Backgrounding Feeder Cattle Nutrition


Source: Government of Saskatchewan

The primary objective of backgrounding is to ensure optimal growth and development of the muscle and frame of the calf, while avoiding excess fat deposition.

After taking an inventory of resources, including feed, labour and cash reserves, develop a partial budget. This will help to determine if there is a net advantage to placing calves on feed.

Analyze Marketing Opportunities

Investigate marketing options with cattle buyers or feedlot operators to determine the market outlook and expected sale prices before making a final decision to background calves.

In order to raise a healthy, 800 to 900-lb. feeder, the producer must consider the animal’s frame size and intended market when selecting a feeding program. Frame size affects growth and development. Large-frame calves grow faster and as such, have greater daily dry matter intakes than small- and medium-frame calves. They also fatten and finish at heavier weights.

Other factors such as fleshiness, quality, sex and breed must also be considered. The backgrounded feeder should be “green,” not carrying excess fat, and ready to be placed on a high-energy finishing ration in a feedlot. Some smaller-framed calves may be placed on a summer grassing program the following year.

Most backgrounding rations are designed to result in a predetermined daily rate of gain. It is important to feed test and to use the services of livestock nutritionists when developing backgrounding feeding programs.

Target Weights and Target Marketing Date

Once the frame size of the feeder calves has been determined, three fundamental factors will dictate the design of the feeding program:

  1. Target Sale Weight
  2. Target Marketing Date
  3. Condition or Degree of Fleshiness

Target Sale Weight

The target sale weight and average daily gain varies according to frame size, as shown in Table 1. Producers need to determine the type of calves they will feed. It is important to realize that target sale weights will be affected by the price of feed and current feeder markets. For example, when fed cattle prices decline, feedlots become more sensitive to feed grain prices.

Large-frame calves can be placed directly onto a finishing program after weaning with minimal backgrounding. Some feedlots, however, may sell finished large-frame cattle to specific Canadian or American markets which target cattle with heavier weights and a higher degree of marbling. These feedlots may be interested in purchasing backgrounded large-frame cattle. Before starting a backgrounding feeding program using large-frame calves, be sure you have a market for them.

Table 1. Target Sale Weight

Small Frame Medium Frame Large Frame
Purchase Weight 300 – 400 lb. 400 – 500 lb. 500 – 600 lb.
Backgrounding Gain (lb. per day)
Steers and Heifers 1.50 – 1.75 lb. 1.50 – 2.00 lb.
Steers 2.25 – 2.70 lb.
Heifers 2.00 – 2.50 lb.
Target Feeder Weight and Destination
To grass 650 – 700 lb.
To feedlot 800 – 850 lb.
Steers and Heifers to feedlot 825 – 875 lb. 825 – 875 lb.
Expected Slaughter Weight
Steers 1100 lb. + 1150 – 1300 lb. + 1300 – 1525 lb.
Heifers 900 lb. + 950 – 1050 lb. + 1100 – 1200 lb. +

For example:

  • Buy or wean a medium-frame 500 lb. calf on November 15
  • Target marketing date is April 15
  • Days on feed = 150 days
  • Target sale weight is 800 lb.
  • Total weight gain = 300 lb.
  • 300 lb. gain /150 days = 2.0 lb. gain per day *

*Average Daily Gain for the entire feeding period

A nutritional program can now be designed to provide a ration that will provide 2.0 lb. of average daily gain. Check the Target Sale Weight Table (Table 1.) to ensure daily gains are within recommended levels for the frame size of the calves.

Table 2. Target Daily Gains

Days on Feed 200 lb. 225 lb. 250 lb. 275 lb. 300 lb.
75 Days 2.7
100 Days 2.0 lb. 2.25 lb 2.5 lb. 2.75 lb.
125 Days 1.6 lb. 1.8 lb. 2.0 lb 2.2 lb 2.4 lb.
150 Days 1.3 lb. 1.5 lb 1.7 lb 1.8 lb 2.0 lb.

Six Steps in Formulating a Ration

  1. Determine nutrient requirements, feed intake and desired weight gain for each class of cattle.
  2. Feed-test “on-farm” feeds to determine nutrient levels.
  3. Determine required “off-farm” feedstuffs (protein supplements, minerals, feed additives, vitamins, etc.).
  4. Formulate the rations.
  5. Implement the nutritional program and monitor the performance of the cattle.
  6. Adjust rations according to weather conditions and animal performance.

21-Day Weaning Period

If the calves have not been previously weaned, place them on a 21-day weaning program prior to backgrounding. This helps the calves through the stressful weaning period and encourages them to eat grain and long hay or silage. A good supply of accessible clean fresh water is essential. Feeding the calves two or three times per day during the weaning period will help them become accustomed to eating dry feeds. It also acquaints them with regular handling and provides an opportunity to observe behaviour and identify sick animals. Avoid feeding on the ground. This practice results in considerable feed wastage and allows for transmission of disease.

Some producers prefer feeding good quality long hay for the first week. Avoid the sudden introduction of alfalfa hay as it may cause scouring or bloat. Some instances of bloat have occurred when alfalfa grass hay was fed. Calves will sort the hay and may selectively eat the alfalfa portion. Avoid over-processing or over-grinding if using a bale shredder or grinder.

Oats, barley or fortified pellets may be offered in addition to the free-choice hay. Start the calves by feeding one pound of grain or pellets per head per day until each calf is consuming the concentrate. Increase the concentrate by one-half pound per head per day until the desired level is reached. Watch for signs of digestive upset such as a reduction in feed intake, bloating or scours. Other options include silage mixed with barley or oats, supplements, minerals and vitamins. Calves may refuse to eat large amounts of silage. The amount of silage fed should be gradually increased. Straw should be available on a free-choice basis.

