Backgrounding calves is an option

Important to look at the economics to make sure

Recently, I asked a local beef producer of a 200-head cow herd what she planned to do with her spring calves after they were weaned.

She said that in late October, her son brings all cows and calves home from pasture, weans them, retains two dozen replacement heifers and trucks the rest to a feedlot in Quebec. Although she felt this fall’s calf prices weren’t a lot of money, her calculations showed it wasn’t worth keeping any calves back for further feeding.

I recommend other cow-calf operators develop an autumn spreadsheet and do their own calculations of backgrounding opportunities in a challenging market.

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“Background feeding programs” means different things to different producers, yet in my experience they often encompass most post-wean feeding programs that can be categorized into three different time frames such as short-45 day, medium-90 day and longer-kept 150-day programs.

Start with preconditioning

Ideally, all of them should start after a good preconditioning program — namely a veterinarian-backed vaccination program implemented about three weeks before calves are weaned. They are also dewormed, dehorned and the male calves castrated. These animals should have had exposure to summer creep feeding, which gives them the experience of eating out of a bunk or self-feeder.

Most preconditioning programs should easily dovetail into a 45-day feeding program where the daily goal is to grow weaned calves at a maximum rate of two pounds per head, which is achievable by feeding high-forage diets such as good-quality mixed legume-grass hay and/or rejuvenated autumn pastures. Calves should gain about 90 pounds before graduating onto other feedlot feeding programs. The advantage of raising calves in this way is three-fold — it maintains body gains achieved by summer creep feeding, adds more saleable bodyweight and allows greater flexibility in marketing decisions.

Similar preconditioning-backed 90- and 150-day background feeding programs target calf growth to 150 to 350 pounds of bone and lean muscle tissue, without laying down a lot of body fat. This performance is achieved by feeding these calves, straightforward rations of conservative energy levels supplied by medium-quality forages and/or grain byproducts, rather than high-energy grains. Average daily gains of up to 2.5 pounds per head per day and not particularly newsworthy feed-efficiencies of 9-10 pounds of diet per pound gain can be expected.

A good demonstration of this typical 90-day feeding program is practiced by a 400 cow-calf operation that I often visit. The owner usually retains all his weaned late-spring calves after weaning in mid-November, which average 650-700 pounds. He selects 30-35 replacement heifers and backgrounds the remaining calves to 850-900 pounds until mid-February. In doing so, these calves gain about 2.2 lb./head/day on a TMR of 20-25 lbs of good-quality grass hay (6.0 cents), three pounds of 13 per cent crude byproduct grain pellets (8.0 cents), and 100 grams of 2:1 mineral-vitamin premix w sodium monensin (16 cents/head). Calves are not implanted.

How does it pencil out?

By using current feed and feeder cattle prices, this is a spreadsheet of this producer’s 90-day feeding program as illustrated in the accompanying table below. It estimates and compares the economic feasibility of his backgrounded steer and heifer calves to selling all calves, right after weaning.

It’s a coincidence that this producer’s background steers made an estimated gross profit of $36 per head (ROI = 18 per cent), while it pencilled out that his feeder-heifers, which sold at an $8 cwt discount lost an equal amount. Based on these numbers, I’d say my friend might be wise to retain his steer calves for background feeding and sell his weaned heifer calves during the fall.

Remember, this financial-backgrounding spreadsheet is unique to this particular cow-calf operation. The final profit/loss picture on other operations will likely differ due to mitigating factors such as forage and cattle prices unique to their farms. However, I cannot help think that if the cattle feeder market strengthens in the first quarter of 2021, backgrounding these fall-weaned calves could result in a good payoff for many people.

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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