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Achieving performance in cattle backgrounding programs

Set realistic targets and implement a feeding program that achieves your goals

As we move into fall, many of you will be planning feeding programs for weaned calves. With today’s high prices, managing market volatility is an ongoing concern, particularly for the smaller feeder. In some cases, producers have entered into forward contracts or custom feeding agreements with larger feeding companies, the latter typically based on a cost-per-pound of gain basis. Unfortunately, these arrangements have not always favoured the smaller operator. Today, the Western Livestock Price Insurance Program offers western Canadian beef producers the opportunity to lock in a floor price for their feeder cattle and minimize the threat of adverse market swings.

While guarding against market risk is an important component of any feeding program, equally important is setting realistic performance targets for the cattle and implementing a feeding program that achieves these goals. In terms of designing a backgrounding program, one of the first steps is identifying your target market (i.e. are you aiming for the grass market in the spring or feeding calves that will go direct to a finishing feedlot). The answer will typically determine when you market the cattle and your target end weight. When used in conjunction with the initial weight of the calves and the start date for the feeding program, this information will dictate the required rate of gain and the nature of the feeding program.

There are numerous examples that illustrate this concept. Consider the development of the replacement heifer. When setting up a winter feeding program for these animals, the cow-calf producer needs to know weaning weight, the target breeding weight and the anticipated breeding date. As an example, consider a group of 450-pound heifers weaned in mid-October. If the target is to have these animals at 800 pounds by mid-May such that the majority are cycling, then a feeding program targeting 1.7 pounds per day is required (i.e. 350 pounds of gain over 210 days). Failure to achieve this rate of gain can result in an unacceptable number of these heifers not reaching puberty by breeding. In contrast, an excessive rate of gain can result in overconditioned heifers that are chronic poor breeders.

A similar line of thinking is followed when setting up backgrounding programs for steer calves. In this case, you need to decide on a starting date, a target marketing date and weight. The targeted weight gain, divided by the number of days on feed will dictate the rate of gain. For example, in order for 550-pound calves in mid-October to reach 850 pounds by March 1, an average daily gain of 2.2 pounds per day (300 pounds gain over 135 days) is required. In contrast, 400-pound steer calves weaned in October and destined for grass in the spring, likely need to weigh 700 to 750 pounds by early May. This translates to a target gain of 1.5 to 1.7 pounds per day, depending on your end point and is a very different feeding program from that of the heavier calves. As with the heifers, too fast a rate of gain can result in overconditioned cattle that the buyer will discount, while poor performance results in lightweight calves and reduced profit.

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The key to targeting a specific rate of gain in any of these programs is setting up a feeding program that meets the nutrient requirements of the cattle for the expected level of performance, particularly the correct dietary energy content. Typically this is achieved by regulating the grain content of the diet and by manipulating the dietary forage to concentrate (grain plus supplement) ratio. All things being equal, the higher the grain content, the higher the dietary energy content and the greater the expected rate of gain.

Typical backgrounding diets are formulated to contain 60 to 80 per cent forage and 20 to 40 per cent concentrate on a dry matter (DM) basis. The dietary energy concentration will depend on forage quality, the type of calves involved, the expected rate of gain, the length of the feeding program and the environmental conditions experienced by the calves. Consider a ration that is 55 per cent barley silage, 15 per cent brome hay, five per cent supplement and 25 per cent barley grain (as fed basis). Using average nutrient values, this diet has net energy values for maintenance (NEm) and gain (NEg) of 0.70 and 0.43 megacalories (Mcal) per pound (DM basis), respectively. The total digestible nutrient value is 67.5 per cent. When cattle are on feed and eating ad libitum, this diet is too “hot” for the replacement heifers and the steers destined for grass mentioned above, but matches the requirements of the heavier calves expected to gain 2.2 pounds per day. In the case of the lighter calves, to achieve the desired gain, one would need to reduce the energy density of the diet to 0.67 and 0.40 Mcal per pound DM of NEm and NEg, respectively (TDN value of 65 per cent).

As you can see small changes in ration energy density can influence cattle performance. In next month’s column, we will examine feeding programs that allow one to target the nutrient requirements of any class of cattle you want to background.

John McKinnon is a beef cattle nutritionist at the University of Saskatchewan.

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John McKinnon is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and a consulting nutritionist who can be reached at [email protected].

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