By Kindra Gordon

Grow yards – or backgrounding lots – have often been looked at as simply “residual housing” for cattle. But Rabobank senior animal protein analyst Don Close has analyzed grow yards and says the concept is evolving and offering more opportunities.

There are two reasons for this change; that includes assisting cattle with a more seamless transition to the feedlot and finishing phase and thus requiring less labor needs at the feedyard. Rabobank released Close’s report findings during the Cattle Industry Convention in New Orleans in late January.

As a third benefit, Close suggests the addition of a grow yard to a family farm or ranch operation may allow the operation to expand and diversify to bring another family member back into the operation. However, labor, facilities and available feedstuffs must be considered.

Regarding the new found interest in grow yards, Close explains that as commercial feeders increasingly have marketing agreements that require cattle to meet specific feeding and management regimens with targeted out dates and finished weights, funneling cattle through grow yards can help meet those contracts. Especially when dealing with lightweight and high risk calves, grow yards can help efficiently handle cattle and reduce risk before entering the larger feedyard

Close suggests a benefit to packers from the grow yard protocol may be improved beef quality due to cattle on feed longer and also a possible reduced need for antibiotic use in the feed yard.

To achieve efficiencies and success, Close says, how calves are managed in a grow yard should be based on a closely managed relationship between the grow yard and the commercial feedyard. If possible, even sharing a nutritionist and veterinarian, he suggests. A solid relationship can also avoid duplication in processing and promote health and performance of the cattle – and lower cost of gain.

Close suggests grow yard operators may also want to establish relationships with a handful of commercial feeding companies to improve the odds of having multiple buyers. He notes, “I don’t think grow yards will displace conventional stocker operators, but it will increase competition for calves, which will be price supportive.

Close suggests that for the best economies of scale grow yards may strive to handle 3,000 to 5,000 head at a time, but could also be smaller in size. Typically, he says commercial feedyards want cattle backgrounded to gain up to 250 pounds within about 150 days. However, feedyards may want cattle coming at different weights, allowing a grow yard to tailor cattle for specific needs.

Regarding labor, Close notes that high-risk calves require more hands-on work – and animal health knowledge. He advises a rule of thumb is to figure 1.5 people per 1,000 head.