Backgrounding; A Phase of Growing Calves in Preparation for the Feedlot

Steve Boyles, OSU Beef Extension Specialist

Backgrounding is a term used to describe a phase of growing calves being prepared for feedlot placement. As compared to wintering programs, backgrounding emphasizes a faster rate of gain, with relatively more grain and less roughage.

An example of a typical backgrounding operation would be to feed 400 to 500 pound steer calves to a weight of 600 to 700 pounds. If the feeding period was to be about 120 days, a ration and management program that produces an average daily gain of 1.5-2.5 would provide the desired sales weight.

Advantages of Backgrounded Feeder Calves

  • Provide a market for homegrown grain and roughage that might otherwise have little market value.
  • Calves are efficient converters of good quality feeds.
  • Avoid the stress and resulting health problems associated with shipping of young calves through the marketing system. Because of the potential death loss and health problems associated with handling and shipping of young calves, the cow herd owner has an advantage over those who purchase their calves through the marketing system.
  • Avoids the seasonal fall market glut and targets sales during seasonally strong feeder prices.
  • Provides more flexibility to spread marketings and choose among potentially profitable alternatives.
  • Provides additional flexibility for marketing heifers either as feeders or as herd replacements.

A study at the University of Nebraska in 2018 exhibits the advantages of first placing calves on a grower diet as opposed to placing them directly on a finishing diet.

It was observed for calves that went directly to finishing diets (FINISH) to consume more feed daily compared to  calves placed on grower diets (GROW); however, GROW calves were on feed for 60 more days. Calves in the FINISH treatment also had greater average daily gain  and improved feed efficiency. When evaluating growing and finishing performance independently, GROW calves had daily gains of 2.76 and 3.29 pounds per day during the growing and finishing phase, respectively. Although overall ADG was less, GROW calves still finished with 71 lb. greater final body weight. Twelfth rib fat thickness, calculated yield grade, and Loin Eye Area area did not differ between treatments. Calves fed the grower diet prior to the finishing phase had 45 pounds more carcass weight and greater marbling compared to calves in the FINISH treatment. Calves that were adapted to the finishing diet following weaning were finished in fewer days, but had lighter final body weight and carcass weight. Feeding a grower diet for 76 days prior to the finishing phase allowed additional time for skeletal growth as evidenced by the 71 lb. increase in final BW and 45 lb. greater carcass weight when cattle were harvested at similar back fat.

Feeding Alternatives

There is not a golden rule but In general, purchased calves should be fed long enough to gain at least 150 pounds on a backgrounding program. Initial costs of gain tend to be relatively high as calves recover from the stress of movement and handling, a new environment and, most likely, a new ration.

Most feeder cattle will not be placed on a full-feed ration until they reach the 700-800 pound range. And, many feedlots specialize in finishing cattle from the full-feed stage only.

Feed Requirements

Faster gains are more efficient and usually more economical because a smaller proportion of total feed consumed is used for maintenance. With faster gains, the same total gain can be put on a calf in less time, reducing interest, labor and yardage costs due to the shorter feeding time.

When calves are being fed to slaughter weights under single ownership, the most rapid gains are usually the most profitable. Where animals are being grown to sell to other parties for final finishing, however, maximum gains may not be most profitable. Maximum gains will frequently result in a greater degree of fattening than is desired by the feeder, who will tend to discount the price on excessively fleshy calves. There is also a trend for lowered prices with increased calf weights. Heifer calves ordinarily gain approximately 10 percent slower than steer calves fed on the same ration.