Field vs. feedlot backgrounding researched

Study is looking at how animals differ in gain, morbidity, mortality, antibiotic use, yardage and manure costs

Backgrounding calves in the field rather than the feedlot might be a viable option, and researchers are now studying the concept.

The first year in a three-year study has been completed at the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence near Clavet, Sask. It compared winter backgrounding of steers in an extensive field setting with a conventional drylot setting.

“It does appear to be a viable option for backgrounding calves,” said Janelle Smith, who presented the first year of data with Travis Peardon during the Ag in Motion Discovery Plus online farm show.

“You can expect some cost differences, but we found that overall performance of the two systems was comparable.”

Both researchers are livestock and feed extension specialists with Saskatchewan Agriculture.

“There’s never been any research done to see just how it compares to a feedlot setting,” said Peardon.

Added Smith: “We’re looking forward to the next two years of data to go more into depth in the economics and performance data presented.”

It’s common practice for calves to be sold at weaning. Many go to other provinces for backgrounding or finishing.

Potential benefits of field feeding include lower yardage cost because of less infrastructure and nutrient recycling where manure goes directly into the soil.

With little to no data comparing the two systems, the study is looking at how animals differ in gain, morbidity, mortality, antibiotic use, yardage and manure costs.

To assess whether field backgrounding is economically viable, researchers outlined differences in health costs, animal performance and soil nutrient benefits.

Each fall, 400 steer calves are purchased with 200 allocated to a field feeding paddock and the other half to a drylot feeding paddock.

Over the winter the target gain is 2.25 lb. per day up to about 815 lb.

Both treatments are processed in the same way and fed a barley-silage based diet. Rubber trough bunks were moved throughout two 30-acre fields, while standard concrete bunks were used in a typical drylot pen.

Throughout the year calves in both treatments were fed about the same percentages of barley silage, hay, barley straw, barley grain, canola meal and mineral supplement.

In both treatments calves averaged an initial weight of about 625 lb., but overall, field calves gained 25 lb. more than those in drylot, to finish at 935 lb.

“This can likely be attributed to a higher dry matter intake in the field calves. When looking at this from a feed efficiency standpoint, which measures the pounds of feed required to obtain one lb. of gain, it does appear that the drylot calves had a slightly better efficiency,” said Smith.

An economic analysis showed higher feed costs associated with field fed calves due to higher dry matter intake.

There was little to no difference in overall bedding costs, processing, treatment or morbidity rate between the two treatments.

However, death loss in field calves was higher at $19.60 per head compared to $6.47 for drylot, which increased overall health costs in field calves.

“The death loss in the field calves was about 1.5 percent and in the drylot calves was 0.5 percent,” said Smith.

Total cost per head averaged $54.97 for field backgrounded calves compared to $41.10 for drylot.

Researchers expected to see major cost differences in yardage. At $8 per head, infrastructure depreciation was higher for drylot backgrounded calves because of the setup costs, compared to $4.73 for the field.

However, equipment costs were noticeably higher for field backgrounding ($41.83 versus $27.59 per head) due to increased feeding times and machinery operation.

Manure costs of $19.30 per head were considerably higher in drylot than the field ($3.04 per head) because manure has to be hauled from pens. In the field, only spring harrowing would be necessary.

After the first year of study, total yardage costs were higher for drylot backgrounding at $54.91 compared to $49.61.

“These yardages in dollars per head translates to 43 cents per head per day for the drylot calves and 39 cents per head per day for the field calves,” Smith said.

However, the economic analysis did not factor in labour costs.

Yardage considerations also included infrastructure depreciation over 20 years for set-up and equipment costs in both scenarios, including manure hauling.

“Summing that altogether, the total costs for the drylot calves was about $340 per head and the field backgrounding calves was just shy of $380 a head. And then when looking at that as a dollars per head per day, it is also about 30 cents per head per day higher for the field calves,” she said.

“When translating this into a cost per pound of gain, where the field calves gained a little bit more weight than the drylot calves over the course of the trial, the numbers turn out approximately equal.”

Additional data collected for the trial included soil sampling in the field before and after feeding and before and after manure application for drylot.

Further analysis will consider the effects of manure on subsequent crop yield for field versus drylot.

“We’ll see if there’s any differences in spreading the manure versus the animals depositing manure directly in the field,” Smith said.

“We do expect to see a benefit of direct manure deposition versus spreading in terms of nutrient capture and lower overall costs, but the analysis of that data is really to come and we’ll see what happens after the full three years of the study.”

Early results show field backgrounding could have value.

“If you already have a lot of the infrastructure in place — already feed your cows in the winter, already run a tractor in a feed wagon every day, a spare pen out in the field — backgrounding your calves will spread the fixed costs and infrastructure depreciation over more animal units and they’ll be more gross value over the winter feeding period.”

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