Homesteading Forum banner
1 - 8 of 8 Posts

· Registered
5,456 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 ·
While others are welcome to comment on this draft item for Countryside, I would particularly like Jena's comments:


When we retire we will move to a small family farm which is now down to just the homestead area, outbuildings and about 30 acres of pasture. We need to do something agricultural in nature in order to keep the zoning (and much lower property taxes). We are interested in cattle. Is there a foolproof way to not lose money on them?


(Provided by Ken Scharabok)

If you talk to those who farm and/or raise cattle basically what you will be told in a ten year period you can expect to make a bit of money some years, break even some years and lose money some years. Absolutely no way to predict in advance. You can go into a year with high expectations only to have the bottom fall out of the market. You can swear the coming year will be an outright disaster only to have a very good year. Just too many variables over which you have absolutely no control.

I have read/seen/talked to enough cattle people to come to the conclusion the best bets for a small producer are old pregnant cows and stockers.

On old pregnant cows you go to the market and look for those someone else is culling for some reason. Usually because of age to where there teeth have worn down to where they cannot fully utilize winter hay feeding. These are usually culled in the late fall so they don’t have to be over-wintered. A cow’s gestation period is a bit over nine months and the bred cows will usually be marked as to how far bred they are. For example, if you see one marked as being three months bred, you can expect her to have her calf in about 6-7 months. However, pregnancy checking is a very imprecise science and she might have a calf in five months or eight months.

For most spring calving is the best approach, so if you want to calve in March, you back up from there to see how far along you want the cows bred. Some shoot for a month before good spring grass so the calf starts eating along with the cow then. Others like to wait for reliably warm weather. A good rule of thumb is to calve when the dogwoods bloom.

With an old cow you know she has been through the routine before and knows what to do. A calf can be born during a snowstorm if she will lick it clean, get it stood up and plugged in to the mobile milk bar.

After the calf is weaned, say in the fall, she would be taken make to the market and sold as a slaughter (hamburger) cow. She would be open. However, you could buy a bull someone else is culling and run him the summer with the cows. He would get sold with them. If the cows are bred, it gives another option for them beyond slaughter. The bull should resell for about what he cost you.

Now you are left with weaned calves in the fall. If the market is high, they can be sold then, but you might consider over-wintering them if your winters are not too severe.

My recommendation would be not to put up any of your own hay, but to instead buy it in advance with periodic pick up at your supplier. A low-boy trailer can be made into a nice feeder. You take it with your truck to get loaded one or two bales at a time and bring it home. If the fields are soft you would need a tractor to take it out to where you want the calves to hang around.

Basically what you want to put on the calves during the winter isn’t weight gain as much as frame (body bone structure). They can then fill out on spring and summer forages.

The following fall they would be sold as heavy feeders. (Thus, during the summer you would have cow/calf pairs and unrelated stocker calves.) Here is where you are most at risk for market price fluctuations as the price of old cows and bulls stays fairly steady.

Get with your local large animal veterinarian on a health program. The money spent to vaccinate and worm is usually considered a very wise investment. When the calves are weaned they need to be vaccinated, wormed, the bulls castrated* and horns clipped down to take off the points. The horns will grow back, but calves with blunt horns don’t take quite the price discount of those with sharp horns. If there has ever been any Blackleg in your area, vaccinate the calves for it. A vaccination costs less than $1.00 and Blackleg can kill a healthy calf in a couple of days.

(*Whether or not to castrate largely depends on the market. Bulls generally gain weight better than the same age steers. Thus, the price difference between weaned steer and bull calves and feeder steers and bulls needs to be considered. For example, a heavier weight bull may result in a higher price than a lighter weight steer. At the moment it doesn’t pay to castrate young calves, but it does for calves which will be raised to feeder size.)

If you want to tap into the organic or natural beef market, it usually is more a matter of feed and growth hormones than vaccinations or dewormers. Here you have a simple choice – just don’t use growth hormones or any feeds which contain animal by-products or pesticide or herbicide residue. If you want to supplemental feed, you can have a feed mill make up what you want by ingredients. For example, a mix might included chopped hay, chopped corn, oats, dry molasses, loose stocker salt and pasture minerals. While cottonseed and soybean meal is available, there is some concern about lingering herbicides and pesticide residue in them.

