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Backgrounding cattle can be a benefit, provide added profits to ranchers

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Brush, Colo. – Retaining calves to market at a better time can add value, according to University of Nebraska Extension Educator Erin Laborie. Laborie shared information about matching calves to a backgrounding system during the West Central Cattlemen’s Day in Brush, Colo. recently.

Laborie sees several reasons for producers to background their weaned calves.

Most importantly, the calves can be marketed at a more favorable time, instead of in the fall after weaning when most calves are sold.

For producers who grow their own feed, it provides an outlet for inexpensive and homegrown feedstuffs.

It also provides a way for ranchers to add weight to small and medium-framed calves.


The most important consideration when deciding to background is whether or not it is profitable. Laborie said producers need to determine their cost of gain versus the value of gain.

She shared an example where a 600-pound steer was valued at $1.60 a pound for a total of $960. If this calf was backgrounded to a total weight of 850 pounds, it would be worth $1,105, figuring $1.30 per pound.

If the initial value of $960 is subtracted from the final value of $1,105, the difference is $145.  If the calf gains 150 pounds and that amount is divided into $145. The difference is 97 cents per pound, which would be the value of gain, she said.

Growth curve

Producers also need to be aware of the growth curve, which is based on what stage cattle develop muscle, bone and fat.

“Calves will need more pounds of feed to put on pounds of fat versus lean tissue,” Laborie explained. “Fat has a higher energy density than lean tissue. In the growth curve, tissue development differs based on frame size.”

“A large-frame steer will need more days on feed to reach the same backfat point as a smaller-frame animal,” she continued.

Producers may find two calves weigh the same, but the frame score of these calves could be vastly different, which impacts their maximum potential for growth.

Laborie said frame size, muscle, genetics and age all contribute to the number of days the calf should be on feed and what type of implant it should receive.

Finishing steers

Producers also should be aware that marbling accumulates at a consistent rate during growth, not just during the finishing phase. Therefore, if a calf is finished too quickly or not quickly enough, it will impact the final yield grade.

“That is why large, continental breeds are better suited for high concentrate diets, rather than preconditioning,” she said.

“There is no single system that fits all cattle types,” Laborie warned.

“Once a producer determines the target average daily gain, balance the ration appropriately and provide the ingredients necessary to achieve that average daily gain,” she told producers. “Producers must know the nutrient content of the feedstuff they plan to use. If the rancher is guessing and not testing, the calves will not have optimal gain. That will impact market time and the profitability of the backgrounding program.”

Use the right implant

Laborie shared some data on selecting growth implants.

For calves that are on a program to gain 1.75 to 2.25 pounds per day, implants should be low in strength, Laborie said. Moderate potency implants are for calves gaining 2.25 to 2.75 pounds a day and intermediate potency, 2.75 to 3.25 pounds per day.

Laborie said implants increase frame size, delay fat and increase potential gain.

“It may not be cost effective to implant calves gaining less than 1.75 pounds a day,” she explained. “But, I would recommend implanting calves that have an average daily gain above 1.75 pounds.”

Making the decision

“Producers walk a fine line when they background cattle,” Laborie continued. “For calves that are roughed for too long and then put on a high concentrate diet, their rate of gain can exceed the rate they accumulate marbling, which negatively impacts quality grade.”

On the other hand, cattle that grow too fast can have a lower end weight.

Producers should try to manipulate their feeding strategy to change the endpoint of the cattle. The backgrounding program should be dictated by resources and the target market, Laborie said.

It is also dependent on the price structure of the industry, she noted.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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