With cheap corn appearing to be a thing of the past, producers can capitalize on the ruminant's ability to digest forages and fibrous byproducts by looking to those feedstuffs as their primary backgrounding ration. However, before diving into the forage feeding game, there are certain concepts producers should be aware of, says Terry Klopfenstein, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) professor of animal science.

Speaking at this week's Range Beef Cow Symposium in Mitchell, NE, Klopfenstein said: "I believe there are two important myths that need to be discussed, and several concepts to consider for increasing backgrounding gains."

The first myth is that forage gains are cheaper than feedlot gains and, therefore, all producers should put as much weight as possible on cattle using forage.

"We produced 1,020-lb. steers off grass on Sept. 15 at a backgrounding cost of 75¢/lb. of gain. Cost of gain (COG) in the feedlot was $1.07/lb. That's a large and obvious difference, so we should put more gain on through forage. However, if those steers had been put in the feedlot as calf-feds, the feedlot COG would have been about 85¢/lb.," says Klopfenstein. He stresses that looking at feed prices across the entire feeding lifetime can change a person's perspective.

"We often think that feed efficiency on backgrounding programs isn't very good when we see feed conversions of 8-10:1. But the digestible energy of that low energy-density forage is used very efficiently, and we're still making money off that cheap forage," he continues.

UNL receives a pool of 2,500 calves into its research program each October and November. The heaviest 40% of calves enter the feedlot, while the lightest 60% are backgrounded. Over an eight-year research period, the long-yearling cattle were compared to calf-feds.

"While all calves were from the same pool, the calf-feds were heavier, larger-framed, and possibly older at feedlot arrival. They averaged 642 lbs., and the calves we backgrounded averaged 526 lbs., initially," he says.

"Grassfed yearlings had heavier final weights, ate more feed/day while in the feedlot, and gained more rapidly, but less efficiently. The grassfed yearlings were 116 lbs. lighter at initiation of backgrounding, and 83 lbs. heavier at harvest."

Thus, by keeping that animal for a year, you market an additional 200 lbs., he says. In a time such as today when cow numbers are short, Klopfenstein says grass-fed yearling systems can allow the industry to retain total production tonnage.

"The principle here is that light, weaned cattle are putting on more protein and less fat, and they're much more efficient. You can't just compare a 60¢ COG to a 90¢ COG and say the first is cheaper, partially because yearlings are the most expensive when they're in the feedlot.

"Therefore, cheap backgrounding gains lead to expensive feedlot gains. It's essential to look at the entire system before drawing conclusions about cheap backgrounding gains," he explains, leading him to argue that he considers simply stating that forage gains are cheaper, without any additional information, is a myth.

The second myth is that all producers can calve in the spring and produce 1,000-lb. yearlings the next fall.

"Our feedlots deliver cattle for slaughter daily and need replacement cattle on a continuous basis. Calf feds and a variety of backgrounding programs are needed to supply the continuous demand for feedlot replacements," Klopfenstein says.

To maximize calf gains during backgrounding, and increase market or feedlot entry weights, depending on whether ownership is retained or not, Klopfenstein lists increasing forage quality, protein and/or energy supplementation, being mindful of time on forage, and implant and ionophore use as important areas of management.

"It all seems simple, but implementation isn't simple relative to forage quality, especially grazed forage. Clearly, good-quality grass will result in good gains. But, in the Northern Plains, we only have about three months annually of good-quality grass that will produce good gains on yearlings. For warm-season grasses, it's mid-May to early August; for cool-season grasses, it's mid- to late April thru early July, with some potential fall regrowth," he says.

If calves are weaned in October, and marketed as yearlings in August, seven months of the time for gain and growth is based on lower-quality grazed forages, he says. Higher-quality forages can be harvested, but then there is the harvest expense, as well as the feeding expense, Klopfenstein says, minimizing forage utilization and profitability.

In addition to grasses and harvested forages, Klopfenstein adds cornstalks as a third viable forage option. He also notes that supplementation is often necessary, and can increase weight gains of calves eating any of the three.

"Ethanol byproducts offer excellent opportunities to minimize supplement costs. Both corn gluten feeds and distiller's grains (DGs) supply protein, phosphorus and energy at a price less than corn," Klopfenstein notes.

He cites one study summary of five years in which cattle were supplemented 5 lbs./day of dried DGs on brome pasture, and showed a .55lb./day gain response over a 160-day grazing season. In another study, cattle were supplemented with modified wet DGs on the ground at 0.6% of bodyweight, and gains increased from 1.36 to 2.02lbs./day due to supplementation.

Klopfenstein lists the ability to add ionophores to a supplemental diet, and feeding both to calves simultaneously, as another way to efficiently reap the multiple benefits out of a single supplementation program.

"The return on an ionophore is probably $2-3:$1. Implants give us around a 10-14% advantage of gain, and we probably see $15-20:$1 return on them," he adds, noting he encourages the use of both for maximizing background gains.

From a marketing standpoint, Klopfenstein explains that weight is just part of the equation.

"If you're going to try to get a 1,000-lb. animal just by keeping them on forage longer, even if you're supplementing, you have to be careful of price. From July to August, feeders dropped 80¢/cwt, and in September they dropped $2.80, then in October $7.49, then began to rebound in November. If you're retaining ownership, it probably won't matter if you get more weight by keeping them out. If you're going to sell them as feeders, you need to be aware that the price traditionally drops," Klopfenstein notes.

"There are great opportunities for retaining calves to make yearlings, or to sell in the backgrounding phase. But, like all phases of cattle production, the goal is to be better than average. To do that, you first have to match the cattle to the system. And, you need to efficiently use grazed forages to eliminate harvesting costs and yardage costs," he says.