Keep your calves a little longer

Don’t discount the possibility of backgrounding cattle at home

Keep your calves a little longer

When Tavis Peardon and Janelle Smith started delving into backgrounding calves in the field, they found some promising results.

The pair of livestock and feed extension specialists with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture presented the initial results of their three-year study at the Ag in Motion Discovery Plus virtual farm show in July.

Starting at an equal shrunk weight of around 635 pounds, over the winter, the field calves gained about 25 lbs more than the drylot calves and finished at around 935 lbs.

“This can likely be attributed to a higher dry matter intake in the field calves,” said Smith.

“When looking at this from a feed efficiency standpoint, which measures the pounds of feed required to obtain one pound of gain, it does appear that the drylot calves had a slightly better efficiency.”

He stressed that it’s only the first year of the study and it’s too early to know if this is a trend.


Peardon said the study analyzes weight gain, infrastructure and yardage costs, as well as nutrient recycling. Each fall, the project purchases 400 steer calves at around 550 lbs on average. Half of those calves will be allocated to field feeding (Treatment 1) and the other half drylot feeding (Treatment 2). Both treatments were fed on a barley silage-based diet delivered each day with a feed wagon into bunks.

The field pens (just over 30 acres in size) were surrounded by four-strand barbed wire fence. Each pen included three 24-foot rubber-belted feed bunks and three 24-foot windbreak panels. The windbreak panels and feed bunks are moved once a week to distribute the manure evenly over the field.

The drylot pens were a typical feedlot style, designed to industry specifications, with a windbreak fencing at one end of the pen, a cement feed bunk at the other and water in the middle.

Cost analysis

There was no difference in bedding costs or processing costs and not a significant difference in treatment costs. However there was a difference in death loss.

“The death loss in the field calves was about 1.5 per cent and in the drylot calves was 0.5 per cent,” said Smith. “That is associated with a higher overall cost for the field backgrounding calves, which brings their health costs up a little bit.”

Infrastructure depreciation was higher overall for the drylot calves due to the higher costs of setting up that system. However, equipment costs were higher for the field calves due to feeding time and running the machinery in a field setting versus a pen setting. The manure-handling cost was higher in the drylot calves because it must be hauled from the pen as opposed to being deposited on the field. Overall, this translates to 43 cents per head per day for the drylot calves and 39 cents per day for the field calves. These numbers do not include labour.

Combining all the infrastructure and supply costs, the total for the drylot calves was approximately $340 per head and the cost for field backgrounding calves was near $380 per head. That $40-a-head difference, works out to 30 cents higher per head, per day for the field calves. But with the extra weight gain observed in the field calves, the costs per pound of weight gain are roughly equal.


If the results from this year bear out over the next two years, it would indicate that field backgrounding could add value to an operation, especially if some of the infrastructure is in place.

“If you already feed your cows in the winter, if you already run a tractor and feed wagon every day and you might have a spare pen out in the field, backgrounding your calves will spread the fixed costs and the infrastructure depreciation over more animal units and there will be more gross value over the winter period,” said Smith.

However, Smith noted that there are still two years left in the study.

“This year was a great learning year,” she said. “But replication is important in research, so we’re looking forward to the next two years of data to go into more depth with the economics and performance data.”

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