Contrasting Styles-Alternative Directions
Cattle are produced for a variety of reasons, but ultimately on the farms and ranches of the northern plains cattle are raised to make money from land, labor, and feed resources. Approaches to trying to make a few bucks from cows however can philosophically vary. Some calve early; some calve late, on average most calve in early spring. Some run Continental breeds, some English, some crossbred, while most today are Angus based or influenced. Marketing plans for some are to have big heavy calves early, others background on the farm to heavy feeder weights, a few carry light weights over for grazing, a few retain ownership to slaughter, but for most payday comes in late fall off the cow. Most operators are invested in haying equipment and harvest a mix of tame, annual, and native forages in the summer to get together an ample supply of feed for winter feeding. A few harvest crop residues; some do silage; by-products, grain, and commercial supplements are used to balance forage by many to insure production; and almost all routinely supplement salt and mineral. Everyone appreciates a good modern chore tractor, some have one, others wish for one. The same can be said about pickups, stock trailers, and handling equipment. Some ride horses others have ATVs. Some handle their cattle through the chute several times a year for things such as vaccination, PG testing, weighing, AI breeding, etc; others once or never but the trend is for more. Considerable barns, shops, feed bins, corrals, and lots make up the operations headquarters for some, others make due with a well, wire fences, and some sort of wind protection.
Such diversity is suggestive that there is and needs to be differing styles to making money with cows. Situations are different. Some have differing competitive advantages than others, and likewise their weak links or constraints are not the same. Otherwise as producers entered the business and put the pieces together, overtime their production methods and operations would develop great similarities as the business matured. Attempts to characterize profitable operations can only identify general production approaches, while better defining financial aspects that lead to unprofitability. If there is high debt load from land and equipment overhead relative to stocking level, low production as measured by herd reproduction or sale weights, or operating expenses that are unproportionately high to revenues, you have a low or non profitable operation. Even operations that are profitable on the ledger may not be sustainable if an operator’s financial needs or quality of life expectations can not be met.
Over time research, extension, and consulting advice to cow calf producers called a lot of attention to management directed to increased production, a component of profitability. Identification and selection of higher performing animals, earlier tighter calving, ration formulating and supplementation for high reproduction and growth targets, and performance enhancing technologies as creep feeding, implanting, parasite control etc, put the emphasis on intensified production at the cost of greater labor, overhead, direct expenses, and in some cases profitability. Declining net margins and the inflationary cost of equipment and facilities has at the same time driven the trend for consolidation and expansion primarily by land acquisition and larger herd size, again at the cost of greater labor which in part can be replaced with better equipment and mechanization, an additional overhead.
In recognition of the profit squeeze, advice turned its focus to analyzing financials, cost cutting, and marketing. Most cost cutting involves making trade offs with production aspects. Less facilities and cheaper winter rations are possible with later calving, but latter born calves are lighter in the fall. Cutting back on strategic supplementation or other direct inputs will reduce checks written for feed or pharmaceuticals but may decrease weaning rate or weight and increase replacement costs. Sometimes cost cutting involves spending more upfront, as cross fencing pastures to implement rotational grazing which increases stocking rate and therefore reduces annual cow costs. Getting the best possible price in the market is as well not easy and a matter of your product, timing, and merchandizing. Value enhancing strategies have been preconditioning, packaging for numbers and uniformity, genetic makeup, and being a step out of seasonal movements. While industry trends to branded, case ready, specification products has identified large value differences between animals at slaughter these differences while growing are much less pronounced for calves and feeders.
There are many profitable operations that over time adapted methods and built an operation that has succeeded. They will continue to fine tune what they are doing with adjustments as new products, techniques, or markets become available without making any drastic changes. There are other operations that won’t survive trying to do business as usual. Some aren’t generating enough return on their investment or labor; some are running harder and harder but will eventually conclude they can’t keep up the pace. For a variety of reasons some will chose to do something else and others will make significant and innovative action to change their course and approach as cattle producers.
Some thoughts for those looking for ideas, suggestions, and alternatives.
Build a low input easy to run cowherd and keep it that way. Think of the next set of bulls you turn out as foundation for your future cowherd through the replacement heifers you keep. Avoid bulls that don’t display masculinity and early sexual development with uniform properly shaped testicles of average or above size. Look for good muscling, thickness and fleshing ability. Carefully evaluate their disposition and don’t bring home anything upheaded or mean. Make sure they stand on nice feet, walk out smooth, and are structurally sound. Consider bulls born unassited and look at birth and weaning weights and EPDs to select for low to moderate birthweight with good early growth in a moderate frame size reflective of moderation in mature size. Use EPDs if available to select for moderate milking ability and advantage for carcass marbling and yield. Learn what you can about daughters of his sire particularily in regards to udder traits, and have a look at his mother. How is her udder, body condition, and type for her age; and does she have a regular on-time calving pattern. It’s best if he has been developed over winter on a fairly high roughage ration and not overly fattened British breeds or based composites are most likely able to meet your targets. Buy him from a breeder that understands your needs, has a tight high health status herd, and is as close to home as you can find him. A Sires’ steer calves might be considered a by-product of you breeding program; the heifers are your future. Cull the heifers at several points. At weaning ship the outs including small and late born, unsound or bad disposition, and off type. Go through them again prior to breeding after wintering on a high roughage limited grain ration. Make a final sort after PG testing off pasture, eliminating open, lates, and unsound.
