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Backgrounding options and considerations

Penchecker Diary: What's the risk level? What’s the end game?

A backgrounding target is something that is constantly moving, depending on the owner’s long-term plan.

The term ‘backgrounding,’ while often used in the cattle-feeding industry, provokes a certain level of misunderstanding from farm to farm. Many feedlots and cow-calf producers have zeroed in on its true meaning, while others may practise an imprecise version.

Candace Wenzel DVM at Roblin Vet Services in Manitoba says that at times it’s an unfocused exercise more in line with wintering. “The point of backgrounding is growing and increasing the frame size at a slightly more gradual rate. We’re trying to get natural growth and length in an animal, so we have the frame to deposit the muscle and fat we want long term for finishing.”

Wenzel says wintering cattle is not specific to desired weight gain per day, whereas backgrounding defines a goal, usually in the 1.8 to 2.7 pounds per day range.

Having a variable plan

A backgrounding plan will vary according to location, feed supplies and the type of cattle in the pens.

Beyond this, Wenzel says the health of the animals will push the strategy in a certain direction. And these strategy decisions are initially influenced by the quality of cattle in question. She divides them into low-, high-, and ultra-high-risk cattle.

“Low-risk calves are preconditioned type cattle with a disclosed vaccine history”, says Wenzel. “They might come direct from a farm, often as a large group. With less commingling, they are much lower-risk when it comes to bovine respiratory disease (BRD).”

She says high-risk cattle are usually acceptable quality, but will have a greater health risk with more unknown backgrounds and increased mixing. They are often productive animals for the operator.

Ultra-high-risk cattle would involve a group or pen of calves that are completely mixed and mingled animals, possibly assembled in twos and threes from different farms — perhaps even lower-end cattle.

“These are not those shiny healthy-looking calves,” says Wenzel. “They might not have much frame or flesh score on them and will be high-risk for health issues, whether it’s bovine respiratory disease (BRD) or other health problems.”

She stresses producers need to be vigilant and watch closely for signs of BRD. If it gains a foothold in the herd, pneumonias with their long-lasting effects will decrease weight gain over time.

Sighting the input targets

For Wenzel, the backgrounding target is constantly moving, depending on the owner’s long-term plan. Options include a desired frame size for a later finishing market or an optimum condition for growing lighter calves when large amounts of summer grass are available.

Location plays a major role for backgrounders situated far from slaughter plants. Often producers have access to local lower-cost feedstuffs and byproducts such as oat hulls and potatoes. Wenzel says this allows them to capitalize on less- expensive inputs, grow the animals locally, bring them to a certain health and weight condition and ship them at a more manageable weight to a finishing lot closer to the packing plants.

“Instead of shipping 1,500 to 1,600-pound animals for 12 to 16 hours to a slaughter plant, they can be shipped to a closer finishing location at 800-900 pounds, with less stress going to slaughter.”

Wenzel says that with excessively tight margins, finding and using lower-cost inputs is extremely important.

“Feed is obviously the largest economical input in these animals. Most operators try to function on a low-cost ration, so to control the inputs, they attempt to maintain a certain weight gain on the lowest amount of money possible.”

Wenzel urges producers not to ignore the value of minerals, salts and supplements. “Muscle needs protein to build. Energy is vital, especially throughout our winters with major temperature swings.” She adds there are multiple macro and micro minerals such as copper and zinc which affect hair and muscle quality. “Zinc influences foot and hair health overall as well as ringworm. If you get zinc levels higher you can help prevent some things like foot rot. A balanced mineral package is important.”

Backgrounding is a variable and flexible tool, open to modification according to conditions. It’s also an optimal way to access potential markets, says Wenzel.

“Traditional backgrounding is a dry lot situation where weaned calves are placed on a complete ration. Some producers wean later, keep the calves on the cows and use a swath grazing type. Remember, there is flexibility in the system. Always try to make use of the resources that are available.”

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