If there were a way to make money from people gaining weight, you would want to invest just before the holidays. Stocker and feedyard operators traditionally have used a similar strategy, purchasing thin calves or yearlings coming off restricted forage diets and banking on their potential for compensatory gains on better pasture or feedyard rations.

Current research, however, suggests that ranchers have a significant opportunity to capitalize on those gains themselves.

Terry Klopfenstein, University of Nebraska beef cattle specialist, advocates what he calls a "systems approach" that optimizes economic efficiency and protects beef quality from weaning to slaughter. The approach can apply to cow-calf producers who retain ownership beyond weaning or to stockers and feeders who participate further down the production chain.

Texas A&M University extension beef cattle specialist Ted McCollum says a more coordinated approach can benefit producers and the industry as a whole. Research shows that it takes about 100 days to improve the average animal's marbling score by one point, he says. So when feedyards place lean, rangy yearlings off marginal forage diets, they benefit from some rapid compensatory growth, but could sacrifice carcass value. Calf-feeding programs allow the animals adequate time on high-energy rations to deposit marbling, but often at a high cost.

In the interest of beef quality and carcass value, Dr. McCollum believes cow-calf and stocker operators should raise their feeder calves and yearlings on a higher level of nutrition, essentially getting an earlier start on higher quality grades.

One stumbling block is the traditional belief that heavy calves growing rapidly on high-quality rations will perform less efficiently at later production stages. But Dr. Klopfenstein maintains that when you look at the system as whole, those traditional beliefs no longer hold up.

Dr. Klopfenstein lists the following observations about compensatory gain, based on 15 years of University of Nebraska research data:

In grazing programs

  • Compensatory gain on grass is variable and difficult to predict.
  • Longer restrictions may reduce compensatory gain.
  • Full-season grazing gives 40 to 45 percent compensation, on average.
  • Partial season grazing reduces percentage of compensation

In the feedyard

  • Feedlot compensatory gain is variable and difficult to predict.
  • Even relatively short restrictions produce compensatory gain. This is reflected in increased intake and gains but not increased efficiency
  • Yearlings gain more, eat more and are less efficient than calf-feds.
  • As a broad generalization, the heavier cattle are entering the feedlot, the lower their feed efficiency will be.
  • Rapid gain on grass prior to entering the feedlot does not necessarily reduce feed efficiency and often increases it.

None of these ideas seem new to rancher Al Svajgr of Cozad, Neb., who has used a system to optimize gains from weaning to slaughter for 20 years. Mr. Svajgr buys heifer calves in late fall and winter, typically weighing around 525 pounds, and places them on corn-stubble fields for the winter.

"I am very interested in the efficient use of roughage during the growing phase," he says. To help optimize gains during this period, he stocks about two calves per acre and bunk-feeds in the stubble fields, providing additional concentrate, minerals and an ionophore. This growing period lasts about 60 days with daily gains averaging 1.4 pounds. By March, he pulls the calves, now weighing 600 to 625 pounds, off the stalk fields and into a drylot. He spays the heifers and backgrounds them in the drylot for a short time before turning them out on grass in April. "They go to grass in a fleshier condition than you normally see," he says, adding that careful recordkeeping over the years has shown that these early gains do not jeopardize later gains on grass or in the feedlot.

The calves remain on grass for 110 to 115 days, then ship to nearby Darr Feedlot in August. Mr. Svajgr retains ownership through the feeding period and says his strategy for optimizing gains during the growing and backgrounding stages contribute to an efficient and cost-effective system for producing high-quality finished cattle.

Research backs it up
At the University of Nebraska, scientists have compared four years of data on different systems for growing and finishing yearlings.

In one, designated the "slow" system, steers were grown on corn stalks and protein supplement over the winter at 0.42-pound average daily gain. In the second, "fast" system, the researchers wintered the steers on corn stalks and supplemented with wet corn gluten feed (WCG) for 1.54 pounds average gain per day.

Both groups went into a drylot during the spring months, consuming ammoniated wheat straw and the same supplements as during the stalk-grazing period. The yearlings then returned to summer grazing until being placed in the feedlot in September. Researchers compared both of these systems with calf-feeding programs in which calves went directly to the feedyard in the fall, at an average weight of 612 pounds. They calculated interest costs on feed, yardage, etc., based on long-term averages, to make cost comparisons fair and equitable.

As intended, the fast group gained more weight during the winter period, and went to pasture averaging 763 pounds compared with 592 pounds for the slow group. The slow group compensated by averaging 1.65 pounds per day on grass, compared with 1.21 pounds per day for the fast group. In spite of those gains, the fast group came off grass and went to the feedyard weighing 100 pounds more than the slow group.

In the feedyard, the fast group gained weight faster, but consumed more feed and was less efficient than calf-fed. They ate and gained slightly more than the slow cattle and had similar feed efficiency. The fast cattle had 126-pound heavier finishing weights than the calf-feds.

Overall, the fast yearling system had the lowest breakeven level and turned out to be the most profitable (See table).

"Clearly," Dr. Klopfenstein says, "cattle type is important to yearling production versus calf feeding. If calves are to be retained in yearling programs, weaning weight is much less important and smaller cows with lower maintenance requirements may increase profitability compared to larger cows producing calf-feds."

One question that worries producers considering backgrounding programs is the potential effect on carcass value and beef quality. The research indicates that yearling programs produce fewer "very tender" steaks, but only a small increase in tough steaks. Overall, the average quality of beef from calf-feds and yearlings is the same.

On many ranches, Dr. Klopfenstein adds, it may be appropriate to sort calves at various times after weaning to produce calf-feds, short yearlings and long yearlings. He notes that the fast yearling system was economical primarily because of the heavy weights of cattle entering the feedlot.

"There may be resistance by feeders against buying yearlings approaching 1,000 pounds," he says, "so ranchers might need to retain ownership through the feedyard to earn the full benefits of the backgrounding strategy."