Feed cheaply but adequately. Underfeeding is often more costly to an operator than over feeding. Use low cost resources available to you and correct nutritional deficiencies with supplements and good forage. Corn stalks, slough hay, and CRP hay can often be put up inexpensively, but are adequate nutritionally along with vitamins and mineral supplementation only for dry mature cows in mid-gestation. Beyond that they can still be a major feed if energy and protein are supplemented through some high quality forage, grain, or by products. A wide variety of supplemental feed choices are available with the increase in crop processing by-products from corn ethanol, peas, canola, and wheat milling. Traditional high quality forages as annual hay, corn silage and alfalfa which can be grown on the farm can also compliant residual feeds.
Consider the options and economics to extend grazing and reducing the amount of feed mechanically harvested and the expense in delivering out feed. Consider stocking to allow some reserve grass or acres that have watering access and can be utilized in late fall after freeze up. Optionally, fence farmland and waste for grazing clean up after crops harvest, where practical. Even consider sowing a cheap to seed, cover crop after early harvested crops as forage or grain, using the cover for late season grazing. Even planting a forage crop, as millet and leaving in the field for November, December swath grazing should be considered instead of baling, hauling home, feeding and cleaning up the mess. This is especially useful where late season nutrition is critical, such as for fleshing thin cows or cows still nursing calves.
When winter sets in, possibilities exist for every other day feed delivery or less. Enough forage can be put out for multiple day feedings if low quality bales are fed in feed saving racks. High protein supplements are equally utilized with high rates fed less often than daily; however greater efficiency with grain is achieved with daily delivery. Feeding out of yards and corrals, on farmland that has wind protection from tree belts, stocked bales, on portable wind fences further cuts manure cleanup and aids in compliance with animal feeding regulations. It sill however likely require some harrowing, tillage, or cleanup prior to planting to spread and incorporate manure and feeding waste. If you are utilizing a lot of low quality, low cost, forages; feed generously, allow costs to maximize intake and accept some feeding waste to maintain cow performance. If high value feeds are being fed on a limited basis, they will be cleaned up with little waste.
Time of calving and weaning greatly affect nutritional meals and feeding options. The herds schedule is also interactive to labor needs and marketing targets and alternatives. While earlier calving, produces greater calf market weights off the cow and may minimize spring farming conflicts, it requires a much greater investment in calving facilities, greater labor, more and better harvested feed for cows, and has potentially more health challenges. Late spring-early summer calving is an option for larger operations, with limited labor, logistics to calve on pasture near the headquarters, and are prepared to manage the herd for latter weaning or backgrounding the calves to heavier sale weighs post-weaning. Creep feeding, supplemental herd feeding, or planning for a high nutrition late fall grazing are necessary to avoid excessive loss of cow condition or stalled calf performance possible with late weaning. Generally, calves should be weaned when the nutrition being offered no longer supports the lactating cow’s needs, which is not set by the calendar but forage quality and availability.
For most, land costs are high and a major costs in land and rental payments. It is also a scarce resource, often the most limiting the scale of an operation. Therefore land use and grazing management needs to both capture as much as possible from pastures, while not depleting the resource from overuse or increase the risks of failure from drought. Proper stocking with good grazing management is critical for long term sustainability. Giving grass a start before turnout, giving grass a rest in the growing season, and leaving behind some residual cover are key, time proven concepts for healthy productive pastures. Through time some remarkable successes have occurred in productivity from improved soil health, moisture infiltration and species diversity associated with managed rotation and complementary grazing techniques. Modern electric fencing systems and pipeline water developments are making is easier and possible to control when, where, and for how long cattle are grazing.
Not everyone raising cattle can do it the same. There are too many variables and differences between situations. Keep tabs on what’s going on in the business with essential records. This includes financial information or debts, expenses and income, coupled with production information on herd inventory, reproduction, losses, and sale weights. From analysis of the records you can benchmark your operation, project net income, and set goals and targets for change and improvement. Hopefully in spite of the breed of cattle, season of calving, size of operation, feed base available, and marketing strategy; you find what makes you money and affords you a quality of life which includes not the least of the basics of a reliable pickup and chore tractor with a heated cab.