On worming you have other options than shots or pour-ons. Some have had success with adding Shaklee Basic-H ( to their water. Others have reported good results by adding diatomaceous earth (DE) to their feed. Some do both. You can also buy worming blocks at feed outlets. One block will treat eight cows. Here the advantage over injections or pour-ons is it works almost entirely within the digestive system rather than having to be absorbed by the blood first.

Dried and powered sea kelp is available as an alternative to commercial minerals, but probably should not be used for a month or two before slaughter for freezer calves as some have reported a ‘fishy’ smell to the beef.

The objective should be to keep the operation as simple as possible. You can use temporary electric fencing to divide the pasture into paddocks for intensive grazing if a water source can be provided. Equipment can be limited to a mid-size tractor and bush hog (aka rotary mower) if you cannot hire it done. By letting someone else store your hay until needed you don’t need a storage facility.

If you over-winter cattle, what they need in the way of structure will be determined more by weather. If cattle can have access to a woodlot with low growing trees, such as cedar, it may be all they need in the way of shelter if you don’t receive a heavy snow accumulation. You can construct windbreaks by planting low growing trees, again such as cedar, in an X shape. Here, whatever the wind direction, there will be an area to get out of it. I once saw one of these constructed out of old single and double car garage doors set upright between wooden posts. Worked rather well.

For hauling, it may be cheaper to have it done for you than owning a cattle trailer. Just ask around at the sales barn and they can likely refer you to someone who does it on the side. However, small horse trailers can be used for cattle if you will only be hauling one or two at a time.

On how many head you can manage consult with your local agricultural extension agent and area cattle farmers. Usually there is a local rule of thumb based on the number of cow/calf pairs per acre. Two weaned calves would be considered about the equivalent of one cow/calf pair. Too few head can result in under-grazing. Too many can result in over-grazing and the need for supplemental feeding. You will eventually find a balance which fits your operation.

By raising livestock you will have other advantages than just a possible decrease in property taxes. If you have a truck which is used almost exclusively for the operation depreciation, mileage and repairs can be deducted. Buildings use for the operation, such as hay barns, can be depreciated even if they are already old. The expenses of, and depreciation on, tractors and other farm equipment can be deducted. Unless you hire it out, labor would not be deductible. Property taxes on the portion used for the livestock are another expense. Consult a tax advisor on how to set up a farm bookkeeping system. Once it is done, completing the IRS Form F is fairly simple.

The above is not to say there are not other approaches available, such as buying bred heifers in the fall, wintering them over and selling them and their calf in the spring. Here the area needed to over-winter them may be far less than that needed for summer grazing. Another option is what is called a 3 in 1 package of a bred cow with a small calf at her side. An old rule-of-thumb use to be unless one of them died, it was hard to lose money on a 3 in 1 package.

Some references: Any of the books by Joel Salatin (Salad Bar Beef, Pastured Poultry Profits, You Can Farm and Family Friendly Farming) and Allan Nations (Farm Fresh, Grass Farmers, Pasture Profits with Stocker Calves, Knowledge Rich Ranching, Quality Pastures and Paddock Shift). Most of these are available from The Stockman Grass Farmer (800-748-9808). And, if you farm, they are tax deductible. Also check with your local library as they may be able to obtain a copy through inter-library loan.

(Photo caption: This Holstein (Mamma) is thought to be about 18 years old. Ken reports she still has a calf every year but no longer produces enough milk to raise one on her own.)

· Registered
2,270 Posts
I'll re-write for you for half the money and half the credit :)

If these people are mainly looking at how to make money, stockers is the way to go. They are easier to find, easier to determine their health, easier to keep healthy, easier to feed, etc.

The preggo cow thing can work, but one needs quite a bit of knowledge about buying them, caring for them, calf care, etc.

Your own caption there says you have a cow that still produces a calf, but can't raise it. Problems like that abound in old bred cow sales. Previous abortions, prolapses, illness, poor milking, etc all can really hit someone hard financially, especially if they didn't see it coming nor understood the risk they were taking.

