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Yearling systems studied

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on March 21, 2020

“From backgrounding calves on cornstalks, to running long yearlings on grass, there are a variety of ways to grow calves prior to the finishing phase,” states University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Extension Educator Erin Laborie. “The availability of economical feed resources, target average daily gain (ADG) and marketing strategy are all variables that contribute to the diversity of growing cattle systems. This can make it challenging to evaluate the performance and economics across various yearling systems.”

During the March 16 episode of UNL’s BeefWatch podcast, Laborie reviewed the 2020 Nebraska Beef Cattle Report titled Economics of a Yearling System. 

            “The focus of this report was to address some of the questions producers might have about backgrounding or yearling systems,” explains Laborie. “As many know, this can be a really complex sector of the ag industry and it is a lot more diverse than producing calves from cows or finishing cattle.” 

            She continues, “Our main objective of summarizing this information was to apply economics to some previous research and evaluate how management decisions can affect profitability of yearling and production systems.” 

Analysis number one

            Laborie notes a team of UNL researchers performed economic analyses on three reported studies with rate of winter gain and length of summer grazing variables. She explains within the three studies, calves were wintered on cornstalks then grazed summer pasture as yearlings. 

            “In the first study, calves were wintered at either a slow rate of gain of 0.8 pounds per day or a fast rate of gain of two pounds per day,” states Laborie. “Then they were run on summer pasture as short yearlings for 62 days or long yearlings for 120 days.” 

            Laborie notes net profit was greater for yearlings wintered at a higher rate of gain and sold off grass after 62 days of grazing. 

            “It is important to note, this was primarily a result of the price slide and selling lighter weight calves after grazing 62 days because the cost of gain and breakeven on grass were actually higher for this group of calves,” she says. 

Analysis number two 

            Laborie explains another study compared wintering calves at 1.7 pounds per day then grazing summer pasture for 128 days, deemed a normal system, versus a two pound per day winter rate of gain followed by grazing summer pasture for only 78 days, deemed an intensive system. 

            “When selling yearling off grass, net profit was $12 per head higher for the intensive system,” says Laborie. “However, when yearlings were carried through the finishing phase, the normal system had an overall net profit that was $62 per head greater than the intensive system.”

            “This is a result of selling finished cattle during a more favorable market,” she adds. “The 10-year average price for finished cattle is $3.66 per hundredweight higher in January than in November.” 

Analysis number three

            The third set of data Laborie discusses is a summary of six performance studies conducted over seven years.

            Laborie explains in these studies, one group of calves was supplemented with two pounds of dry matter distillers’ grains on cornstalks for a slow rate of gain of 0.6 pounds per day. The other group of calves was supplemented with five pounds of dry matter distillers’ grains then grazed on summer pasture as yearlings for a high rate of gain of 1.4 pounds per day. 

            “Net profit was greater for calves grown at the higher rate of gain after wintering on cornstalks and as an overall system through the finishing phase,” notes Laborie. “The yearlings wintered at the lower rate of gain exhibited compensatory gain on grass, while the yearlings wintered at a higher rate of gain compensated in the feed yard and resulted in heavier carcasses at harvest.” 


            Based on these three economic analyses, Laborie noted three conclusions were made. 

            “First, the availability of cornstalks and distillers’ grains greatly influences the nutrition and economics of a backgrounding program,” Laborie says. “Distillers’ grains are often a cost-effective source of energy and protein.” 

            The second conclusion Laborie lists is that a higher rate of winter gain, anywhere from 1.5 to two pounds per day, is the most economical for the production of yearlings or finished cattle. 

            The last conclusion noted by Laborie is that there were no clear benefits to selling yearlings off grass in July versus September.

            “The net profit appeared to be similar in these studies when selling in July versus September,” states Laborie. “We found if yearlings are retained through the finishing phase, it can be beneficial to leave them on grass until September and capitalize on what has often been historically higher prices for finished cattle in January.”   

            Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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