Ongoing study suggests value of backgrounding calves in the field

University of Saskatchewan research explores the possibility of increasing the province’s backgrounding capacity with lower input costs

Early results in a three-year study suggest field backgrounding your own calves could be an economically viable option for your operation.

Ongoing research at the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence is comparing the backgrounding of steers in a field setting to that of a traditional feedlot system to investigate the potential for cow-calf producers to retain their calves over winter.

“We feel there’s an opportunity to expand backgrounding capacity in Saskatchewan,” said Travis Peardon, livestock and feed extension specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. “We wanted to look and see if there’s some backgrounding options that will work for our producers with low infrastructure inputs.”

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Peardon and fellow extension specialist Janelle Smith presented results from the first year of this study during a learning session at Ag in Motion Discovery Plus in July.

“We wanted to look at the potential benefits of field feeding and see if they exist,” said Peardon.  “There (are) producers that are using this practice currently, but there hasn’t been any research done to see how it compares to feedlot settings.”

Each fall, the researchers will purchase 400 newly weaned steer calves at about 550 lbs. In the first year of the study, half of the calves were divided into two 30-acre grass paddocks, while the other half were divided into two conventional feedlot pens. Both groups were fed a barley silage-based diet. After the backgrounding period finished in April, researchers compared the difference in production costs and performance between the two groups of calves.

In Year One, the field calves gained about 25 lbs more than the drylot calves on average through the backgrounding period. Average daily gain for the field calves was 2.43 lbs per day, compared to 2.26 lbs per day for the drylot calves.

“This can likely be attributed to a higher dry matter intake in the field calves,” said Smith. “When looking at this from a feed efficiency standpoint…it does appear that the drylot calves had a slightly better efficiency.”

The economic analysis for Year One showed that feed costs for the field calves were higher at $246.96 per head, compared to $218.86 per head for the drylot calves, as a result of the higher dry matter intake for the former. Overall, bedding costs were the same, and there was little difference in the morbidity rate or health treatment costs.

There was a difference in overall health costs, however, due to death loss. “The death loss in field calves was about 1.5 per cent and in the drylot calves was 0.5 per cent, so that is associated with the higher overall costs for the field backgrounding calves,” said Smith. The overall health cost was $41.10 per head for drylot calves and $54.97 per head for field calves.

“So we will see how that data changes in the next couple of study years, whether this is a trend or just something that happened this year.”

Yardage costs were $0.43 per head per day for the drylot calves and $0.39 per head per day for the field calves, not including labour. The researcher expected the drylot system to have higher yardage costs as a result of the cost of setting up this system compared to the field backgrounding paddocks. Both equipment and manure handling costs were also higher, due to the nature of the system.

The total cost per head through the feeding period was around $340 for the drylot calves and just less than $380 for the field calves. In terms of cost per head per day, the field calves were $0.30 more than the drylot calves, coming in at $2.76 and $2.45, respectively.

“When translating this into a cost per pound of gain, where the field calves gained a little more weight than the drylot calves over the course of the trial, the numbers turn out approximately equal,” said Smith. This was $1.13 per pound of gain for the drylot calves and $1.16 for the field calves.

At this stage, Smith explained that the results suggest there could be value for cow-calf producers who wants to background their own calves, particularly if they already have the necessary infrastructure and space for the calves.

“Backgrounding your calves will spread the fixed costs and the infrastructure depreciation over more animal units, and there’ll be more gross value over the winter feeding period,” she said.

“After one year, field feeding does appear to be a viable option for backgrounding calves. You can expect some cost differences, but we found the overall performance of the two systems was comparable,” she continued. “Replication is important in research, so we’re looking forward to the next two years of data to go more in-depth in the economics and performance data presented.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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