Sparta, Wis. – This growing season has given us rain, drought and cool temperatures which resulted in abundance of immature corn, or at the least very wet shelled corn with possible test weight or quality problems. One possible option to utilize some of this corn and capture greater value for it may be to background feeder cattle.

Backgrounding feeder cattle is when lighter weight cattle (350 to 550 pounders) are grown to 700 to 900 pounds using low cost medium to lower roughage feed sources. Then they are either sold as yearlings or heavy feeders or transitioned onto a finishing diet. Pasture is often used as the primary feed source for backgrounding during the summer, but harvested feeds like corn silage and hay can also be successfully used to background calves. Target daily gains for backgrounding calves are usually between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds of gain per day. The idea is not to put finish on the calves but to have them grow frame and muscle.

Profit and loss may vary greatly between farms that choose to background calves. Careful planning and management are necessary to accomplish a successful backgrounding program.

Farmers who are considering backgrounding calves this fall as a way to utilize marginal feeds from this year’s growing season need to consider several factors before committing to backgrounding. Some of these factors include:

-- Purchasing: Do I purchase beef breed calves or dairy (Holstein) steers to feed? Many beef calves will just be weaned, not vaccinated, processed or pre-conditioned in any way before a sale. While special sales may require calves be weaned 45 days, started on feed, be processed (dehorned and castrated) and have a vaccination program accomplished. One such sale would be a Badger Vac 45 Sale. Holstein steers in the 300 to 500 pound weight range may not have had an adequate pro-active health care plan either.

-- Facilities: Does the farm have adequate facilities to handle, feed and house feeder cattle, or can existing facilities be modernized at a reasonable cost? Adequate facilities to handle high risk calves are essential to be able to implement pro active health programs and catch and treat sick calves. Data from several ranch to rail programs indicates that on average about 1/3 of calves from unknown health backgrounds(likely no program at all) will get sick at least once after arrival at the feedyard, and many times the percentage can be higher.

-- Livestock ability: Do you have the ability and desire to work with calves and be able to detect sick calves early? Producers need the ability to correctly diagnose sick calves by observing snotty noses, droopy ears, sunken eyes and excessive rough coughing and develop an effective treatment protocol. Following correct Beef Quality Assurance training of correct needle size, appropriate dosage and administration in the neck of injections to develop a healthy high quality feeder for the next feedlot. Always follow product labels for rates and routes (IM or Sub Q) of administration. These skills are important for successful backgrounding programs and keeping health related costs and mortality under control.

-- Time: Is there adequate time in the schedule for taking care of livestock, cleaning and bedding pens, feeding and observing the cattle? Adding an enterprise may cause other farm work to go unfinished or create demands that are not able to be met in a timely manner. On the other hand winter time can be filled with useful work and an opportunity to increase profits could be developed.

It is very critical for producers to have the feeds tested and use those values when calculating rations and costs for backgrounding calves. Feeds from immature and stressed plant most likely will not perform like feeds from “normal” plants.

As producers make their decision to background cattle, the following spreadsheets can help look at rations and costs for backgrounding; the first is a cost of production spreadsheet developed by Jeff Lehmkuhler, former UW-Extension Beef Specialist, initially developed for Holstein steers that can be adapted for all kinds of cattle by adjusting the input numbers, the second is a ration program developed by Mike Boersma at the University of Minnesota, both of these have links at the Monroe County Extension Web page at

Additional help with cost analysis, cattle processing skills and nutritional guidelines may be obtained from your local Extension office or the UW-Extension Livestock team or by calling Bill Halfman at the Monroe County UW-Extension office at 680-269-8722 or Zen Miller at the Outagamie County Extension Office at 920-832-5119.

Source: Bill Halfman and Zen Miller, University of Wisconsin