Am I a Profitable Beef Cattle Producer?

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension
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I was recently asked by a producer how much he should be able to pay for stocker calves and turn a profit on the other end. Rightfully so, he was concerned about buying cattle in late summer knowing that prices tend to head downward in the fall and winter. He was worried about the high price of cattle in September, but hadn’t even considered what he was going to have invested in the cattle by the time he was ready to sell them. This conversation led me to begin thinking about how the lucrative cattle market we’re currently in affects the decisions we make as producers and whether we truly are profitable or just breaking even. Record cattle prices are great, but cost of production has increased as well, and there are a few things we need to be paying close attention to in order to preserve and increase our profitability.

In the current cull cow market, it is important to know whether your cows are doing the job you have assigned them – to give you a good calf every year. Pregnancy testing and culling your open cows will save on feed costs. It makes no sense to feed a cow that isn’t doing her job. Additionally, you should look at cows with bad feet and the ones that clear your barn help out when you catch them. Bad feet and poor disposition will cause you trouble in the long run and you definitely shouldn’t consider keeping heifers out of them. It’s a good idea to look at culling these animals and replacing them with cows that will be more beneficial to your operation for the long haul. If you plan to keep heifers, select these from your early calving cows and have a vet conduct a reproductive exam on them to insure they have the reproductive potential to be a good brood cow.

Having a defined calving season allows you to produce a more uniform calf crop. This calf crop can be marketed all at the same time and will bring you more money as a group than by selling one or two calves at a time. It also will be easier for you to manage this group, as well as the whole herd from an animal health and a nutritional standpoint. A defined breeding and calving season make’s planning for winter feeding needs a much easier task. Your cows will either be in gestation or in lactation and you can plan accordingly.

Forage management is the foundation of a cow-calf operation. Paying attention to your forage production and taking steps to continually improve your grass will increase the number of animals you can effectively carry and increase the overall productivity of your cattle. Reduced reliance on supplemental feed, whether it be hay or other, will decrease costs and increase your profitability. If you do feed hay (most of us do), it is important to test your hay, know the nutritional needs of your cattle and supplement accordingly

Herd health is also very important. In order to have a solid herd health plan, it is important to have a relationship with a veterinarian. Period. This relationship will pay dividends in the long run. Having a vet that is familiar with your farm and knows what you are doing makes it easier for him or her to help you when you actually need them. Healthy cows with good immune systems are more productive and produce more colostrum and more milk. This makes for a stronger, healthier, and more productive calf that will bring you more money at sale time.

Adding value to your calf crop through pre-conditioning is something that I have said we should do for years, not only because it makes you more money, but because it is the right thing to do for your animals. I’m going to get on a soapbox for a second here. As a cattle producer, it should be your absolute priority to take care of all of your animals the best way possible while you own them. In my opinion, taking a calf to the stockyard unweaned and unvaccinated is not preparing for them for the next step in their life – which means you didn’t make it your priority to take care of that calf the best way possible while it was in your care. If you have children, I would bet at least 99% of you didn’t send them to school without vaccinations to protect them from diseases. Honestly, many of the cattle that go to the stockyard unweaned and unvaccinated are pretty healthy when they go. The minute you load them on that trailer, they are stressed. Since you didn’t vaccinate them to protect them, that stress leads to an extremely weakened immune system which makes them vulnerable to pathogens that they’ve never seen before. This doesn’t mean that the stockyard is an unhealthy place, it just means there are bugs there that your calf has never seen and without protection from a vaccine you are setting that calf up for probable sickness. I understand that feed is expensive and that a complete pre-conditioning program may not suit you, but at least think about weaning those cattle for a short period of time and get a good vaccine in their system before taking them off your farm. When you do this, let the stockyard know what you have done and they will market them accordingly. You will get your vaccine and feed costs back in the price you receive for your calves because buyers tend to pay more than weekly price for calves that have some level of protection.

Keeping records is something that is extremely easy, but often overlooked by many producers. You can’t measure or evaluate what you don’t write down. This simple task is the only true way to know if you are making a profit or not. Record keeping is as simple as having a notebook in your farm truck or as sophisticated as having a software program on your computer. You need to know what you spend your money on in order to figure out if you can make adjustments in order to increase your profits. You also need to know how your cows are doing. You need to know which cows are calving and when, and you need to know how much her calf put back in your checking account at the time of sale. This number directly correlates with weight and quality. A live calf is definitely good, but a $1500 live calf versus a $1100 live calf can make a huge difference in your profitability. Keep records on everything and evaluate those throughout the year so you can make adjustments if needed.

These are just a few things that you should think about as a cattle producer that will help you evaluate where you are now and also help you make decisions that will affect your profitability for the long term future.