Alternative Enterprises: Backgrounding Feeder Cattle

Interested in making some more money this winter? Want to use up immature or wet shelled corn? Got an empty building? If so, consider backgrounding feeder cattle. Zen Miller and Bill Halfman from the University of Wisconnsin discuss factors that need to be considered.
calendar icon 10 October 2009
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Backgrounding feeder cattle is when lighter weight cattle (350 to 550 pounders) are grown to 700 to 900 pounds using low cost medium to lower roughage feed sources.

Once up to weight, cattle are either sold as yearlings, heavy feeders or transitioned onto a finishing diet. Pasture is often used as the primary feed source for backgrounding during the summer, but harvested feeds like corn silage and hay can also be successfully used to background calves. Target daily gains for backgrounding calves are usually between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds of gain per day says Bill Halfman and Zen Miller. The idea is to encourage the frame and muscle to grow.

Profit and loss may vary greatly between farms that choose to background calves. Mr Halfman and Mr Miller believe that careful planning and management are necessary to accomplish a successful backgrounding programme.

Before committing, farmers who are considering backgrounding calves as a way to utilise marginal feeds need to consider several factors, warns Mr Halfman. Some of these factors include:

Purchasing: What is purchased – beef breed calves or dairy (Holstein) steers? Many beef calves sold will have just been weaned, will not be vaccinated, processed or pre-conditioned in any way. However there are some special sales which require that calves be weaned 45 days, started on feed, be processed (dehorned and castrated) and have a vaccination program accomplished before being sold. (One such sale would be a Badger Vac 45 feeder calf sale). Holstein steers in the 300 to 500 pound weight range may also not have had an adequate pro-active health care plan.

Facilities: Does the farm have adequate facilities to handle, feed and house feeder cattle, or can existing facilities be modernised at a reasonable cost? Adequate facilities to handle high risk calves are essential, says Mr Miller, to be able to implement pro active health programs and catch and treat sick calves.

Data from several ranch to rail programmes indicated that on average about 1/3 of calves from unknown health backgrounds (likely no programme at all) got sick at least once after arrival at the feedyard, however Mr Miller warns that this can often be higher.

Livestock ability: Does the handler have the ability and desire to work with calves? Producers need the ability to correctly diagnose sick calves by observing snotty noses, droopy ears, sunken eyes and excessive rough coughing and develop an effective treatment protocol. Mr Halfman suggests following the Beef Quality Assurance training of correct needle size, appropriate dosage and administration in the neck of injections to develop a healthy high quality feeder for the next feedlot. Always follow product labels for rates and routes (IM or Sub Q) of administration. These skills are important for successful backgrounding programmes and keeping health related costs and mortality under control.

Time: Is there adequate time in the schedule for taking care of livestock, cleaning and bedding pens, feeding and observing the cattle? Adding an enterprise may cause other farm work to go unfinished or create demands that are not able to be met in a timely manner. On the other hand winter time can be filled with useful work and an opportunity to increase profits could be developed.

It is very critical for producers to have the feeds tested and use those values when calculating rations and costs for backgrounding calves. Feeds from immature and stressed plant most likely will not perform like feeds from 'normal' plants.

As producers make their decision to background cattle, the following spreadsheets can help look at rations and costs for backgrounding; the first is a cost of production spreadsheet developed by Jeff Lehmkuhler, former University of Wisconsin extension beef specialist, initially developed for Holstein steers that can be adapted for all kinds of cattle by adjusting the input numbers, the second is a ration programme developed by Mike Boersma at the University of Minnesota, both of these have links at the Monroe County Extension Web page at

October 2009

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