Start up a Beef Cow Calf Operation
A beef cow-calf operation is an operation on a farm or ranch where you have cows and bulls that are bred together to produce calves. Calves are often sold to the market to be grown into beefers. Note that there are two types of cow-calf operations: commercial and seedstock. Commercial generally involves cross-bred cows that are bred to produce calves that are mainly for beef production. Commercial can also have cows of the same breed, but most are not purebred cows. Seedstock operations, on the other hand, are where producers raise a favorite breed (sometimes more than one) and breeds cows to get calves that are grown and sold to other producers as replacement stock.
Generally, most rookie cattlemen should start off as commercial cattlemen to gain the experience of calving cows, weaning calves, marketing calves, selecting cows and bulls and replacement heifers and culling the rest, etc. before they decide to go into the seedstock or purebred business.
- Plan ahead. In this day and age, planning is the best way to determine how, what and where you are going to do the things you want to do. Make a business plan, do your SWOT analysis and brain storm your goals and objectives creating the kind of cow-calf operation you want to have. Also make a budget according to what you have to do and how you do it; you should also plan out financial and marketing initiatives and goals to market and sell your calves and culls.
- Research the kind of breeds that do well in your area. Look at yourself (using the internal SWOT analysis you completed) to determine what kind of breed you like and/or the kind you can handle.
- Look up and read everything else that is involved in the cow-calf business: that means everything from feedlot to pasture management, calving, weaning, breeding, conformation, body condition scoring to even forage physiology.
- The Internet is a good place to base your research from, but remember that you can't trust everything you read in the Internet. Make sure the sites you read are government-based, scientific research papers, or extension articles from colleges and universities. Reliable cattle sites such as BEEF magazine, TheBeefSite.com, CattleToday.com, CattleNetwork.com, and even those good articles found here on wikiHow, are also great to look through to find what you need.
- Books are the greatest things to have. Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Beef Cattle Science, Salad Bar Beef, Getting Started with Beef or Dairy Cattle, The Cattle Health Handbook, Essential Guide to Calving, and/or any other cattle-related books are highly recommended to buy and to read as thoroughly as possible.
- Buy/acquire land. Without land you cannot have cattle. You could buy land, acquire land through an agreement with your parents or grandparents to inherit land (if you have family members that are actively farming and looking to retire), rent some land, or have a cow-lease agreement with another producer to start raising your cows with once you do acquire some land.
- Research the laws and taxation that comes with buying/renting/inheriting land, both municipal, state (or provincial), and federal. Also know the pros and cons of the land and climate you are buying/renting/inheriting into, so you know how to manage your cattle accordingly.
- Build/improve fences, handling facilities, buildings and water sources. This is always important to do. Fences are more important than buildings, and water sources are more important than fences. Since you have to keep your new cattle confined for a few days in order for them to calm down and get settled in to their new home, a sturdy corral is important to have at all times for each and every time you bring new animals home. This location is also useful as a handling facility where you can easily handle them when they need to be loaded up to be sold to the auction mart or taken to the slaughterhouse.
- Steel panels or sturdy wood fencing is best for keeping new-comers in for a few days, making sure they also have access to water and feed at all times. Pasture fencing can be caught up on when they are in after you bought them, or if you have to build fence, should be done before they come home.
- Most buildings can be built and/or repaired after they come home, especially if you have bought weaned heifers that won't be calving until they're 2 years of age. All animals should have some form of shelter, though no matter what.
- Water sources are a must. Automatic waterers that refresh themselves after the cattle drink and connect through piping that runs to a well or a ground cistern that collects ground water deep below the frost line (if you have a frost line where you live) are highly recommended to have and install.
- Automatic waterers are a little more reliable when it comes to watering cattle, because a) you don't have to break ice every couple hours when it's 30 below 0, b) it often comes with a heating element on the other side of the flow tank, and c) you don't have to be out in a winter storm using a garden hose to fill up the tank.
- Stock tanks may work for areas where there are a small number of cattle to care for and the seasons are quite mild, but when you come up north to the Great White North or Northern USA, watering cattle in the dead of winter is not a fun chore.
- (Optional) Buy machinery for feeding cattle. This is optional because you may wish to become a low-cost producer and raise your cattle with only fence posts and an ATV. However, if you have the money to spend on keeping cows in the drylot all winter (or all year) feeding them grain and hay and making silage and hay in the summer, then machinery may be necessary.
