by: Heather Smith Thomas

Some ranchers hold their calves over as yearlings, to sell later when they are bigger, and some people buy light calves in the spring to put on grass and grow them to a larger weight. Some put weaned calves into a confinement program—a drylot situation where they are fed a growing ration—until these calves are ready to go to a finishing facility. The term “backgrounding” covers a broad spectrum that could also include preconditioning after weaning.

Jim MacDonald, PhD, PAS, Associate Professor, Animal Science, University of Nebraska (Lincoln) says that each backgrounding program is unique, depending on facilities, location, feed availability, etc. “The key is trying to develop a program that optimizes the resources that are already available on a certain operation. This is the place to start. Some of the questions I asked in my research program are when to feed and what to feed. When is the best time to invest in additional feed inputs, and what type of feed inputs are the best investment?”

Nutritionally, an important concept when backgrounding calves is that most often the first limiting nutrient is protein. “Depending on forage quality, the type of protein that limits calf growth is amino acids absorbed in the small intestine. We commonly call this bypass protein, or rumen undegradable protein, or undegradable intake protein. It has several names, but ultimately one of the supplemental inputs that will be needed in most backgrounding programs is some form of supplemental protein that gets amino acids into the small intestine,” he explains.

“Protein tends to be fairly expensive, especially bypass protein sources. In our research program, it has been difficult to find a more economical feed resource to provide both energy and bypass protein that meets that needs of the calf than distillers grains. We get questions from producers using various backgrounding programs, wondering if they can use corn, because that's what they have available; either they grow it themselves or can easily get it. They also wonder if they can add some degradable rumen-available protein to the corn. We did that a couple years ago in a study, and it was quite clear that a person is giving up some gain when you use either corn or corn with supplemental protein (in this case urea) compared to distillers grains,” says MacDonald.

“There are other protein sources that can be utilized. We've used corn gluten meal and Soypass (which is typically used in the dairy industry) but these are all much more expensive per unit of protein and per unit of energy than distillers grains will be. The distillers grains work very well in a backgrounding program because their energy value is approximately 130 percent the energy value of corn and they also bring in the right type of protein that bypasses the rumen,” he says.

“When you feed a starch source, like corn, you have to be aware of negative effects on fiber digestion because the rumen microbes change. For most backgrounding programs you generally have a forage resource that you are utilizing, so reducing the digestibility of fiber may not be beneficial. You always start with the forage resource and build the ration from there,” he says.

“The other thing we've dealt with extensively is looking at when to feed supplemental protein and energy sources. You have to be aware of compensatory gain in any backgrounding program. If you are investing money in a supplement program, but those calves would have overcome any difference in body weight that you have created by providing additional supplement, you haven't made yourself any money,” he explains.

“In our studies, we have focused on a long-yearling program, where you take fall-weaned calves through the winter in a backgrounding program and then to a summer grazing program before they go into the feedlot. We've evaluated supplementation programs focused on winter feeding, and supplementation in the summer. It's clear that when you provide additional supplement, calves will gain more. Calves do require supplement on a low-quality forage during winter, whether it's dormant range grass or corn residue (cornstalks) or whatever they are grazing through winter. In this situation we have to provide supplement or they may actually lose weight,” says MacDonald.

“We have compared a low level of supplement, targeted to gain under a pound a day, or about 1.5 to 2 pounds per day of gain during the winter,” he says. Some people winter calves on hay and add some high quality alfalfa, with the same target of 1.5 to 2 pounds of gain on the calves.

“Those calves that only gain about a pound per day will compensate when they graze grass in the summer, and gain more. Then when they go into the feedlot we may see what I call reverse compensation in the calves that were given the greater amount of supplement during the winter. They gain less during the summer but then turn around and gain more when they hit the finishing ration in the feedlot,” he says.

“When we do the economics, there's a $50 to $60 advantage per head benefit (through the whole system, if you retain ownership of the calf) when you target 1.5 to 2.0 pounds of gain during the winter period.” If a person is trying to maximize profits retaining ownership on calves, distillers grain would be the first choice, if it's available.

“Alfalfa is not a bad choice, if it is what's available, because it supplies some supplemental protein. Some of that will bypass the rumen and you get some additional gain from alfalfa, as well. The 1.5 to 2 pounds a day of gain seems to be the optimal range, during the winter,” says MacDonald.

“That may be different if the calves will be going directly into a feedlot at that point, but if they are going to grass, bringing them up from a pound to two pounds per day seems to be very beneficial.” Thus it depends on your individual program, what you have available for feed, and what your goals are.

“Summer supplementation can displace some grass. If you can capture that value, it may be helpful. Grass prices (pasture rent) have increased substantially over the past five years. If you are running yearlings and have the ability to supplement them during the summer, they will gain more, and they will eat less grass. You can run more animals on the same amount of grass. If you do that, and account for the value of the grass, the economics look pretty good. If you only account for the value of the gain, the economics don't look very good, and in fact, the cattle that were not supplemented would probably compensate about 80 percent in the feedlot. So if you make up a 100 pound difference by supplementing in the summer, the ones that were not supplemented will make up 80 pounds of that difference by the time they are finished,” he explains.

“This is not economical, from a gain-only standpoint. However, if you account for the cost of the forage, and reduced intake of the forage, and can run more animals on the same amount of land, then the supplementation looks pretty good. It has to fit your own situation. In my experience with most summer yearling stocker programs, those producers are not very interested in summer supplementation anyway. They don't want to add labor (feeding cattle) during the summer, because they have a lot of other things going on, so it's not very common. The data suggest that if you can run more animals on the same amount of grass, then you can make it pay,” says MacDonald.

“These are the things I look at in my yearling research program: when should you supplement, how much should they gain, and what do the economics look like? The number that's handy is that a pound of distillers grains will displace about 0.6 to 0.75 pounds of grass. We can now predict what the forage displacement rate is, during the summer,” he says.

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