Management Considerations for Backgrounding Calves

Steve Boyles, OSU Beef Extension Specialist

Consider a number of factors before retaining calves for backgrounding.

Backgrounding is the growing of steers and heifers from weaning until they enter the feedlot for finishing.  Backgrounding and Stocker cattle are similar although backgrounding is sometimes associated with a drylot, and stockering cattle is thought of as pasture-based system.   However any system that takes advantage of economical feed sources can be investigated.

Why might someone consider backgrounding or growing cattle?

  • The producer has time and economical feed resources
  • The market at weaning is not as favorable and is investigating alternative marketing times
  • Some feedyards prefer buying/feeding yearlings. They can expect fewer health problems and can feed two turns of cattle in a year.
  • It could be a way of upgrading mismanaged cattle so as to add value.
  • Since the cattle can be on feed for several months, they can fit the preference by some feeders for preconditioned cattle

There are many systems for backgrounding.  A common one is calves are retained or bought in the fall and sold a few months later.  A backgrounding system can be part of a cow-calf operation or part of a finishing operation.

You can handle about 1.4 calves on the feed needed for one beef cow.  Since the cattle are not owned very long in typical backgrounding and stockering operations, buying and selling skills are very important.

If you are growing cattle for someone on a contract you will want to review Buying and Selling Cattle on a Slide.  You may own/retain the cattle for a relatively short time, therefore what you buy (or the price you could get at weaning) and the selling price as a backgrounded calf is very important.  Rate of gain increases in importance the longer you own the cattle.  Have an idea of the value of the feed resources you have on hand in addition to those you purchase.  Investigate the use of implants and feed additives for growing cattle to optimize feed efficiency.

One might budget for 2% death loss to protect yourself.  Skills in detecting sick cattle are essential.  Take time to observe the cattle during feeding using proper Bunk Management. The article Watching Cattle for Sickness could be instructive.  Work with your veterinarian in having a health management plan.  Work with you local auction facility to see if they can be part of a preconditioning sale.

Rate of gain needs to allow for growth but you do not want the cattle to become fat.  Historically, this has been around 1.5 to 2.0 pounds of daily gain.  With larger frame cattle we can approach 2.5 pounds a day gain.  Faster rates of gain can reduce cost per unit of gain.  Since these are young cattle they can respond to high quality forage based diets.  Cattle backgrounded in the fall and winter that are destined for pasture should not be fleshy if gaining 1.5 to 2.0 pounds per day.

There is a wide array of feeds to consider.  Many of these have articles about them located at the OSU Beef Team Library (Nutrition Section) or our OSU Beef Team YouTube Channel (scroll down towards the bottom).

Next week we’ll take a look at a recent University of Nebraska study that exhibits calves first placed on a grower diet out perform those that go directly to a finishing diet.

Reference: Sewell, H., V. Jacobs, J. Gerrish. Backgrounding calves. Part 1-Assessing the opportunity. Univ. MO. Facsheet 2095