- Some grass-fed operations have hay machinery that the owners use to cut, dry, rake and gather hay for the winter. Other operations prefer to have it custom-done.
- A tractor may be necessary if you have heavy temporary panels that need horse-power to be moved and not man-power, and especially if you are unable to move them yourself! Make sure you get the right size of tractor that can manage big bales of hay (average large round bale weighs around 1 ton or ~2000 lbs) easily without breaking down or causing a hydraulic hose to burst. But don't get a tractor that is too big, like those big beasts you see on display in front of machinery dealerships like Agri-Trac (Case IH for Americans), John Deere, CAT, or New Holland's Ford tractors. Some low-cost producers don't need a tractor, but really, a farm--and that means literally any farm or ranch--is nothing without a good tractor. You can never know when you need one!
- (Optional) Buy feed for cattle. This only applies if the area you are keeping them in for a few days has little grass, or if you bought cattle at a time of year when pastures are low or not producing. Feed is also necessary if you bought cattle and failed to put up hay or silage that year for the following winter. Roughage feed is also a good source to fall back on if your winter grazing methods fail. Some of you may like to invest in a little grain to keep your cows tame and easy to handle; there's nothing wrong with that.
- Shop around, ask questions, and study the animals you want to buy. This is a must if you want to buy great foundation stock to start. It's always good to shop around and compare prices, just like you would if you were going to a few clothing or shoe stores in the mall. Some producers may charge a little more money because they can or because their stock is high quality (i.e., registered purebred stock). No cow is alike, no matter how many individual cows you look at. Don't get caught up on just looking at pictures on the internet, as most of the time the pictures you see on-line are not what you see when you're standing out in the pasture. But that's not to say that it's wrong to have a producer send you pictures to look at, or to view pictures of heifers and cows on a producer's website. It's actually good to have both to go off of.
- Most of the time when you are out with the cow in her pasture you get to see how she acts around you (as a stranger to her), her general temperament, how she walks, her conformation, etc. Visiting a producer also gives you a chance to talk with him or her about how [s]he raises her animals, what health problems they've gone through, how they manage their pastures and their cattle, and to also see the other cattle that they raise in addition to the one (or more) of interest. You also get to see where they live, what kind of land they raise their cattle on, their facilities and other things that may concern you. And ask questions; chances are that the producers you are visiting couldn't care less whether you are full of questions or not. Even they'll most likely be asking you questions about you and what you want to do with the cattle of theirs you're offering to buy. It also wouldn't hurt if you asked if you could take pictures of their cattle so you can study them further back home.
- When you're at a sale barn or auction mart, it's a bit different. The cattle are shunted through pretty quickly, giving you only a few seconds to study them before they are sold to a buyer and shunted out of the ring again. Chances are you will not be able to meet the producer that is selling the cattle--except if it's a dispersal sale--so you are pretty much on your own as to deciding what cattle you can buy. It may help to go in the corrals behind the ring to have a look at the animals yourself before the sale to see if there are any worth bidding on. Don't choose something just because it looks cute or pretty, be more pickier about disposition, looks of overall health, conformation and body condition. And follow your gut instinct. Don't be disappointed if you've lost a bid on some heifers or a 3-in-1 that you were looking to buy, nor if you haven't found any worthwhile animals to buy at the sale you went to. There's always a next time, always a next sale to attend to if you couldn't find what you were looking for in a previous one. If you are really inexperienced and don't know what or how to think in a cattle auction, get a friend who has more experience with cattle to come along with you to help you pick and decide which is best and which isn't.
- Buy cattle. Producers may charge according to either the current market price for a good cow or heifer in terms of weight, or according to their breed standards and registries. Registered cattle of any sex or age are more expensive than commercial, unregistered or crossbred cattle. Heifers are cheaper than cows; open (not pregnant) cows are cheaper than bred cows, and bred cows are cheaper than bred cows with a calf at side (3-in-1's). This goes for dispersal sales, general cow sales, and buying private treaty.
- You needed to have planned out, from Step 1, about what kind of cows you should buy, whether you wanted to buy weaned heifers that are around 6 months of age and will take 2 years until you get any income from selling calves, or spend money on a few bred cows with calves so you can sell the calves within a month or two and wait for another few months until the cow gives birth to another calf, etc.
