The Crucial Role of Backgrounding Cattle, Ensuring Health and Profitability

What is Backgrounding?

Backgrounding is a transitional period in beef cattle production that occurs after weaning but before the animals enter a feedlot for finishing. This practice is aimed at preparing weaned calves for the more structured and intensive environment of a feedlot by improving their health and adapting them to different feed types.

Here’s a breakdown of the key elements of backgrounding:


Vaccination and Medication: Backgrounding provides the opportunity to administer vaccinations and treatments that boost the immune system, thus preparing cattle for cohabitation in a more densely populated feed pen.

  1. Parasite Control: Treatments for internal and external parasites are usually administered during this period.
  2. Monitoring: Health checks are more frequent during this period, and any signs of illness are quickly addressed.

Nutritional Adaptation:

1.   Diet Shift: Calves are usually accustomed to milk from their mothers and grazing. Backgrounding introduces them to grain-based diets and other feeds that they'll encounter in a feedlot.

2.   Nutritional Balance: The diet in this period is carefully balanced to include proper nutrients, minerals, and vitamins to facilitate growth and health.

3.   Feed Efficiency: The goal is to get the calves accustomed to consuming the new diet efficiently so they can grow at an optimal rate once they enter the feedlot.

Psychological Adaptation:

1.   Group Dynamics: Backgrounding helps young cattle adapt to living in groups and following the social dynamics that will be present in larger herds.

2.  Human Interaction: Increased human contact during treatments, feeding, and daily checks helps to reduce stress and makes future handling easier.

Sale barn cattle refer to animals that are purchased from livestock auction markets, also known as sale barns. These cattle can come from various backgrounds and may have been exposed to different environmental and health conditions compared to cattle raised by a single producer. As such, integrating sale barn cattle into a backgrounding program instead of directly into a feedlot may also improve the outcome of the health and performance of the group by helping to ensure their immune system and health status is at an optimum before shipping them to the final destination of Buffalo Feeders.

By carefully managing the backgrounding period, producers can improve the overall health, growth rates, and feed efficiency of cattle, making the animals better suited for the rigors of life in a feedlot. This, in turn, can lead to improved beef quality and more efficient production, benefiting both the producer and the consumer.

At Buffalo, Oklahoma, where cattle feeding is a way of life, the journey of a calf from birth to market is a critical one. Whether you are a cow-calf or stocker operator, cattle feeder, or investor, ensuring the health and well-being of these young animals is not just a priority; it's a necessity. This journey is loaded with stressors, especially during the weaning process and the transition to a sale barn, farm or feed yard. That's where backgrounding comes into play, a crucial phase that significantly impacts the overall health, gain, and profitability of the animal.

Understanding Calf Stressors: Impact of Weaning and Transitions on Cattle Health

Imagine you're a calf, born and raised in south Alabama. The first few months of your life have been spent beside your mother, nourished by her milk and protected by her watchful eye. But as you grow, it's time for a change. Weaning, the first major stressor in your life, separates you from your mother. The emotional and physical impact of this separation cannot be understated. The calf experiences stress, which can weaken its immune system and make it susceptible to viruses leading to bacterial infections. (sound familiar? Cattlemen have been dealing with virial issues every fall since God made a cow and a cowboy).

Now, you find yourself at a sale barn, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and sounds. This transition is yet another stressor. The exposure to new pathogens and the risk of disease heightens during this phase. The health of the calf hangs in the balance.

5-6 month old cattle that just arrived from the sale barns, being weaned as part of the backgrounding process

The Vital Role of Backgrounding

Backgrounding, a phase between weaning and feed yard placement, serves as a bridge of care and adaptation. It allows the calf to acclimate to its new environment gradually. This phase involves a diet transition from milk to solid feed, which is critical for rumen development and overall health. Additionally, it provides an opportunity for vaccination and health management. The “Backgrounder” ensures that calves are monitored closely, receive proper nutrition, and are protected from stressors as much as possible.

Here or There??? Choosing the Proper Location

The question is, do I background the calves close to their source, or do I haul them to a backgrounder close to where they will eventually go to pasture or the feedyard? The added stress of the truck ride from the southeastern region of the United States is a big reason to find a trustworthy and qualified facility close to where the original source of the cattle. They are already acclimated to the environment; they just need to get their vaccinations and feed so in 45 to 60 days they will be ready for the long trip.

Left to right: Ben Tidwell, Bret & Dakota Dalrymple; on horseback: Buddy Schnaufer, judge on the Ultimate Cowboy Showdown

However, the amount of cattle that one backgrounder can effectively handle is limited, and when they are at their capacity, patience and scheduling becomes important to manage the workflows of the backgrounder to ensure that they are not overwhelmed by more work than they can successfully manage.

Benefits for Health, Gain, and Profitability

Backgrounding isn't just about reducing stress; it's a strategic investment. Calves that undergo backgrounding experience less disease and health issues when they eventually enter the feed yard. This translates into reduced veterinary costs and improved overall health. Moreover, the gradual adjustment to a new diet during backgrounding improves feed efficiency, contributing to better weight gain and profitability down the line.

In Buffalo, Oklahoma, where cattle are central to the local economy, the success of every calf matters. Backgrounding is typically a factor in this journey, ensuring that the health and profitability of these animals are maximized. It's a testament to the commitment of cow-calf and stocker operators to the well-being of their herds and the sustainability of their businesses.

In conclusion, backgrounding plays a pivotal role in the life of a calf, reducing stress, improving health, and ultimately ensuring profitability. It's a practice deeply ingrained, where every calf's journey from birth to market is carefully guided with expertise and dedication.

Ready to Reap the Benefits of Backgrounding Today?

~Tom Fanning

Manager of Buffalo Feeders

October 5, 2023
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