Is This A Year To Hold Calves?

– Dr. Jeff Lehmkuhler, Associate Extension Professor

This fall has provided us with another dry spell. The recent hurricane provided small amounts of precipitation to the Commonwealth, but much less than originally forecasted. Randomly selecting county Mesonet sites across the state for the month shows precipitation levels of 0 to 1 inch. Even with the dry conditions, we are much better off than the Western and Plains states (see figure below). Dry conditions appear to be forcing producers in the west to sell calves. Last week, Nebraska feeder cattle marketed were reported at 28,584 compared to 15,475 the week before. Colorado had similar increases selling 11,903 feeders compared to 6,660 the prior week. Wyoming another state hit hard by the dry conditions followed the same pattern moving 12,198 feeders this past week compared to 7,673 the previous week. It is not clear if this is strictly due to the dry conditions, the seasonal marketing pattern of spring calving herds or a combination of the two. Yet, when looking at the feeder cattle marketings for Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina, states in the green vegetation index area, numbers were steady showing no large increases from the previous week.

With the August cattle feedlot placements being above a year ago, drought conditions increasing cattle marketings and concerns over wheat pasture conditions, it would not be unexpected to see these factors impact fall feeder prices here in the southeast. I am not an economist so be sure to follow the markets and Dr. Burdine’s market updates as wells other industry news as we move through the fall to make informed marketing decisions. Current situations may mean backgrounding calves this fall, if you have forage, could provide an opportunity to add weight and value to the calf crop.


For operations that have sufficient forage, pasture or stored forages, backgrounding calves post-weaning can increase calf values by adding weight and applying some basic management. Administering a preventative herd health protocol to calves will provide the opportunity to boost immunity before marketing and reduce the internal parasite burden. Feedlot closeout data reveals cattle entering the feedyard at heavier weights are less likely to get sick and mortality rates are lower. Backgrounding calves for a few months allows them to develop a stronger immune system following the stress of weaning.

Assembling calves that are similar in frame, weight, and coat color to make larger marketing lots adds value. Multiple marketing studies demonstrate as the number of head sold in a lot increases, buyers tend to pay more than for calves sold as singles or small lots (<5 head). If you have ample forage, this may be an opportunity to purchase calves to match your weaned calves to background and put together larger lot sizes.

There are several feeding strategies that one can consider for backgrounding calves. The key is that the diets provide the cattle with their required nutrients for the targeted rates of gains. Work with a nutritionist to develop a feeding program that will meet the nutritional needs and keep feed costs low. A backgrounding program should add frame, muscling and little fat. Overly fleshy calves will be discounted at marketing time. Consider implanting calves to shift more nutrients to lean gain and promote efficiency. Daily gain targets will depend on frame and muscle scores as well as sex of the calves. Large-framed steers could be targeted at 2.7-2.8 pound per day gains while heifers would likely need to be 2.5-2.7. Medium framed calves should gain a bit slower to avoid getting them fleshy. Calves that are going to be held for a short feeding period can have higher daily gains than calves that are to be sold four to five months later. Feeding calves for 150 days at a rate of 2.8 pounds will result in excessively conditioned calves. Again, these are generalities and you need to evaluate the calves your feeding to determine the best target gain to avoid getting them over conditioned.

Often when backgrounding calves for short periods of time, 1-2 months, a diet will consist of 60-70% grain mix and 30-40% forage to provide the energy density needed to add weight and value to calves. As an example, a four-weight feeder calf may have a dry matter intake of 10-12 pounds per day. The grain mix offered daily would be 4-9 pounds and the balance forage. The level of grain will depend on the forage quality and targeted rate of gain. You can add weight to calves without grain allowing them to graze stockpiled forage or annual forages in the fall as well. The better quality the forages, the better the gains will be with most forages allowing 1-2 pounds per day without supplementation. Calves can also be managed on corn crop residues or stored hay with supplementation. The lower quality forage will not support high rates of gain, 0.5-0.7 lb/d, but these lower rates of gain can still be economical if the markets are trending upward. Be sure you are meeting the protein needs of the calves when grazing low quality forages and energy supplementation can be considered to increase daily gains.

Be sure to work through enterprise budgets and evaluate the profit potential. The value of gain and feed cost of gain needs to provide an opportunity to reach your profit targets. Consider your options for economic risk management as well to limit downside risk. Reach out to your county extension agent for more information on backgrounding beef cattle.