Finding the balance in backgrounding calves is always a challenge
Dr. Surber says WestFeeds has a variety of feeds and supplements to complement home-grown feeds that may be utilized in backgrounding rations. WestFeeds is a Montana owned and operated animal nutrition company with feed manufacturing plants in Billings and Great Falls, Mont.
“We have retail locations in Billings, Great Falls, Lewistown, Miles City and Dillon. Our products can also be found at many local dealers in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. We are the only animal nutrition company in Montana to have on staff Ph.D. animal nutritionists — Dr. Butch Whitman and myself,” says Surber.
“Our calf starters and grower pellets are designed to be highly palatable, to get cattle going to the bunk and on feed quickly. Pelleted feed can be a complete package, adding protein, energy, vitamins and minerals needed for optimal gains. They are designed to match a variety of feeds, feeding systems, and cattle feeding programs,” she says.
“WestFeeds has a nutrition team to help producers plan and manage a successful feeding program. We’ll evaluate feeds, balance rations, provide feeding guidelines, and make on-site visits to ensure success. In addition to our commercial programs, we help seedstock producers develop replacement heifers and yearling bulls. Our programs feature products that naturally improve feed efficiency and muscle protein synthesis. We welcome the opportunity to work with ranchers to design a feeding program that makes good use of their feeds, matches their feeding system, and achieves their goals for performance and profit,” Surber says.
The price of feed and price of the cattle (to buy, and then to resell) play big roles, and the people feeding cattle must find the best buys on feed — to build relatively inexpensive rations that still provide all the necessary nutrients for growing those calves.
Lisa Surber, Ph.D. is a ruminant nutritionist at WestFeeds LLC in Bozeman, Mont. Before joining WestFeeds, she was a research scientist at Montana State University for more than 20 years. She researched cereal forage development, beef cattle feedlot and backgrounding, and studied sheep nutrition, spending a significant amount of time on cattle backgrounding. “Backgrounding is a means of economically adding value to calves and increasing profit by using an inexpensive feed such as home-grown grains and forages to increase growth and weight gain prior to entering a feedlot. Backgrounding allows retained ownership of calves past weaning (when prices may be higher later), and allows lightweight or later born calves to add weight before marketing. A backgrounding program allows for skeletal and muscle development and adds a higher potential for compensatory gain,” she says.
“Our three-state region (Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota) has a unique mix of crop and livestock production. Home-grown forages and especially cereal forages provide an excellent option to capitalize on developing alternative cropping systems that will provide added value through backgrounding cattle,” Surber said.
In the mid-2000s, Montana State University along with researchers from North Dakota State University in Hettinger, N.D., conducted a series of backgrounding experiments utilizing spring cereals and an experimental forage winter wheat variety, now called Willow Creek.
“Based on these data, Willow Creek winter wheat and other winter cereal forages appeared to very competitive with barley and other spring cereals in backgrounding rations,” she said.
“With the gains we documented in backgrounding trials (+2.5 pounds per day), we think that cereal forages can provide an excellent source of feed for backgrounding rations. Across most of Montana and in some areas of the three-state region, winter cereals consistently produce more forage than spring-seeded crops. Winter cereals also have the advantages of being planted in the fall and harvested earlier, which can add diversity into a crop rotation in terms of weed control options and water use efficiency. Again, this adds value to crops through cattle,” explains Surber.
Kenny Graner has a ranch in central North Dakota, south of Bismarck, along the Missouri River. “We have irrigated ground and crop land, so feed supplies are plentiful,” he said. Graner backgrounds steers and heifers at home and starts to market them in January and February.
“We grow all our own corn and oats, which is what we use in our grain ration. We also raise corn for silage, on our irrigated ground. We start the calves on a very high roughage diet and then introduce some grain into the ration,” says Graner.
“We also produce both dryland and irrigated alfalfa, and utilize some of that to provide protein. We blend our ration to meet all the nutritional needs of these calves with the feedstuffs we produce,” he says.
“All we need to add to the ration is a vitamin pack. We generally don’t have to buy any protein supplement because our second and third cutting alfalfa provides enough. We are fortunate, along the Missouri Breaks, with some rough hill country for pasture, but also some decent crop land. Our native grasses are very nutritious. We had ample rain last spring so our grass grew well. It turned dry in August and the grass dried up, but we had a lot of it. The saying around here is, ‘Dry grass puts pounds on calves’ because our native grass here in North Dakota is very good. We are expecting above-normal weaning weights with the grass production we had, and as dry as it is,” he says.