- Remember you have five (5) choices of the types of cows you can buy: Bred Heifers, Weaned Heifers, 3-in-1's, Bred Cows, or Open Cows. Make sure you do your research before-hand and think seriously about which you should go about to purchase.
- Bring them home. Make sure you have that holding corral in top shape before you bring them home or have them brought home. If you've bought a truck and trailer (no need for anything new, fancy, or expensive), you can load them up and haul them home yourself. But if you don't have a trailer (yet), you can either rent a trailer from a machinery rental service, rent the producer's trailer (if you've got a truck that's powerful enough, depending on the size of the trailer), or ask or accept an offer to have the producer to ship the cattle home for you. However, it's more important to come prepared with a stock trailer if you've bought cattle at a sale-barn.
- Keep them confined in a good strong corral first before you let them out to pasture. Cattle in new surroundings get a bit tense and stressed out, and they may try to find their way out of your corrals to get back home. Weaned calves are especially bad for this, as calves that have been taken away from their mommas and prodded and harried to and from the sale ring, are under a lot of stress. Weaned heifers will most likely have to be confined to a good corral for at least a week before they are allowed access to a pasture. Older cows will most likely calm down a lot sooner, especially if they are of a docile nature. If you've bought weaned calves, be prepared to put up with constant bawling and bellowing for a few days. Calves bawl because they want to locate their mothers and want to be near their mothers; it's a way of calling out to them. Eventually they give up and things quieten down and you can start working with them to get them used to you and their new routine.
- Carry through with your plan on raising these cattle you bought. But if you have to make changes, make a note in your business plan and do what you have to do. Be flexible and strategic at the same time, and always expect the unexpected. You may find after a few years that raising cattle isn't right for you. So be it. You may find, on the other hand, that the cattle you started with aren't the type you aren't too crazy about, and would like to switch to something else that is better and that better meets your requirements according to you, your preferences, opinions and lifestyle. So be it. We all learn as we go, be it our own mistakes or from the mistakes of others. And you will never stop learning about how to raise cattle, no matter how long you've been at it!
- Start small. This is a must, as starting with 100 cows can be a bit hard on a person, especially if they don't know what to do or how to handle that many cattle.
- Finally, expect the unexpected and never stop learning!
- Remember Murphy's Law: Anything that can happen will. This can be either bad or good; most of the time this Law refers to the negative things that come up when you're trying to get things done. So be careful, watch your fatigue level, and listen to your body if you are feeling tired or getting clumsy. If you are getting fatigued and find you are getting too complacent with things, stop, take a coffee break, or have a nap before you put your nose to the grindstone once again. Most farm accidents occur when someone gets complacent or is tired and not concentrating on what he/she's doing, resulting in careless acts that could've been prevented.
- Go slow. Don't let yourself get overwhelmed with everything that needs to be done before you bring the critters home. Make a list, create priorities, and if you think you have to hire someone to do something for you, then hire them.
- Ask questions, do your research, and if you have second thoughts about something, chances are you should listen to them.
- Think before you leap. Planning ahead before you go ahead with anything is very important so you don't get overwhelmed with everything you have to do before and during your future cow-calf operation
- Buy good heifers/cows, not average or poor heifers or cows. If you do the latter this will bite you in the wallet.
- Do not plan on making a profit during the first year due to the cost of the cattle/bulls you buy. The quickest way to break even is to buy bred heifers (first time moms) they will be more expensive at first but you will break even generally on your second year.
- Please keep in mind that animals that are ten times bigger than you are always going to be dangerous, no matter how much you trust them or how much they respect you.
- Choose Cattle for a Foundation Herd
- Write a Business Plan for Farming and Raising Livestock
- Start a Cattle Farm
- Start a Farm
- Judge Conformation in Cattle
- Judge Body Condition Scores in Cattle
- Tell the Difference Between Bulls, Cows, Steers and Heifers
- Wean Cattle
- Cull Cattle
- Breed Beef Cattle
- Tell if a Cow or Heifer Is About to Give Birth
- Help a Cow Give Birth
- Raise Black Angus Cattle
- Perform Rectal Palpation in Cows and Heifers
- Select a Herd Bull for Your Cows
- Understand Bovine Behaviour
- Identify Cattle Breeds
- Feed Cattle
- Graze Cattle on Pasture
- Determine How Many Head of Cattle Per Acre Are Required for Your Pastures