Southwest Beef Field Specialist
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Beef cattle production can be a viable option for small farms. Livestock enterprises, such as beef cattle production, can diversify farming operations and complement many other farm enterprises. As ruminants, beef cattle can utilize a variety of feedstuffs and can graze forages from marginal land that is better suited for grass production versus cash crop production. Ruminants have the ability to convert forages indigestible to many species into valuable, nutritious beef. There are many components to successfully raising beef cattle, some of which may take some extra consideration for small-scale production. Here are some key considerations for small-scale beef production.
1. What are your resources? Think about the land, feed, equipment, facilities, labor, etc. that will be required for a beef cattle operation. Land availability and feed resources are often limiting factors. In terms of equipment, think about trailers, feeders, waterers, chutes, calving pens, wagons, etc. Many of these items can be purchased used at farm sales. Perhaps you have some of the items already that you are using in other farming enterprises. Fencing and shelter would be big upfront facility expenses.
2. What is your knowledge level? How comfortable are you with animal health, nutrition, reproduction, well-being, etc.? For beginner producers there are many quality educational programs available. Work with veterinarians, nutritionists, experienced producers, extension specialists, etc. to find the educational resources that you need.
3. What would a budget look like for your cattle operation? Working through an itemized enterprise budget can help you identify all the potential costs and potential incomes. Many land grant university extension programs have farm management specialists and online budgeting tools that can help you with this process. Production costs can vary tremendously farm to farm and income can vary significantly depending on numerous production and market variables. Profit margins are sometimes narrow. Budgeting effectively can help to identify areas of potential improvement.
4. What sector of the beef industry is the best fit for you? The beef industry can be broadly divided into cow-calf production and feedlot production. Cow-calf operations manage breeding herds to produce new offspring every year. Feedlot operations feed those offspring to market weight and sell them to be processed into retail beef. There are also stocker / backgrounder operations that specialize in feeding weaned feeder cattle to a certain point before selling to feedlot operators. There are, of course, many variations and combinations of these sectors. Some cow-calf producers retain ownership and feed their own cattle to market weight, essentially operating cow-calf and feedlot operations. Seed stock producers raise breeding stock for commercial cow-calf producers; and club calf producers raise show stock for 4-H and FFA exhibitors. Think through a marketing plan and determine which sector of the industry would make the most sense for you.
5. How might you add value? As a small player in the commercial commodity market, you will be very much at the mercy of the cattle market. Sometimes, small cattle farms are well positioned to take advantage of niche markets that may add value to their cattle. There is growing demand for natural, organic, source verified, grass-fed, etc. products that can be sold directly as freezer or locker beef. Some small producers use farmers markets to gain exposure and build clientele. Perhaps you are interested in beef cattle genetics of a particular breed and you would like to pursue seedstock production. Even if you choose to market weaned calves as commodity feeder calves, there may be ways to add value. Because small lots are sometimes at a disadvantage marketing through auction markets, you might look into direct marketing to a cattle feeder, combining lots with other small producers, or retaining ownership through a custom cattle feeder.
6. What production system would work best for you? Productions systems vary based on region, climate, resources, and many other factors. In the Midwest, the most common system has historically been spring-calving cows that graze pasture during the growing season and consume hay, silage, grain, and other stored feeds during the winter. Numerous variations of this system that can work well. In some areas, grazing crop residue and stockpiled forages can extend the grazing season dramatically. Alternatively, there is growing interest in dry lot and confinement production of beef cattle. There are many ways successfully raise beef cattle.
7. When is your calving season? Calving season is an important component of your production system. It is usually best to have a short, defined calving season to produce a group of calves that are similar in age and weight. Although, most herds calve in the spring, you can establish your calving season (and associated breeding season) to be whenever you would like. There are many factors to consider and there is no perfect answer to the question of when to calve. Plan your calving season considering labor availability, weather, facilities, feed availability, marketing plan, etc.
8. What is your breeding plan? Bulls are incredibly important to your breeding operation. They are responsible for breeding multiple females and thus affect not only pregnancy rates but contribute greatly to the genetics of your calf crop. For example, if you have one bull and twenty cows, each calf gets half of his/her DNA from that single bull. Bulls are also expensive. It is easier to justify spending a lot of money on a bull if you can spread that cost out over many cows. (One mature bull should easily be able to cover 25-30 cows in most situations.) It becomes more challenging however to justify the cost of an expensive bull for a lesser number of cows. Artificial insemination (AI) is an option but requires a clean-up bull to breed those that do not settle through AI. It may be worth considering leasing agreements, partnerships, and other creative arrangements to acquire your bull power. Think not only about cost but also about biosecurity and genetics as you make bull decisions.
9. What are your feed resources? Feed is probably the most important input for a beef cattle operation. Adequate nutrition is critical to the health, well-being, and productivity of your cattle. Feed cost is the biggest cost of a cattle operation and often the number one factor in determining profitability. You must feed cattle well-balanced rations but do it in an affordable manner. Plan for adverse weather events such as drought, flood, cold stress, etc. It is often wise to have a back-up supply of feed on hand.
10. What are your talents and interests as they relate to beef cattle production? What aspects of cattle production do you find interesting? What aspects of cattle production do you enjoy? You are much more likely to be successful if you are interested in and passionate about what you are doing.