted finish weight of 1,300 pounds. Know your program and don't enter it without some pre-planning. This is especially important today, since cattle prices have softened,” he says.

A few years ago, it seemed like the sky was the limit on prices. Everyone was hanging onto their cattle in hopes of the extra nickel they might get next week. “But now it's going the other way. Make sure you have yardage cost figured on a backgrounding program—whether it's 20 cents per day, or 50 cents per day, or whatever it might be on a forage-based program,” says Lardner. Feed costs can be 60 percent of total costs but you also must consider other costs, including direct costs and yardage.

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

To begin a backgrounding program, think about the weaning program. “Don't stress those calves. A fenceline wean (or two-stage weaning with nose flaps) can help make the transition easier, 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—for two or three weeks.” The easier you get them through weaning, the better. They don't quit gaining.

“Many drylot systems take in 500 to 600-pound calves after weaning. Work with a nutritionist and NRC guidelines to know what the protein and energy requirements would be 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 a feedlot, figure out the amount of protein and energy required. For example, the nutrient requirements for a 500-pound calf would be 11.4 percent crude protein and 63.5 TDN, with a dry matter intake of 15 pounds, to achieve an estimated two pounds a day gain,” says Lardner.

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

“In our research, we use our drylot system as a control—to compare some alternative backgrounding systems that might be an option for a producer rather than having to set up feed bunks in a pen with feeding equipment like a tractor and a feed-wagon. Some extensive grazing systems can work—such as putting 500-pound calves on a swath graze program. Calves might be able to utilize a cool-season annual like barley or maybe a warm-season annual like millet,” he says.

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

“Over the three years we saw some 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 swath 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 the swathed barley were roughly at 43 percent less cost of gain compared to our drylot system, due to less yardage cost and no manure hauling cost,” says Lardner.

“We also did some work with grazing standing corn, wondering if a 500-pound calf will background in a winter system on whole plant corn. This is a typical winter grazing system with pregnant beef cows but the question was whether it also works with weaned calves. We compared it to the drylot system and barley swath grazing during a three-year study and saw a little lower rate of gain compared with backgrounding in the drylot system. In the drylot feeding program animal energy and protein intake was not challenged as much as it was on cold days out in the field—where calves must go out and try to utilize the whole plant,” he explains.

“But it all worked out in the long run, and this is an alternative that producers might look at, since some regions are growing a lot more corn now. Wintering calves on standing corn can be a viable option with proper management.”

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

Animal health is important as you grow these calves, so make sure they are well vaccinated and settled prior to going into a backgrounding program. In the extensive system calves seem healthier and hardier, though you need to be prepared to deal with wind chill factors and cold stress, with windbreaks and possibly bedding—so they are not lying in snow or on frozen ground.

The drylot ration was a processed green feed with some concentrates (20 percent). Out in the extensive systems it was harder for calves to consume enough forage to meet the targeted rate of gain. “Consequently we had to provide a range pellet—at about five pounds per head per day. Growing calves need more nutrients than pregnant dry cows just maintaining bodyweight. Calves need a higher level of energy and protein.” This can be provided in nearly any form of economical protein supplement.

“We continue to do some work with backgrounding, looking at different crop types and various annual cereals besides barley. Right now we are evaluating two of the newer varieties of triticale--an alternative annual cereal. We are comparing them with a conventional barley variety in a silage backgrounding system. This crop can be put in a bunker or pit silo, and used as the forage base in backgrounding. Palatability issues are a concern in a silage program; you need to make sure there's no factor in the annual cereal that would jeopardize dry matter intake,” Lardner says.

“If you are considering retaining ownership of calves and backgrounding them, pencil it out first to see if it is economical to put 200 pounds on a calf with the resources on your farm or ranch. Don't just decide to background because the neighbor is doing it. It has to fit your own program and resources. Do you have the labor, or the land—if you are going to graze them—or the facilities if you are going to drylot calves. What is the price advantage if I 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 source is cost-effective, or growing the annual cereal or warm-season crop. There might be an advantage for a backgrounding program on your operation, rather than selling those animals at weaning.”

Some farmers make a business of backgrounding, taking in grass cattle/stockers or to utilize some of their crops. “With increasing costs, feedlots now tend to take in yearlings more readily than calves—depending on the month and the market. There are sometimes advantages in growing calves bigger on grass or crops,” says Lardner.

This is also a way to stretch beef supply and have cattle to market throughout 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 helps create a constant supply. Feedlots can source and purchase groups of calves that are all the same frame size that will do well in a feedlot program. It's all about supply and demand. Even though the majority of calves are born in the spring, backgrounding at different rates enables feedlots to find a constant supply. Calves can come into the feedlot at different times,” he says.

“A British breed calf might spend more time growing than a continental breed calf. A Char-cross calf might enter the feedlot two 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.

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