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Some thoughts on backgrounding

Research scientist says it's all about cost-effectiveness

With feeder markets tumbling this fall, many people were thinking about holding onto their calves a bit longer in hopes of better prices ahead.

Bart Lardner, research scientist at the Western Beef Development Centre and an adjunct professor at the University of Sask­atchewan, says there are several programs that can be used to grow weaned calves at a targeted rate of gain, and to help ensure good productivity and future performance in 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.

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“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 a Charolais 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 outright 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? What is the target and where is the market at the end of a backgrounding period? The rate of gain could vary from 1.5 pounds per day to two 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, where we have done a lot of research, 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 drylot 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 need to use whatever forage is at their disposal,” he says.

“Make sure that when the 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 into it without some pre-planning. This is especially important today, since cattle prices have softened,” he says.

Two 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. So make sure you have yardage cost figured out on your 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 per cent of total costs but you also must consider other costs, including direct costs and yardage.

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

A backgrounding program begins at weaning. “Don’t stress those calves,” stresses Lardner.

“A fenceline wean (or two-stage weaning with nose flaps) can help make the transition easier, 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, for two or three weeks.”

The easier you can get them through weaning, the better.

“Conventional drylot systems take in 500- to 600-pound calves after weaning. The producer should 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 two pounds a day, for an end weight of 800 pounds when they go into a feedlot, you need to figure out the amount of protein and energy required. For example, the nutrient requirements for a 500-pound calf would be 11.4 per cent 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.

“In the programs we’ve looked at, 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 could 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, he compared the performance of calves backgrounding in a drylot to calves grazing swathed barley or grazing swathed millet. “We put them out there 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,” adds Lardner.

Over the three years the drylot calves gained an average 1.9 pounds a day and the swath-grazed barley calves about the same. The swath-grazed millet group gained a little less, at 1.3 pounds a day. Larder says the millet swaths had a “little more moisture” than the barley swath.

“We looked at cost of gain — what it cost for every pound put on. The calves grazing the swathed barley were roughly at 43 per cent 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 was certainly an alternative that producers might look at, since we are growing a lot more corn in Western Canada than we were 10 years ago. 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 the fields. “We saw some coccidiosis in the drylot calves, whereas we didn’t see that in the extensive grazing systems,” he explains.

Animal health is important as you grow these calves, so be sure they are well vaccinated and settled prior to starting a backgrounding program. In the extensive system, calves seem healthier and hardier, though you need to be prepared to deal with wind chill 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 greenfeed with 20 per cent concentrates. In the field 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 trying to maintain bodyweight. Calves need a higher level of energy and protein,” which can be provided by 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 that calf with the resources on your farm or ranch.

“Don’t just decide to background because the neighbour is doing it. It has to fit your own program and resources. Do you have the labour, 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 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 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,” he says.

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