Nutritional Concepts for Backgrounding Calves

Nutritional Concepts for Backgrounding Calves

September 2014

photo - backgrounding calves - calf in irrigated pasture
The nutrient density of the weaned calf diet depends on the size of the calf, the desired rate of gain, and the feedstuffs available. Photo courtesy of Karla Jenkins.

Commodity prices are lower than they have been in quite some time and cattle prices are at a record high. As fall approaches, many cattle producers are considering backgrounding calves rather than selling them at weaning. This may be economically advantageous, but only if the calves remain healthy and achieve the desired rate of gain.

Calves learn to eat forage within the first few weeks of life, so weaning is not the time that rumen function begins to develop. However, keep in mind the weaned calf’s rumen is fairly small compared to older cattle. Therefore, nutrient-dense feed that passes through the rumen quickly, allowing for more nutrients to be consumed, is important for good daily gain. Milk is highly digestible and nutrient dense. When it is removed from the diet, calves will need high quality forage or a protein and energy supplement to replace it. Supplying vitamins and minerals just prior to and post weaning will help fortify the calf’s immune system which will be challenged by weaning.

The nutrient density of the weaned calf diet depends on the size of the calf, the desired rate of gain, and the feedstuffs available. For more information on nutrient requirements of weaned calves and backgrounding considerations see NebGuide G2064 Wintering and Backgrounding Calves (PDF version, 256KB). A 500 lb steer calf would gain approximately 2 lb/d on vegetative irrigated perennial cool season pasture this fall. Conversely, the same steer grazing native winter pasture and supplemented with 1.5 lb/d distillers grains would only gain 0.5 lb/d due to the difference in protein and digestible energy content.

Corn prices are predicted to be lower this fall than they have been for some time. Corn can also be a great energy source for backgrounding calves. Corn does contain starch and therefore can have negative associative effects on digestion of low quality forage. Including an adequate supply of degradable intake protein will ensure proper utilization of the corn in the diet. Example diets containing corn for weaned calves as well as information on vaccination protocols and other considerations for weaned calves can be found in NebGuide G2057 Management, Health, and Nutritional Considerations for Weaning Calves (PDF version, 307KB).

In addition to protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals, an important, but often overlooked nutrient for weaned calves is water. Fresh, clean, readily accessible water is critical for maintaining dry matter intake, health, and daily gain. Calves should know where the water source is, have plenty of access to the source, and be able to reach the water at all times. Inadequate water intake results in reduced feed intake, eventual dehydration, and reduces the calf’s ability to fight infection.

University of Nebraska Extension personnel can assist producers with ration balancing if needed. Additional information on weaning and developing cattle is available on the Backgrounding and Yearling page.

Karla H. Jenkins
UNL Cow/Calf, Range Management Specialist