A dozen years ago when my husband got his master’s degree in agronomy, he was doing work in precision ag.

Looking for ways to reduce phosphorus runoff from manure application, he applied it at varying depths. Yield monitors, grid soil sampling and GPS guidance helped chart results.

Ever since, I’ve generally tied precision ag squarely to row-crop farming.

But it doesn’t have to be.

I recently wrote an article on precision backgrounding. It was especially fun because I got to talk to my former animal science professor, Dr. Kelly Bruns, now at the University of Nebraska, and to a legend from my alma mater, South Dakota State University, Dr. Robbi Pritchard.

“Today the genetics are better; they’re going to help us a lot. Our growth enhancement tools are better, and we know a lot more about them,” Pritchard says.

Robbi Pritchard, South Dakota State University

Dr. Pritchard addressed this topic at the 2016 Feeding Quality Forum saying, “If you’re a corn farmer in your other life, you’re perfectly comfortable with precision ag. We can go that way in the cattle business and make big strides.”

In general, calving seasons are tighter than they used to be, so there’s not quite the same need to even cattle out.

Growth genetics have become more common. “If [calves] are coming out of 1,600-lb. cows, they probably don’t need any implants. The DNA is there. The implants just fill in for a lack of DNA,” he says.

Marbling has improved at the same time.

“In the old days to get quality grade, they had to be older,” Pritchard says. “It used to be an adage that calf-feds couldn’t grade. That doesn’t exist anymore.”


If you want cattle that do well at the feedyard, the 5- to 8-month backgrounding window is when you can change the final outcome in terms of final weight and quality, the animal scientists say.

Do you background your own calves? Have you changed their diet, days in the program or implants to adjust for improvements in genetics? If you buy grass cattle, chances are you are not growing the same type of cattle you did 10 or 20 years ago.

It might be time for a new prescription.

Smaller to moderate-frame cattle need a more aggressive implanting program than the larger frames. It’s also important to consider final marketing method.

“If we choose to use an implant, are we matching the correct level of the implant, such as low, medium or high potency to what their rate of gain is?” Bruns asks. “Going back to all our previous marbling work, if we use too high potency of an implant and don’t match it up with a high enough caloric diet, we could impede marbling.”

Pritchard says wheat and low-quality forage are meant for commodity cattle. If you want a premium carcass, that 5- to 8-month window is critical.

“If I rough them too much during backgrounding, I’m going to give up the marbling. I’ll get a bunch of carcass weight but I won’t get the marbling.”

As a general rule, early weaning is best for large-framed cattle, and creep feeding “fits best just to fill in the nutritional gaps,” he says.

It might be time to evaluate cattle and select a program based on their genetic potential. A little precision might be just what the doctors ordered.

May your bottom line be filled with black ink,