The practice of backgrounding an animal aims to add weight to an animal economically by using grass as feed and providing minimal supplements. By feeding lower energy-dense feeds for a longer or shorter period, you can control the rate of gain and thereby the date of marketing to ensure maximum profit.
Moreover, on-farm backgrounding with a pre-conditioning (health) programme can reduce the chances of subsequent death, as weaners loaded directly onto the truck become stressed and more prone to diseases in a feedlot.
Indeed, creep feeding calves from four to six weeks before weaning is a beneficial practice all-round. The cow recuperates better as the calf’s need for milk is reduced and the calf is exposed to a feed trough. Livestock unfamiliar with a feed trough can take up to three weeks before starting to eat in the feedlot.
In addition to fresh water, you should provide good quality planted pasture or veld grazing. It is also important to know the nutrient characteristics of the pasture used for backgrounding.
The type of supplement you provide will depend on why you are backgrounding your cattle. For example, is it to pre-condition them for sale to a feedlot at a better price (weight gain is not the aim in this case), or is it to grow the animals to a higher weight before entry into a feedlot?
Next, establish the weight of the incoming cattle, the date when you want to move them to the next stage (marketing, auctioning or returning to pasture in the case of replacement heifers), and the weight gain needed during this time. This will give you the daily gain required, and you can then come up with a suitable feeding strategy/ration formulation.
Caring for the health of the cattle
When providing supplementary feed to the lightweight steers, make sure that high-quality plant-based protein comprises the bulk of the diet and limit the use of urea.
As the steers get heavier (above 200kg), more urea can be included. A preventative health-care programme is needed to background cattle for a prolonged period. It is worthwhile to invest in a hormone implant, providing you follow a good feeding strategy. Cattle gaining less than 300g/day will not benefit from an implant; cattle gaining above 500g/day will definitely benefit.
Keep in mind that protein breakdown and microbial protein synthesis can decrease in growing cattle fed high-roughage diets, so make sure the right quantity of backgrounding supplements is used.
Please note that this article is only an overview. For more information, consult your vet or extension officer.