Animal Science Department


Date of this Version



Presented at Range Beef Cow Symposium XXII, November 29, 30, and December 1, 2011, Mitchell, Nebraska. Sponsored by Cooperative Extension Services and the Animal Science Departments of the University of Wyoming, Colorado State University, South Dakota State University, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.


The cattle industry thrived for 50 years on cheap corn. However, cheap corn appears to be “a thing of the past”. Because of the unique ability of the ruminant to use forages and fibrous byproducts, the cattle industry has an opportunity to adjust nutrition programs away from “cheap corn” to forages. I believe there are two important myths that need to be discussed. Myth 1 is that forage gains are cheaper than feedlot gains, therefore we should put as much weight as possible on cattle using forage. We produced 1020 lb steers off grass on September 15 at a backgrounding cost of $0.75/lb of gain. Cost of gain in the feedlot was $1.07/lb gain. That is a large and obvious difference so we should put on more gain on forage. However, if those steers had been put in the feedlot as calf-feds, the feedlot cost of gain would have been about $0.85/lb. Because cattle are most efficient in feed utilization when young and light weight, they actually make efficient gain on forage. It doesn’t appear to be efficient because of the low energy density of forage but the digestible energy is used very efficiently, primarily for muscle growth. Alternatively, the 1,020 lb steer puts on primarily fat in the feedlot and is quite inefficient. Therefore, cheap backgrounding gains lead to expensive feedlot gains. It is essential to look at the entire system before drawing conclusions about cheap backgrounding gains.

Myth 2 is that we can all 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. In the Northern Plains states most calves are born in the spring so a variety of backgrounding programs are needed to supply the continuous demand for feedlot replacements. The need for feedlot replacements is a primary driver of backgrounding programs, but certainly, the economics of backgrounding and availability of feed resources are very important factors. Calf-feeding, placing calves in the feedlot within a few weeks of weaning, is the alternative to backgrounding. Backgrounding programs are based primarily on use of forages while feedlot programs are based on grains and byproducts. With high commodity prices there is the opportunity to increase emphasis on backgrounding. This assumes forage gains are less expensive than feedlot gains. Because of the continuous need for feedlot replacements, it is not likely that there will be large scale shifts from calf-feeding to backgrounding.