As we move into the last stages of winter and begin to look to spring, it is a good time to review your calf-feeding program. This applies if you are backgrounding cattle for sale this spring or feeding for grass. Successful backgrounding programs have defined target weights, marketing dates and gains. Implementing the right feeding program will help ensure you meet these goals.
Backgrounding is the process of growing out feeder cattle. Target weights will vary with the type of animal fed but will usually be a weight where the animal can be placed on a finishing program without fear of it finishing at too light or too heavy of a weight. Generally there are two classes that are being backgrounded over the winter, those that will be marketed in the spring to feedlots as short yearlings or those that will be destined for grass in the spring and ultimately marketed as long yearlings in the fall. Backgrounding diets are formulated to control the growth of the animal. The goal is to develop the frame of the calf and allow for muscle development. What we do not want is these calves putting on fat.
Diets fed to backgrounding calves are usually forage based and relatively low in energy. Feed costs can be kept to a minimum by using available feeds including many byproducts such as grain screening pellets, lightweight barley, oat hulls, dried distillers grains or canola meal. Target weights and gains are based on a number of factors including the type and weight of cattle purchased, marketing date and in some cases the negotiated conditions of sale. With respect to animal type, the frame size or genetic makeup of the animal and its sex will dictate the backgrounding program. Medium-frame steer calves are typically backgrounded to gain 1.75 to 2.25 pounds a day with target end-weights of 850 to 875 pounds. A 150-170 day feeding program is fairly typical. Larger-framed calves with more European breeding can be fed rations that permit daily gains of 2.5 pounds per day without worrying about putting on too much flesh. Again target weights of 850 to 875 pounds are fairly typical, however feeding programs are shorter (i. e. 100 to 120 days) due to heavier weaning weights and greater daily gains. In comparison, when feeding heifers, the feeding program should allow for gains of 1.7 to 1.9 pounds per day for medium-frame heifers and up to 2.25 pounds per day for larger-framed heifers. If you are backgrounding cattle for grass, you are likely targeting daily gains of 1.3 to 1.5 pounds over the winter.
Now is the time to ensure your cattle are on target, as you still have time to make adjustments in your feeding program if gains are not where they should be. This can be done by weighing the whole pen or gate, running 20 to 25 per cent of the calves. If your calves are underperforming, it is likely due to the fact you are not giving them enough energy and you need to up the amount of grain fed. Conversely, if your cattle are gaining too rapidly, you either have to cut back on the total feed or reduce the amount of grain you are feeding. The following gives you a feel where your cattle should be at this time. Take for example a pen of 700-pound medium-frame calves that are targeted to gain two pounds a day. If these calves are fed a grass hay/barley grain mix they should be eating 20 to 22 pounds of feed a day, of which seven to eight pounds should be barley grain or its equivalent (i. e. nine to 10 pounds of grain screening pellets). The remainder should consist of the grass hay and if necessary a protein supplement such as canola meal or dried distillers grains. If you are backgrounding a pen of large-frame steer calves that currently weigh 750 pounds, these calves should be gaining 2.5 pounds per day. If these calves are on the same feeding program, they should be eating 22 pounds a day of the barley/hay mix of which 10 to 11 pounds should be barley or its equivalent.
By adjusting the amount of grain fed, you can regulate the weight gain of your calves. This is critical from a marketing perspective. Getting your calves too fleshy will decrease their sale value as feedlots are not keen on yearlings that are “greasy” or showing evidence of fat deposition. These cattle will not gain efficiently in the feedlot and thus are discounted when purchased. Discounts can run $5 per hundredweight or more depending on the condition of the cattle. Conversely, under performance can also eat into your profits. Over a 150-day period, a tenth of a pound a day gain less than predicted can result in 15 pounds less sale weight, a quarter of pound under your target daily gain can result in missing your target sale weight by as much as 40 pounds. If yearlings sell at $1.00 a pound, this means $15 to $40 less gross value than if you had hit your target! Now that is something to think about the next time you are running the mixer wagon!
JohnMcKinnon isabeefcattle nutritionistat theUniversityof Saskatchewan