Housing requirements for backgrounding beef cattle


Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Backgounding refers to the growing, feeding and managing of steers and heifers from weaning until they enter a feedlot and are placed on a high concentrate finishing ration. The process of backgrounding is used to control weight gains so that cattle gain enough muscle and bone before laying down fat covering and marbling.


Housing is best kept as simple as possible. It may be possible to use existing two-storey barns, machinery sheds or to build simple structures like fabric-covered buildings. A well-drained yard with a good windbreak may also be a suitable alternative. The primary purpose of housing is to provide shelter from extreme weather conditions. However, cattle can be kept outside if they have protection from the weather.

When determining how much space is required for the backgrounding calves, consider the actual usable lying space rather than the total size of the barn. Deduct space needed for feeders and waterers, as well as alley space and space next to the feeders that is not suitable for resting. Table 1 shows space requirements for calves and finishing cattle.

Table 1. Housing Space Requirements

Requirements Calves
400-800 lb
800-1,200 lb
Barn Space without Yard
Barn Space with Yard
Outside Paved Yard
Outside Earth Yard
Paved Yard without Barn
Earth Yard without Barn

Feed and Water

Open surface water tanks are best for training calves. Allow 1 foot of tank or waterer space for every 20 head as a good starting point. If energy free water bowls are used, be sure to block open the lids or balls, so that the calves can see the water until they are trained.

Round bale feeders may be the most economical method of setting up a feeding system for backgrounding calves. An 8 inch bar spacing is suitable for calves, but 800 pound cattle will require a 10 inch spacing. Feed space requirements for fence line feeders is shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Feeder Space Requirements

Feeder Space Calves
400-800 lb.
800-1,200 lb.
Limit Feeding
Self Fed Grain
Self Fed Roughage
Max Height at Throat


Ventilation is necessary to remove odours and gases from the barn, and replace them with fresh air. In cold weather the ventilation rate is calculated to remove excess moisture and in hot weather it is calculated to remove excess heat.

Natural ventilation using existing windows and doors is preferable because of cost. Natural ventilation relies on the wind to ventilate a barn by the cross flow of air in one side and out the other, and on the fact that hot air rises. In order for natural ventilation to work properly it is necessary to have both air inlets and exhaust openings from the barn. Windows can be used for both air inlets and air exhaust if they are adjustable and are spread evenly around the walls. Doors can also be used if you are careful. It is important to avoid drafts. Drafts are simply air movement that the cattle find uncomfortable. The temperature and the speed of the air movement will determine if the cattle feel a draft.

The barn must also have good exposure to the wind. If there are other buildings around the cattle barn, or lean-tos, or a large barn bridge, it will be difficult to make natural ventilation work.

In cold weather, air exhaust openings will be needed. In a two-storey barn, hay chutes can be used if they have an adjustable opening. Hay chutes should only be used as a temporary fix, since they will exhaust warm moist air into the mow area of the barn. If this moist air is not exhausted from the mow, it will condense on roof members and eventually lead to deterioration of the roof. The long-term solution is to install chimneys which will exhaust the air directly to the outside. If a machinery shed is being used, chimneys or a continuous open ridge can be used to exhaust air.

It is better to keep cattle cold and dry than warm and damp. To keep the air fresh, open the barn as much as possible, while still controlling drafts. This may result in freezing in the barn, but it is better to have frozen manure than to close up the barn too much to keep it warm. The result will be stale air and heavy air because the moisture is not being removed from the barn. If the hair coat becomes damp and the air is stale and moist, cattle will be susceptible to a number of respiratory illnesses.

If the barn is not suitable for natural ventilation, it will be necessary to install one or more fans to provide for fresh air exchange.

Manure Handling

Manure will need to be scraped from around the feeders and waterers on a regular basis to keep cattle clean. The bedded pack can continue to build until clean out is necessary. Cattle will need about 4 lb/head/day of bedding.

If an outside yard is used, it will need to be scraped on a regular basis. Storage should be provided for the manure, and manure and yard run-off needs to be controlled so that it doesn’t enter surface or groundwater. Roof manure storages to prevent run-off, or contain run-off from the manure storage or yard in an earthen or concrete storage. It may also be possible to treat run-off through a vegetative treatment area.

Author: Harold K. House, P. Eng. – Engineer, Beef and Dairy Structures and Equipment/OMAFRA



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