Backgrounding Period

Many backgrounding rations contain 60 to 70 per cent forage (dry matter basis), with the balance comprised of grain or fortified pelleted grain screenings. As the backgrounded calves mature, the energy component or Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) of the rations is gradually raised by increasing the amount of grain or pellets fed.

Most backgrounding rations require additional salt and minerals. Trace Mineralized Fortified Salt (TM Fortified Salt) is recommended. In addition to cobalt and iodine, it contains a number of required trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and sometimes selenium). Research has demonstrated that these trace minerals are commonly deficient in Saskatchewan-grown forages and grains used for beef cattle production.

Calcium and phosphorus are important for proper skeletal growth and development in backgrounded calves. If the forage and grain component of the ration does not supply adequate levels of these minerals, the animals must be provided a mineral supplement.

Feed Additives and Implanted Growth Promotants

There are a number of feed additives that can improve the health and productivity of beef cattle. Feed additives can be grouped into six categories:

  • ionophores;
  • synthetic hormones;
  • antibiotics;
  • probiotics;
  • coccidiostat; and
  • bloat prevention aids.

Ionophores are compounds that alter the rumen microflora to increase the production of propionic acid. The net effect is improved feed efficiency (less feed is required to maintain normal or improved rates of gain). Some ionophores may increase the average daily rates of gain. Ionophores may reduce the incidence of grain overload and bloat, and some act as “anti-coccidial” agents.

Some products contain synthetic hormones which are designed to suppress estrus (cycling) in beef heifers intended for slaughter. Feed efficiency and average daily gains may be improved.

Registered uses of antibiotics include treatment of stress-related sickness and, in some cases, growth promotion. Some antibiotics aid in the prevention of bloat, foot rot and diarrhea.

Probiotics favour the growth and development of the more desirable rumen microbes. They may improve overall performance.

Coccidiostats are used to prevent “coccidiosis”, a disease caused by parasitic protozoa. Symptoms of this disease are bloody scours and loss of performance. Coccidiosis is more prevalent in young cattle raised in confined conditions.

Growth promotants can increase daily rates of gain by eight to 10 per cent and improve feed efficiency. A number of products are currently registered by the federal government for use in beef cattle. They are classed as natural steroid, synthetic steroid like and non steroidal compounds. Growth promotants are implanted or deposited under the skin in the middle third of the ear. Implants may be combined with some feed additives to further increase performance.

Always follow label directions and observe pre-slaughter withdrawal periods when using feed additives or implants. A veterinarian or livestock nutritionist should be consulted before using any of these products in a feeding program.

Preventing Grain Overload

Calves that consume excessive amounts of grain or pellets may develop grain overload. In mild cases, symptoms include reduced feed intake. In more severe cases, signs include abdominal pain (calves kick at their bellies), bloating, sunken eyes (dehydration) and diarrhea. Light coloured feces may indicate digestive problems. Some calves may develop laminitis or founder. Severely bloated calves may die if not treated.

Under normal conditions, the microbes in the rumen produce a number of compounds, including acids, as the starches in the grain and pellets are fermented. These acids provide energy to the growing calf. If an excessive amount of starch is available to the microbes, high amounts of acids and bacterial slime are produced. This combination can lead to feedlot bloat and grain overload.

Processing barley by rolling or grinding increases its digestibility by 10 to 20 per cent or more, resulting in increased feed efficiency. Processing oats may increase digestibility by no more than 10 per cent in cattle younger than three years of age and less than five per cent in calves under six months of age. Therefore, the cost of processing oats may not be justified.

To reduce or prevent grain overload, process grain by cracking each kernel into two or three pieces. This ensures that the particle size is not too small.

Mixing the grain or pellets with coarsely ground forage or silage ensures that the roughage is consumed with the grain or pellets. This helps to prevent grain overload. Another option would be to feed smaller amounts of grain or pellets several times during the day. Feeding 10 pounds of concentrate to a 500-lb. calf at one feeding may cause grain overload, especially if the calf was hungry. Splitting the concentrate into several three- or four-pound meals spread out over the course of the day should eliminate digestive problems.

Feedbunk Management

Good feedbunk management is important to keeping calves on feed and minimizing digestive disturbances such as grain overload. The goal is to consistently deliver the proper amount of feed at the right time. Ensure that there is adequate space at the feedbunk so that all calves can eat at the same time. Over-consumption occurs when calves are hungry. This increases the incidence of digestive upsets. Changes in weather will also affect feed consumption. Calves tend to eat more during stormy weather. Although research indicates differing opinions, feeding twice per day often improves feed efficiency. It also ensures that the feed is fresh and reduces problems if mixing errors occur. Feedbunks should be cleaned weekly to be kept free of old feed and manure.

Example Backgrounding Rations

The following examples of backgrounding rations have been formulated using average feed values. It is assumed that the calves have been weaned and are accustomed to eating forages and grain. An accurate feed analysis is the only guarantee that the formulated ration will provide the expected rates of gain. A livestock scale is useful to monitor cattle weights. The National Research Council (NRC) publishes guidelines for beef cattle nutrition. The following feeding guidelines have been used to formulate the ration examples in this fact sheet.

The ration examples suggest that backgrounded cattle gain weight at a constant, predetermined rate. In many feeding programs, however, initial average daily gains may be higher or lower than expected. This is due to several factors, including stress associated with weaning or shipping, compensatory gain and so on. As the calves grow, the rations must be adjusted to provide average daily gains consistent with the target sale weights and marketing dates.

Sample Rations


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