What is it?
Backgrounding is the second stage of the beef production sector. It takes calves that are sold as excess stock from cow-calf operations and raises them on a forage-based diet so that they grow in muscle and frame. Fattening is not a requirement at this stage because the weaned cattle are too young to be able to build muscle on a high-energy diet. Breeding is not a target at this stage, unlike with cow-calf. The primary purpose is to raise animals on the best nutritional quality feeds and health management possible to get big, healthy animals that have reached target weight and age to be moved to the feedlot phase.
What cattle are raised?
Background operations are not set on producing a uniform calf-crop as cow-calf operations usually are. Calves may be of one breed or at least two. Common breeds raised include Angus, Red Angus, Hereford, Charolais, Limousin, Simmental, Maine Anjou, Shorthorn, and Gelbvieh. Majority of calves to be backgrounded are steers. Some are heifers. No groups are sold as more than one gender: they would have been pre-sorted at the auction mart according to weight, color/colouration and gender. Thus, if a producer is going to background steers, they all have to be steers. Some bulls may be sorted into a group of steers, but they are quickly found and separated out to be castrated by a veterinarian or the producer.
How are they raised and what is involved?
One or more “potloads” or groups of weaned calves are purchased through a livestock auction mart. Such livestock sales can be as far away from the intended farm as 400 km or as near as only 10 km. They are transported to the farm via livestock trailer or cattle liner and unloaded into a small corral where they are kept for several days to monitor health. Often the calves that are purchased are weaned straight off the cow and not vaccinated, which means these calves must be vaccinated almost immediately upon arrival. They are mainly vaccinated for Clostridial diseases, BRSV, IBR, and PI3, plus get “booster” shots of Vitamins A, D, and E. Follow-up vaccinations, also as boosters, are administered four weeks later. Calves that are horned are often dehorned. Though the process is painful and often without anaesthetic, the long-term benefits outweight the short-term costs significantly: Greater safety for other cattle and people because getting gored by an animal with horns is not pretty and can be fatal.
Because most Canadian cow-calf operations wean their calves in the late fall and early winter, stocker calves that are purchased require feeding during the winter. Hay bales must be supplied via free-choice, and the introduction to silage also begins. This is the point where calves become “bunk-broke” or are trained to learn to like the taste of silage and to eat from a feed bunk. Feed bunks reduce waste when cattle are eating, and often can be moved with a tractor from one location to another to prevent build-up of wasted feed. It only takes the a few days for all calves to be eating silage, with persistency and the use of one or two calves teaching the others that eating silage is good and tasty. Once one begins eating, soon the rest will follow.
With feeding comes nutritional management. Backgrounding operators should strive for feed with adequate protein and energy and sufficient phosphorus, calcium, sulphur and magnesium for bone growth and development. Energy for cattle in the winter is important for warmth, which reduces cold stress in animals that experience a sudden drop in temperature from high windchill. Warmth is also generated with the fermentation activity of the rumen, and a diet with high fibre will aid in this. Energy and protein also helps in growth and maintaining body condition. Some calves may not grow as well or condition as well as others, so some producers may need to split calves up into groups to better meet each animals’ nutritional requirements. Like with beef cows, weaned calves are supplied with fresh water, salt and mineral.
These calves are not fed throughout the year. Once the grass starts to grow and reach a desired stage for grazing, the cattle are eased off feed and moved out to pasture. In Alberta, most cattle are in pasture by May. They are rotationally grazed, moved from one pasture to the next after anytime from one day to three weeks has passed (depending on the site of the pasture or paddock) for the rest of the spring and summer. They are supplied with hay during the first couple weeks to allow their rumens to adjust and reduce the incidence of bloat.
Often these cattle are sold to a feedlot by mid-September, however, during some years, sale time may be advanced or delayed, depending on the markets and how big and well conditioned cattle are. Though by this time the cattle are around 18 months of age (6 months old is weaning age, plus one year of feeding/grazing), some backgrounders may choose to sell their cattle when they are year of age, accomplishing bi-yearly backgrounding by feeding two herds of cattle in one year for a slightly better profit margin. The difference is that these cattle may still be too young to be introduced into the feedlot, and will still need another 6 months to be fed before they reach the finishing phase.
Most cattle by feedlot-sale time, are around 900 pounds (408 kg), which is a sufficient weight to begin the fattening phase. Unlike with cow-calf, all cattle are sold. No single animal is retained unless they are injured and are not fit for transport. Instead, they are kept for several more weeks to further heal before they are eventually sold to slaughter/feedlot or lightly finished and butchered for the backgrounder’s own freezer.