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Cattle family makes a shift in the industry

LEXINGTON, Ill. — A purebred Angus cattle producer for almost 30 years, Dave Duzan switched gears into a different segment of the beef industry.

The Duzans switched to backgrounding cattle about five years ago. They buy calves at 250 pounds, get them healthy, vaccinated and ready for the next step at about 700 pounds, and off to a feedlot.

“It’s working very well for us and our labor force,” he said.

2 month old cows

Two-month-old cows on Dave Duzan's backgrounding operation near Lexington, Ill.

Dave and his wife Kellie started this farm in Lexington in central Illinois “from scratch” about 35 years ago with purebred Angus cows. Over the years, they held 21 big sales.

Today, backgrounding cattle, or feeding weaned calves until they are feedlot ready, suits their team and land.

“We have two main jobs — to restore the calves to health and to put economical gain on them,” he said.

Backgrounding operations typically utilize forage as the primary source of energy, said Dan Shike, a beef nutrition specialist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. These operations can be grazing-based, where cattle graze pastureland, cover crops, or even crop residue. However, they can also be drylot or confinement operations where cattle are fed forage-based or co-product based rations.

Of the cow-calf operation before it and feedlot after it, backgrounding is the smallest of these three beef production segments in Illinois, but it is important, said Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension beef specialist.

Not every calf is backgrounded. Some go directly from the cow-calf operation into a feedlot, while others are held as herd replacement, he said.

“Backgrounding operations play an important role in the beef industry as they help redistribute the supply of calves to feedlots, and they provide an opportunity to add inexpensive gains to lighter weight calves,” Shike said.

“If producers have access to affordable forages and co-products, backgrounding could be an opportunity. Managing risks associated with fluctuating feeder cattle prices is essential to success,” Shike said.

Meteer said backgrounding is important to beef food production because there needs to be low-cost gain.

How that “cheap gain” is done is somewhat regional, Meteer said. In the Midwest byproducts and crop residue and pasture is used. It is also common in the south where there is a longer grazing season or grazing in wheat fields, he said.

In Illinois where cow-calf herds are often only 40 to 50 cows, there aren’t enough from each producer for a lot. So, someone like Duzan can build a lot from many producers. In such cases the calves are put together, co-mingled and gotten used to a new diet. It is a transition stage to the feedlot, Meteer said.

At the core of the Duzan operation are Dave, Kellie, their two daughters Lindsay Bachman and Jessica Duzan, and a full-time employee.

His daughters have different interests and talents. Lindsay is talented on the business side. Risk management is a big factor to success, he said. Jessica works with the calves during vaccinations, handles cattle buying and works with order buyers.

“Both have appreciation for each other’s skills,” he said.

They operate with the environment in mind. Much of the land Duzan owns and rents is “rougher” — more suitable for raising cattle than growing crops. They grow corn and soybeans on land most suited for it. Manure is tested annually and used as fertilizer for the cropland.

Some nearby land, which was timberland when he was a boy, was cleared and became corn and soybean fields for about 30 years. After he bought it, Duzan returned it to grasses.

“Cover crops are new to some people. We’ve been doing it for 20 years,” he said.

They often double-crop silage corn or soybeans with triticale.

At times this farm in McLean County has between 400 and 500 cattle on various rotational pasture lands and in pens. The Duzans buy cattle every week from different sale barns. On the morning of Sept. 7, 71 animals were shipped out. Within a few hours, that pen was being cleaned for when the next batch of cattle comes.

Custom grazers would be arriving the next day for another area. Hay and fresh water will be ready. In Illinois, there is a strong demand for custom grazing, he said.

Duzan doesn’t see backgrounding as a trend. He said it is a good opportunity for a young person to start small and expand. How much land you need depends on how many cows you have.

As well as restoring the cattle to health, a big part of the work is sorting the cattle into proper lots when they are ready to move on.

Backgrounding acts as the middle piece in the beef industry between the cow-calf operations and the feedlots.

“I think it’s probably the hardest job in the beef production line — but maybe I’m prejudiced,” Duzan said with a grin.

“Managing respiratory illness can be a challenge whenever calves are mixed from different operations. Health risks are increased when calves are stressed and are not adapted to feed,” Shike said.

The difficulty comes as new calves arrived stressed from leaving the farm of origin. They arrive with different levels of management. Some need to be vaccinated and many need other care.

Because they came from so many different farms, health management is very important, he said. He works closely with a veterinarian.

For finishing, they partner with Larson Farms in Maple Park, Illinois. Duzan met Mike Martz of Larson Farms while was Martz was president of Illinois Beef Association and Duzan was a newer board member. They struck up a friendship which grew into a business relationship.

“Dave buys these feeders, often from cow-calf operations at a couple hundred pounds. He gets them acclimated to each other and the sick ones out. Then when they are ready to come to us, we get them to put in the feedlot,” Martz said.

Duzan said he thrives on the diversity of the beef industry. He is the vice president of the Illinois Beef Association. That involves working with the legislators, the EPA and many other groups, he said.

“I’m not ready to slow down,” he said.

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Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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