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MacDonald: Cheap feed sources may encourage ranchers to background calves

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With no two production systems the same, producers may have to explore what works for them when backgrounding calves. More producers are backgrounding to add more gain to their calves, if cheap feed options are available. 

According to University of Nebraska Ruminant and Nutrition Specialist Jim MacDonald, ranchers may be able to add some value to their calves by feeding them through the winter.

Benefits of backgrounding

One of the biggest benefits of backgrounding calves is the flexibility it gives producers in the marketing process. If they choose to background, ranchers must first decide what product they want to market, MacDonald says. 

“System optimization may differ for a cow/calf operator who is backgrounding through the winter months, a stocker cattle operator who is marketing to a feedlot or an integrated operator who owns the calf from weaning until it is marketed to the packing plant,” he explains. 

For many ranchers, backgrounding allows them to utilize forage resources they may have on hand. 

“There are many macro-level benefits,” MacDonald explains. “For example, yearling cattle increase the amount of beef produced per cow exposed, which is a critical measure of efficiency in the system.” 

A prior study showed that long-yearlings produced 50 pounds more carcass weight, compared to fed calves, while consuming 77 percent as much feed during the finishing period, MacDonald shares. 


One of the most important parts of backgrounding cattle is nutrition. Since many programs are forage-based, MacDonald encourages producers to think about the best ways to optimize the forage, since they can vary in quality and price. 

“When evaluating different forage options, it is beneficial to compare their cost per unit of energy, which can be accomplished by converting the price to dollars-per-pound on a dry-basis and dividing by the total digestible nutrient (TDN) content,” MacDonald explains. 

Feed sources

Depending upon where they live, producers can utilize crop residues like cornstalks, feed forages like grass hay or grain sources like corn silage, cracked corn and distillers’ grains. 

One option becoming more popular is cover crop grazing, which involves planting some sort of annual forage into crop residue like harvested wheat, rye or corn silage. 

In Nebraska, producers have successfully been able to grow high-quality forages for backgrounding calves by planting grains like oats into harvested crop residue. 

Oats were planted into a field harvested for corn silage, and the calves had an average daily gain of 1.29 to 1.3 pounds per day, which is similar to using high moisture corn or grazed residue during supplementation. 


With the cost of range steadily increasing during the last 10 years, many producers renting grass no longer find it feasible to background calves by grazing them during the winter. MacDonald says producers can rent cornstalks for about $20 an acre in Nebraska, compared to more than $40 for range. 

The key to utilizing cornstalks is the stocking rate. Typically, eight pounds of forage is available for every bushel of corn produced. Since cattle primarily utilize the leaf and husk, grazing efficiency is figured at 50 percent. 

If a producer has 225 bushels of corn at $20 an acre and a TDN of 55 percent, it would cost two cents per pound of TDN. 

“I would compare the forage resources I have available and if I have flexibility in a forage program to a dollar per unit of energy or TDN,” MacDonald says. “Dollars per TDN gives us a common basis to compare forage resources.”


“The key is getting the right nutrients into the calf, so where should we invest our money?” MacDonald asks producers. 

Getting a forage supply at the cheapest unit of energy may require providing the backgrounded cattle with a supplement, he explains. 

“In a young calf, the first limiting nutrient is protein,” he continues. “In newly weaned or very young calves, intake of forage will be limited.” 

“We can also increase the risk of acidosis from fermentability by feeding something like too much corn,” he explains. 

“The amount of bacterial protein supplying a newly weaned calf is going to be limited by intake of forage or because we supplied them with a readily fermentable carbohydrate, which puts them at risk for acidosis,” he further explains. “They won’t be able to get enough bacterial protein to meet their requirement, so from a supplementation standpoint, producers will need to provide a bypass protein.”

MacDonald says distillers’ grains can be a good source of bypass protein, but other alternatives, like soy pass, are available. He recommends looking into what is available, while keeping in mind that calves need a balanced diet so they can have optimal gain.

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

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