Backgrounding Program Recalibrations

March 27, 2015

Robbi Pritchard, PhD


Backgrounding might be done on the cheap, simply as an effort to market a low cash value feed resource. More often backgrounding is practiced with an additional goal of preparing feeder cattle for the finishing phase of production. Currently cattle numbers are down, but the capital investment required is quite high. Our approach to management needs to be open to change when the economic circumstances change. Now seems like an appropriate time to consider a change to introduce some precision agriculture concepts into our backgrounding programs.

Overall goals for a backgrounding program include:

  1. Managing health
  2. Achieving Cost effective gains
  3. Protect finishing phase F/G
  4. Achieving maximal total live weight gained

These goals apply whether you sell backgrounded cattle or if you take them to finished weight yourself. There is nothing new in the list of goals or the principles behind them. However, we may need to adapt some aspects of management to take the value of a backgrounding program to a new level.

Pen Size

In precision agriculture inputs and management are adjusted to production potential. The adjustment is made on a management unit. In crop production management units have been reduced from farms down to fields, and increasingly to acres within a field. In the backgrounding yard, the management unit is still the pen. To gain more precision we would need to have smaller head count pens. I realize that dividing pens is not a popular suggestion, but for fun let’s consider some of the potential benefits. As an example let’s assume we have purchased 3 loads of well matched calves, that originated from 3 ranches . I can place them in a 250 hd pen or in 3 80hd pens.

Our experience at the Ruminant Nutrition Center is that health problems are tied to the origin of the feeders. If one of these loads turns out to be problem cattle and I co-mingled them into the 250 hd pen, I’ve done the best I can do to assure the spread of the pathogen to more cattle. If pull rates escalate such that I decide to mass medicate the pen, I will give antibiotics to 250 hd. If these cattle had been off­ loaded into 3 separate pens biosecurity would have been improved resulting in fewer total pulls. I would have mass medicated only the problem source cattle, isolated in the one bad pen, lowering total antibiotic use by K Rest assured that a reduction in antibiotic usage will be a growing concern in your operation for more than just economic reasons.

An essential step to keeping cattle healthy is getting them started on feed properly. Both overfeeding and underfeeding individuals in a pen are major contributors to health problems. It is not possible to prevent this problem in a pen that includes a mix of bawling calves, and creep fed or bunk broke calves. It is not possible to keep individuals on track when new calves are added to a pen that was started 10 days earlier. The best way to control any of these issues is once again the use of smaller pens. This allows us to keep cattle segregated by ranch of origin. Even if we are filling pens with miscellaneous small drafts, smaller pens fill faster and increase the odds that we keep health issues isolated.


Husbandry has big rewards in backgrounding. The data suggests that we are not as good at husbandry as we expect. Somewhere between ½ and 2/3 of the cattle with lung lesions at harvest don’t have a pull record. In spite of the broader use of better vaccines and access to exceptionally effective antibiotics, as an industry we are making no progress on mortality rates. By biased opinion is that this lack of progress in cattle health may in large part be issues of husbandry. Being truly good (not just fast) at handling and processing cattle will enhance vaccine response. Getting calves to the bunk and eating and staying on feed will improve vaccine responses. Finding the sick cattle that we have been missing, and finding them earlier in the disease process would be beneficial. To effect progress in the area of husbandry management should consider 2 key points. First is to look in the mirror and make a critical evaluation of whether husbandry is a strength of the operation or if there is the possibility that there is room for improvement. Second is to realize that good training is necessary to achieve good husbandry. It is not very likely that you will hire husbandry skills that are as good as you need.

Managing Growth

Backgrounding is used to change the carcass weight when a steer achieves VG 3 and it can change ADG, DMI and F/G during finishing. In addition to the potential impact on finishing phase growth, the backgrounding practices used can either protect the quality grade in the cattle or lower the percent Choice in subsequent carcasses produced.

I can take a steer calf from a 1325 lb cow and adjust my backgrounding program to have it market ready (Yield Grade 3.5) at 1250 lb or at 1400 lb. My backgrounding approach could protect Quality Grade at 75% Choice or drop it to 40% Choice. In the current price structure of the cattle industry I cannot afford management that will result in the 1250 lb finished steer. I cannot afford to pursue a higher percent Choice at the expense of lower carcass weight. However, it would be beneficial if I could protect the Choice percent and get all of carcass weight.

We can change outcomes in several ways to reach these goals, but things are not always as it seems and those miscues can leave a lot of profit on the table. Presumably for a cattle type and implant used there is an ideal growth rate to optimize carcass weight (HCW) and Quality Grade. In precision ag much of the process is based on a decision tree. For a backgrounding program the Input, Management, and Output constraints include:

Input Constraints Age x Gender x Frame Size x Weight x Health
Quality Management Constraints Time x Caloric Intake x Implant Strategy
Output Constraints Weight, Flesh, Total Live Weight Gain Potential, Quality Grade Potential

Accelerated feeding of calves is used because of the low F/G and high QG that occurs. Unfortunately it can also affect carcass weights. Jennings et al (2011) demonstrated this while growing a set of steer

calves on either a 49 Mcal NEg grower diet for 116d and to a BW of 943 lb, before being stepped up to the finishing diet or on a 62 Mcal NEg diet throughout. During the 116 d backgrounding phase the ADG were 2.87 and 3.48 lb for the backgrounded and accelerated feeding .treatments. Harvested at a common Yield Grade and carcass fat content endpoint the accelerated program steers produced lighter HCW (776 vs 710 lb; P<0.01) with no difference in Quality Grade.

