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

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

Backgrounding cattle is a management and feeding program in which cattle are fed for a period of time after weaning and before they are placed in finishing feedlots. Backgrounding 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.

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

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

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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. This stress can lead to respiratory or digestive illnesses.

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

One option for feeding success is to feed 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 the calves 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 (DOF).

If a 200-pound weight gain is desired, this can be accomplished in multiple combinations of ADG and DOF. Two options to reach 200-pound gains can be 1.8 pounds of ADG for 110 days or 3 pounds of ADG for 67 days. Ration costs usually will be more expensive for the 3 pounds of ADG 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 cautions. “Cattle buyers discount heavy, fleshy calves. The discounts can erode the profits from higher ADG calves that have been fed too long before marketing.”

Coproduct feeds are an excellent source of high protein and high-fiber feeds that work well in backgrounding rations. Coproducts feeds – wheat midds, distillers grains, beet pulp – are competitively priced for inclusion into backgrounding rations. Go to https://tinyurl.com/CoproductsPriceList for a list of coproducts available in North Dakota.

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 markets. To discuss options and markets, a video program will be available on Nov. 17 at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/livestockextension/2021-2022-backgrounding-cattle.

The topics and speakers for the backgrounding video program are:

  • Feed and rations for backgrounding in fall 2020 - Hoppe
  • Market outlook for backgrounding calves in fall 2020 - Tim Petry, NDSU Extension livestock economist
  • Budgets and scenarios for backgrounding calves in fall 2020 - Bryon Parman, NDSU Extension agricultural finance specialist
  • Health concerns for backgounding calves in fall 2020 - Gerald Stokka, NDSU Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist

For more information about backgrounding calves or the video program, contact an Extension agent in your county or Hoppe at 701-652-2951 or karl.hoppe@ndsu.edu.