Backgrounding basics – easing the transition from weaning to feeding

Backgrounding calves can add value, but does come with more risk. Learn how to manage those risks and shepherd calves through the post-weaning phase

Hereford calves eating corn from a feed bunk. Introducing calves to a feed ration while they’re still on the cow helps ease weaning stress.

Adding weight to calves through backgrounding can be an effective way to increase the worth of both lower-value cattle and feeds. However, beef producers have to do their homework to make sure cattle transition successfully from weaning to feeding.

“If you have a good source of cheap feed, you can put a lot of pounds on in a short amount of time,” says Karin Schmid, research and production manager with Alberta Beef Producers. “There are some management things that are standard across systems, whether you’re feeding your own calves or whether you’re buying them,” she says. For example, producers will need to decide on what type of parasite control to use and determine whether implanting pencils out.

Schmid suggests that producers discuss health protocols with their vet to determine if they have adequate vaccine coverage, particularly for respiratory illness. It’s also important to work with a nutritionist to avoid problems related to ergot or other toxins.

“Until we can get a handle on how ergot can impact gains on feeder cattle, avoid it entirely,” she recommends.

There are different challenges depending on whether you outsource calves or retain your own, she adds.

“If it’s my calves at home, I’m thinking about low-stress weaning, whether that is nose flaps or whether that is fenceline weaning,” Schmid says.

Producers should also assess their facilities. “Unless you are going to make this your job, it doesn’t make a ton a sense to build infrastructure for one year,” Schmid says.

Homegrown advantage

Trevor and Melissa Atchison background home-raised calves on their family operation, Poplar View Stock Farm, near Pipestone, Man. Years ago, they shifted their calving season back from early spring into May and June, and now wean calves in mid-November. They background their steers, targeting them for market at around 700 pounds in March. The heifers are backgrounded, then bred or pastured and sold the following season as yearlings.

Trevor Atchison credits low-stress weaning as a key factor to advancing their backgrounding program. “The biggest thing we do is use the Quiet Wean nose tags,” he says. “The calves hardly know they are weaned and once they come off the cows, they just start eating.

“They don’t pace the pen. They might bawl occasionally but they literally have their mouths full of hay,” he adds. When they run calves through the chute to insert nose paddles five to seven days prior to weaning, they also administer vaccinations. This reduces sickness and helps calves quickly adjust to life without mom.

Another practice Atchison uses to help smooth the transition is to introduce a feed ration to calves while they are still on the cow. A few days before separation, Atchison will start feeding calves a mix of silage or hay. He also puts creep feeders out with first-calf pairs in September to provide pellets to the calves. After weaning, he sorts lighter-weight calves off, and leaves them on a creep feeder.

“Light-weight calves do quite well on it as opposed to training to a bunk,” he says, adding that it also helps to keep them in a separate pen away from bigger animals, preventing them from having to compete for feed. As they grow, they are sorted into other pens or left as a group, depending on the year.

Atchison works with a nutritionist to regulate rations as the winter progresses. “If it’s a prolonged cold spell, we need to adjust for that,” he says.

A long stretch of warm weather also requires them to cut their ration back to allow cattle to achieve gains without becoming too fleshy. They also pay close attention to stormy weather.

“If there is a bit of snow in the bunks or it’s cold or windy, they don’t want to come to eat,” Atchison explains, adding that their rumen slows down. “We try to feed them little bits several times a day to encourage them to eat. Even driving by or chasing them to the bunk to get out and move around helps.”

While the Atchisons have recently invested in feed bunks, for years they kept infrastructure minimal and relied on what they had on hand.

“We used existing corrals and added water bowls and changed some simple designs,” says Atchison. They have used portable windbreaks, bale rings and a small grain cart to supplement grain and pellets.

Mixing calves and meeting market targets

Producers interested in backgrounding outside cattle need to manage them carefully. “There’s more risk with death loss, bringing in disease and biosecurity issues,” Schmid says.

Mingling cattle from a variety of sources can result in more stress and higher treatment rates. Just-weaned calves sometimes struggle to find water so shrinking the pen size or removing the water bowl float to show running water can help, she adds.

Larry Schweitzer, manager of Hamiota Feedlot in Manitoba, backgrounds and feeds thousands of cattle assembled from across Canada. When information on incoming arrivals is limited, he says it’s important to work quickly.

“Lots of times the trucks will arrive late at night, so giving those cattle a chance to rest and get long hay and get them processed and settled into their home pens is best,” Schweitzer says. Having a dry pen with the finest quality hay available eases their arrival.

A lot of Schweitzer’s custom backgrounding clients are other feedlots looking to manage inventory.

“They need cattle to come in at a certain time and a certain weight to target a certain market,” he says. “We work with the nutritionist to get on the right path going forward,” Schweitzer adds, in order to produce calves that meet specific windows.

“Having a marketing plan makes a big difference,” Schmid agrees.

She adds that buying price insurance is something that backgrounders should consider. “Use it in a way that covers your expenses and if you can secure a better price in the marketplace, that’s gravy,” she says.

Schweitzer suggests that protecting your market risk is especially important since the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some uncertainty.

Anticipating and averting challenges

For Atchison, staying on top of sickness is a number one concern. “Trying to keep tabs on illness if you’re short on labour and it’s cold and multiple things are happening on the same day can be a challenge,” he says.

He adds that ailments can get out of hand in a hurry, and become costly in terms of reduced performance or even death loss. He also says it’s important to have a backup plan for breakdowns.

“Feeding a (total mixed ration) is great, but when your wagon breaks down, what do you do?” he asks.

Finding and retaining employees is a priority for both Atchison and Schweitzer. Schweit­zer also says that keeping his employees healthy and preventing an outbreak of COVID-19 is a new challenge to mitigate.

“The people we have at our lot have a very specialized skillset,” Schweitzer says. “We don’t want to lose those people,” he says, adding they would be hard to replace.

Backgrounding calves can be a value-added opportunity; however, managing calves during the post-weaning phase does come with added risk. Planning ahead, leaning on nutritionists and veterinarians and being aware of market risks are top factors that can help producers achieve a successful outcome.

About the author


Tara Mulhern Davidson is a writer and a beef and forage consultant. She ranches with her family in southwestern Saskatchewan.



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