Backgrounding provides time for calves to get through stress of weaning and develop immunity through administered vaccines.

November 3, 2020

3 Min Read
NDSU backgrounding calvesimage.jpg
NDSU photo

As feed prices rise, calf prices tend to trend lower, according to North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension livestock systems specialist Karl Hoppe, based at NDSU’s Carrington Research Extension Center.

Feed prices have risen since last summer. For example, in some North Dakota markets, corn prices have increased $1/bu.

Backgrounding cattle is a management and feeding program in which cattle are fed for a period of time after weaning but before they are placed in finishing feedlots. Backgrounded calves are similar to stocker cattle except in the northern-tier states, where snow covers the ground in the winter and cattle are fed a forage-based ration instead of being sent to “stocker” grazing, Hoppe noted.

Backgrounding does several things: It provides time for calves to get through the stress of weaning and develop immunity through recently administered vaccines. Backgrounding adapts calves to a feeding bunk and total mixed rations that may include grains, silages, distillers grains and hays. Backgrounding also delays marketing of calves for 35 or 90 days or more after weaning.

“One of the challenges of backgrounding cattle is getting calves onto feed,” Hoppe said.

When calves are nursing the cow, they also graze with the cow. Calves may not have been exposed to a feed bunk prior to weaning and starting the backgrounding period. This creates a new environment where calves are eating unfamiliar feeds in an unfamiliar place without the mother cow to nurse or show where feed and water are located.

Calves eventually will figure out where to get feed and water, but not without stress, Hoppe said. This stress can lead to respiratory or digestive illnesses.

“Getting calves through this stress via good backgrounding management is key to survival success,” he added.

One option for feeding success is to give the cows and calves a ration similar to the weaning ration before weaning. The unfamiliar smells of silage and distillers grains make calves hesitate to eat those feeds. The cow has experience with these feeds and will show the calves that the new feeds won’t make them sick.

While improving the health of the calf is one goal of backgrounding, growing the calves to heavier weights is another goal. Weight gain goals are based on average daily gain (ADG) goals and days on feed.

If a 200 lb. weight gain is the goal, this can be accomplished in multiple combinations of ADG and days on feed. Two options to reach 200 lb. can be 1.8 lb. of ADG for 110 days or 3 lb. of ADG for 67 days, Hoppe said. Ration costs usually will be more expensive for the 3 lb. of ADG on a grain-based ration.

However, the feed cost of gain and total cost of gain are usually lower with high-grain rations. A lower cost of gain means high profit potential.

“Be careful to not feed backgrounded calves so they become too fat or fleshy,” Hoppe cautioned. “Cattle buyers discount heavy, fleshy calves. The discounts can erode the profits from higher-ADG calves that have been fed too long before marketing.”

Co-product feeds are excellent high-protein and high-fiber sources that work well in backgrounding rations. Co-products feeds — e.g., wheat midds, distillers grains, beet pulp — are competitively priced for inclusion into backgrounding rations, Hoppe said.

Backgrounding also provides a delay in marketing for one to five months. With a lower cost of gains, adding weight can be profitable, depending on the markets.

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