Drought conditions across South Dakota and the nation have many cattle producers considering early weaning to extend the use of the pastures and lessen the demands on the cow. As a result, producers who are accustomed to selling their calves at their more standard weaning time in the fall (October or later), are now faced with the decision as to what to do with the calves they wean off early.

One of the options is to send the calves to a backgrounder or a feedyard who is able to handle light-weight calves. Some producers may be able to sell their cattle outright to the backgrounder and some may want to retain ownership and just add some weight on the calves before marketing them at a heavier weight.

For cattle producers that have not typically been faced with the situation of selecting a feedyard for backgrounding their cattle here are some elements to consider:

  1. Identifying a potential feedyard – Do some research including asking friends, fellow cattlemen, veterinarian, and those in affiliated industries, for names or suggestions of feedyards they have worked with or have heard good things about. It is also okay to ask the feedyard to give you names of their customers who have fed with them allowing you to learn more about other customer’s experiences. Lists of feedyards may also be obtained from your local or state cattlemen’s organization or department of agriculture.

  2. Communication is important– Ask the questions needed to gather the information to assist you in making an informed decision. Questions such as, has this grow yard ever fed light-weight (early weaned) calves previously, what were the results, what type of gain did they get, were there any specific health issues that occurred, what type of gain should you expect? Taking the time to ask these questions and have an open discussion may assist the cow/calf producer in identifying the growing yard that fits their goals and needs the best.

  3. Take the time to visit the feedyard – If you have identified a couple of feedyards to consider, take the time to visit the site. Observe the management of the facilities, cattle and how the staff work around the cattle. If you are retaining ownership on the cattle, you want to be sure the cattle are handled properly following general quality assurance practices. Are the bunks clean and well taken care of or is there stale feed building up over several days? Does the yard appear to be able to handle environmental conditions to control mud issues?

  4. Understand the expectations before the cattle arrive – In drought conditions, pre-conditioning and vaccination programs/protocols may not have occurred in the normal time frame and will need to occur in the growing yard or feedyard. Who is responsible for this step and what are the expectations of the calves before entering the yard.

  5. What are the fees and costs - The most common ways a feedyard charges for their services is 1)yardage; 2) yardage plus feed markup; or 3) feed markup only. Be sure to understand how the feedyard calculates their costs and pencil it out to see if it is acceptable to you and fits your goals. Are there other charges or fees – Does the yard charge additional fees for health protocols, implants, processing, etc.

In the case that you are sending cattle to a backgrounding yard to add some extra weight on your early weaned calves and to prevent the drain on your cows with drought stressed pastures, but plan to be marketing them in again within 4 to 6 months, it is important that you are comfortable with your selection of a backgrounding yard and their management team. Once you have selected a backgrounder or feedyard to work with, continue to build a relationship with the feedyard or one of its representatives. This allows you the ability to know who you are going to call with questions or issues while your cattle are on feed. Taking the time to gather the needed information and answer your questions prior to placing your cattle on feed will offer more successful arrangement in the end.

Source: B. Lynn Gordon