Maximizing profits with weaned calves

How a producer approaches backgrounding cattle varies from operation to operation. In general terms, backgrounding cattle is the practice of growing steers or heifers from around 500 pounds to approximately 800 pounds. Typically, this is done from the time the calves are weaned until the time they go to a feedlot for finishing. 

The steps to a successful backgrounding program start with a solid receiving protocol and acute attention to cattle health. 

“Work with your local veterinarian to ensure the appropriate vaccination protocol is in place to limit death loss to less than 1 percent,” Reagan Bluel, dairy field specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said.

In order for the program to be profitable the calves need to gain at the rate of 2 pounds per day on average. Farmers in the Ozarks have the opportunity to utilize pastures filled with fescue to add pounds on their calves. Fescue thrives as a hardy forage that has an excellent carrying capacity. 

“In general, the quality of lush vegetative grass will serve the needs of these calves when well-managed,” Bluel explained. “Utilizing these rapidly growing calves as a forage management tool is a win-win opportunity for most.”

During the winter months, stockpiled fescue can help to reduce the overall cost of feeding the calves through cold temperatures. In addition, backgrounding operations will want to supplement calves with a total mixed ration (TMR) in the winter. A nutritionist can help producers determine what needs to be in the TMR.

Livestock experts recommend producers get an annual hay test to help them understand what additional nutrients the calves need. It’s important to adequately meet calves’ energy and protein requirements.

“As stewards of these animals it it our responsibility to do what is right for the animal and that includes managing stress at weaning.”

— Earl Ward, NE Area Livestock Specialist,
Oklahoma State University Extension

One of the challenges some operations face in implementing a backgrounding program is space. The farm may not have enough land base, pastures, lots or working facilities to handle the weaned calves. 

If a cow/calf operation is stocked to full capacity, then there is no available space for the weaned calves to graze and grow. “If one would decrease the ‘set stock’ cow herd to equal the farm’s carrying capacity during times of lowest growth, it provides the opportunity to maximize the use of the “forage blessings” we have in spring and fall,” Bluel added.

Another aspect of a successful operation, whether producers consider themselves to be a backgrounder or not, has to do with farms that choose to wean their calves. 

Livestock experts point to research and market reports that indicate producers who wean and vaccinate their calves prior to selling them, make more money. 

In fact, in some states weighted average prices are reported for weaned calves and for unweaned calves separately. The calves that are not weaned at sale time consistently bring less than their weaned counterparts. 

“I would venture to say that now producers will begin to see a discount for unweaned calves,” Earl Ward, NE Area Livestock Specialist with Oklahoma State University Extension, said. “We see that in the way that cattle prices are reported now.”

When cow/calf producers take on the task of weaning calves, they also absorb the risk of sickness due to the stress of weaning which results in reduced morbidity in the stocker or feeder phase. 

“As stewards of these animals it is our responsibility to do what is right for the animal and that includes managing stress at weaning,” Ward stated.


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