North Central Research Extension Center


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Forage Only Backgrounding Performance

Weaned feeder calves are typically grown and backgrounded on rations of forage in combination with feed grains and byproducts to achieve desired gains, often targeting around 2.25 -2.75 lbs per day.  This past fall the outlook for a strengthening feeder market combined with high cost feed grains and concentrates but abundant hay supplies, created interest in the feasibility and projections to background on forage alone.  To help validate projections and gain additional experience, a demonstration trial was conducted with cooperating cow calf producer, Ron Kramer, of Douglas, ND.

The entire spring born 2011 calf crop, including steers and heifers, was self-fed second cutting alfalfa hay for a 77 day period from initial weighing on December 19, 2011 to prior to shipping on March 5, 2012.  Calves had been late season creep fed and weaned several weeks before start of the trial.  In the weaning stage calves received self-fed first cutting alfalfa grass hay in round bale feeders and a small amount of bunk fed grain.   At start of the trial at weigh in, calves received booster vaccinations and steers were implanted with a Synovex S implant.

Over the feeding period calves had free choice access to hay as round bales in circular feeding rings.  Hay provided was second cutting alfalfa with an average test of 17.7% crude protein, 63.4% TDN and a relative feed value of 133.  All calves remained healthy over the trial period with no incidence of sickness or death loss. Calves were closely monitored as the trial began with concern for the possibility of bloat.  Weather was uncharacteristically mild and dry for the season.

Average weight gain of the 57 predominately Angus calves, averaging 565lbs on December 19th , was 163 pounds for an average gain of 2.1lbs per day and a final weight of 728.  Heifer calves had a starting weight of 528lbs, a final weight of 679lbs, and an adg of 1.96.  The implanted steer calves performed higher with an average adg of 2.28lbs, and initial and final weights of 589 and 765lbs, respectively.  The greater performance resulted in steers gaining an additional 25lbs per head over the 77 day backgrounding period.

Initial performance projections based on typical weather conditions and feed test analysis estimated gains at 1.5 lbs per day for 600lb non-implanted feeders.  Based on bales fed (66 bales estimated at 1250lbs), daily intakes were likely about 19lbs as fed basis, equating to a conversion of 8.9 lbs of hay per lb of gain.  Greater performance than was anticipated can be partially attributed to warmer temperatures and implants in the steers but also reflects good digestibility and utilization of the hay and marginal feeding waste.  Valuing the hay at $100/ton, feed cost per pound of gain is calculated at $.44  per pound of gain.  Producer estimated cost of the hay was $28 per bale which relates to a feed cost per lb of gain less than $.20.

Information gained can be helpful in accessing future expectations from high quality forage backgrounding.  Considering the ease of cattle feeding and management, less equipment and labor, it appears more attention should be drawn to producing high quality hay and utilizing it in the alternative of growing and backgrounding feeder calves.

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