In his vaccination program, the calves get all their shots at weaning and then boosters two weeks after they are in the feedlot. “We run 250 purebred Angus cows (run as commercial cows) and the last three years have been doing a little cross-breeding. We have a couple Hereford bulls we use on Angus cows and the crossbred calves do well. It gives us extra pounds on the steers and we also do extremely well when selling the F1 baldy heifers. They make really good cows and we’ve been receiving a premium for those.”
He tries to sell feeder steers at about 750 to 800 pounds in January and February. “We start them out slowly with about 1 pound of daily gain and then during the last 30 days push them to around 3 pounds per day. We monitor that pretty closely so they don’t get too fleshy. We just want them in good growing condition,” says Graner.
This program has worked well for many years. “My father started backgrounding in the early 1970s and I’ve been at it my whole life. I worked with my father and then took over the ranching operation nearly 15 years ago. My dad always told me to never try to guess the market. We have the feed and equipment and his advice was to just do the same thing every year — do the best you can with the calves — and it averages out over the long run. Some years perhaps you’d do better to sell them right off the cow, and some years it pays to background. But Dad figured a person will lose more if you try to outguess the market,” says Graner.
“Last year it would have been better selling them off the cows but we stuck to our program. This year I think it will be profitable to background them. I’m hoping for a bounce back in the market. It all depends on the value of the dollar and how trade plays into it. We are in a global trade, when it comes to beef. There are packers who shift beef all around the world and like to bring it into the U.S. When our dollar increased in value, this is one of the main reasons we lost our exports and had more imports,” he says.
Casey Maher does some custom backgrounding at Morristown, S.d., near the North Dakota border. “In 2012 we put in a waste management system that contains all the runoff from our feed and developing pens. We background and custom develop heifers for ranchers, and develop our own registered Angus heifers and bulls. Altogether we background about 650 calves,” he says.
Maher said his ration consists mainly of chopped hay, corn silage and bagged oatlage — mostly home grown. We also buy local shell corn and crack it. To bridge our protein gap we use brewer barley pellets — a by-product of beer malt. This comes from Spiritwood, N.D., about 200 miles away. There are usually a lot of sunflowers shipped through here, heading to Enderlin, N.D., and I can find a backhaul to bring the barley pellets. It’s still $20 to $30 per ton freight,” says Maher.
“The protein in these pellets ranges from 15 to 20 percent. They are guaranteed to be 15 percent but are usually higher. This is our main protein supplement, with corn and silage for energy. The chopped hay is grass. We raise everything except the protein source.”
It’s all fed through a mixer wagon. “We add a mineral pack containing Rumensin when we feed. We target about 1.5 to 2 pounds of gain per day on a developing heifer. On the bulls we want a 3 pound daily gain for 100 days to performance test. Then after our sale (the first Friday in February, here at the ranch) we back them down to about 1.5 to 2 pounds a day for a growing ration. This helps ensure their soundness and longevity,” he explains.
Looking at feed availability and prices this fall, protein costs have gone up. “All the protein sources seem to be a little more expensive this year, and I am not sure why — in terms of commodity prices. It must just be based on demand. I try to buy our corn all at one time, and I recently paid $3.10 delivered. My mineral pack usually ranges from about 11 cents per day up to 15 cents per day. We can put a pound of gain on for about 80 cents,” Maher says.
Compared with the last couple of years, this is pretty similar, excluding the hay. “We have an abundance of hay right now, so the cost of hay is down. So in our area, hay costs are lower and protein is up, so it averages out. Feeding the custom cattle, we’ve stayed at the same rate for about 3 years now.”
His program is fence-line feeding. “We try to give each animal 2 feet of bunk space, to keep them comfortable. If you have cattle too crowded they don’t do as well and it seems like you have more health issues,” says Maher.
“Feed costs have actually been pretty similar the past three years. We wean our own cattle the first of October and this year we had a couple of 90-degree days at that time. But the cattle are doing well and appetites have picked up, now that it’s cooling off more at night,” he says. F
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