In a related study we grew steers from 722 lb to 950 lb on lower or higher energy content diets before switching to a common finishing diet (Table 1). With only 0.34 lb difference in ADG, the HCW at a common fat endpoint changed by 31 lb. There are a couple of other interesting things to note in this study. We generally presume that greener feeder cattle are more efficient during finishing. However, in this study the calves backgrounded on the higher energy diet were more efficient during the finishing phase. That theme has been consistent in the series of these types of studies that we have done in recent years. It is also useful to note that once again the fleshier feeder steers did not grade better.

We recently undertook a study to see what backgrounding ADG was ideal for the type of feeder steers we were feeding. We backgrounded calves from 675 to 875 lb at targeted ADG of 2.0, 2.5, or 3.0 lb.

Once the targeted backgrounding BW (875 lb) was reached, steers were switched to a common finishing program and fed to a common Yield Grade endpoint. The HCW of these steers declined linearly with increasing ADG during backgrounding. A 1.0 lb change in backgrounding ADG corresponded to a 49 lb decrease in HCW at Yield Grade 3.2. In this study the lower ADG steers did exhibit compensatory growth with higher ADG and DMI and poorer F/G than the calves gaining at 2.5 or 3.0 lb/d.

The marbling scores were highest when the steers were backgrounded at 2.5 lb ADG. The relationship between backgrounding ADG and subsequent marbling scores is shown in Fig 1. Our interpretation of this outcome is that the low ADG treatment (gained 2.221b/d) was too low for normal intramuscular adipose accretion during backgrounding, resulting in a lower marbling score at harvest. On the other end of the spectrum, steers backgrounded at 3.04 lb/d were growing at a rate well above the maximum for accumulating intramuscular adipose and were consequently depositing subcutaneous fat too quickly. This caused them to achieve the Yield Grade endpoint before marbling could be fully developed.

It is important to note that these ADG were specific to this class of cattle, the weight that they started, the length of the backgrounding program, and the implant strategy used. As an example, if we had started these steers as 625 lb, the number of days on the backgrounding diets would have increased and the impacts on carcasses may have widened. If these had been smaller framed steers the HCW would have been lower and the grade depression caused by the 2.22 lb ADG may have not occurred. Indeed a 2.2 lb ADG may have been optimal in smaller framed steers. These steers were implanted with a Synovex S during backgrounding. Using higher or lower potency implants at this stage would alter the final HCW and marbling as well as the backgrounding ADG that were expressed . Implants effectively change the frame size of the cattle. As the potency of the implant increases there is a proportionally greater impact on frame size. With that concept in mind, the carcass outcomes would be consistent with the change in frame size imposed by the implant strategy.


Backgrounding that will allow cattle to express their maximal potential for growth and production of lean beef is of significant value to the beef cattle industry. If we apply a mindset of Precision Agriculture toward backgrounding programs we may find ample room for advancement in our production efficiencies and economic rewards. It is a very complex system with wide ranging variables. While optimizing this matrix poses a challenge for us as individuals, it is the variation that creates the most opportunities as well.

Table 1. Influence of Grower Phase on Finishing Performance and Carcass Traits of Steers1

Backgrounded Lower Energy Higher Energy
days 91 77
NEG 40 51
Meal/cwt Initial 723 721
BW, lb End 951 941
BW, lb ADG, lb 2.51 * 2.85


Finishing Phase
days 97 85
Out BW, lb 1337 1285
ADG,lb 3.98 * 4.05
DMl,lb 25.75 * 24.69
F/G 6.47 * 6.12
HCW, lb 836 * 805
Rib fat, in 0.49 * 0.45
YG 3.16 * 2.95
Marbling2 531 527
Carcass Fat, %3 28.1 29.1
1 Pritchard’s closet
2 marbling score 500 = small°, 400 = select•
3determined from 9-10-11 rib composition
*means differ (P < .OS)

 Table 2. Influence of backgrounding ADG on Carcass traits when harvested at a common fat end point.1


Treatment 2.0 2.5 3.0 SEM


Initial BW, lb 675 673 675 0.9
End Bkgd
BW, lb 880b 872a,b 865a 2.9 <0.05
ADG, lb 2.22a 2.54b 3.04C 0.040 <0.01
Days 93 79 63
Days 122 125 12
ADG, lb 4.09c 3.90b 3.58a 0.058 <0.001
DMl, lb 24.41c 23.08b 22.57a 0.150 <0.001
F/G 6.34b 5.93a 5.98a 0.082 <0.01
Final BW, lb 1371b 1354b 1314a 8.1 <0.001
Ribfat, in 0.54 0.55 0.55 0.016
Dress,% 63.4 63.6 62.9 0.19 0.08
HCW,lb 856c 846b 821a/td> 5.0 <0.001
Marbling2 554b 587a 578a,b 8.1 <0.05
1Pritchard, Taylor and Bruns unpublished 2014
2 Slight0=400; Small0=SOO
abc means without common superscripts differ

Figure 1. The relationship between backgrounding ADG and marbling scores at finished weight. 1


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