I'm not saying it can't be done, but emphasize "help" and "education"!!!!

Buying stockers is eaiser because one can often find them on the farm, rather than a sale barn. Even at the sale barn, one can usually find out who's they are and how they manage their operation. There are guys here that take them straight off the cow to the sale barn. Nothing wrong with that, but it really helps if one knows that type of information. If they are bought at a sale barn, many of them now have special sales for different health programs which can eliminate many problems in weaned calves.

Pregnant cows still need watching, checking and intervention at times while calving. The best momma in the world cannot make her baby stand if it happens to be born in 6 inch mud, or slick ice. An old cow can be less risky than a heifer, but a really old cow, in poor health, can be a much bigger risk.

Stockers need watching, but not usually in the middle of the night! They need to be checked for illness, but time and knowledge are not as critical as when a calving goes badly.

Newborn calves also need care. Scours and pnuemonia will strike any calf, not just those from young cows! Then the calves have to be weaned....a whole different set of problems to deal with.

Feed is also an issue. Lactating cows can go downhill fast if the pasture is not adequate. Combine a poor milking cow, with poor pasture and you end up with a skinny cow with a dead or stunted baby.

Stockers need good pasture too, but I don't think the consequences are as risky as with pairs. It's eaiser to spot the problem, and easier to fix it.

If they only have a few head, it is quite possible they could do their own hay through a share arrangement with a farmer. We do lots of hay on a 50/50 split. We even fill their feeders for them sometimes! Buying the equipment is probably not cost effective, but buying hay in might not be the best bet either.

Hay alone will not carry growing cattle through a winter. They need more energy and protein. I guess it depends on the hay too, but usually more is required. I supplement my cows through the winter also. If they only had my poor quality hay, they lose too much condition through the winter.

Cull prices do vary. Higher in the spring, lower in the fall is the general rule of thumb. They also vary with the rest of the market.

I would leave out any information on vaccinations, other than "you should do it" and "ask a vet". Different areas need different things. There are many things that can kill a calf in a couple days. Let their area vet choose the shots!

Uncastrated bull calves get dinged at my market for $5-$10/cwt. Castration pays for itself, in my opinion. I might get a few more pounds on a bull calf (very debatable), but then I'll get dinged anyways.

Raising organic beef is more than just what you feed them. The pastures have to be organic, the mommas have to be organic (I believe, at least for a period of time). I would mention reading feed labels and learning what they mean. It's too easy to feed antibiotics or ionophores without meaning too, also animal proteins etc. They should consult with a nutrionist about feed rations. The feed store or mill should be able to help them with a ration. Soybean meal is going to be hard to avoid. Gotta have that protein. I have not ever had anyone tell me they were worried about soybean meal as feed.

I would emphasize that alternative methods of worming are just that...alternative and not proven. Consult a vet.

Kelp is expensive. Very expensive! I, personally, do not see a benefit that woudl justify that cost.

If they want to keep it simple, don't do rotational grazing. Continuous grazing could work very well on a small area, with an appropriate stocking rate. If they want to make money, keep expenses low. One good thing about rotational grazing is that you can always grow into it later. You can also improve pasture while continuously grazing it. Frost seeding, appropriate mowing, etc all work.

Hay doesn't *have* to be stored! Mine is kept in the field until we feed it. More waste, but less capital outlay and labor in hauling it around more than necessary.

Cattle need shelter in summer too. Shade helps a lot. A hill is often sufficient shelter in winter...somewhere out of the wind. You can also store your hay to create a windbreak, just hotwire the "wall" off from the cows.

What about water? What about frozen water? What about LOTS of water on those hot summer days?

No mention of having someone come ascertain the pasture quality. That is so important when determining stocking rates.

Breeding cows are treated differently for taxes. Under this system, they would have short term capital gains/losses. Could be good, could be bad. Depends. (can you tell I just got my taxes done?)

I always try to tell people...start small. Keep expenses low. If it works, then grow. If not, then you have not gone broke trying. A few stockers would keep their ag status and probably make them a bit of money too. Margins are so slim, every cut corner counts, but knowing which ones to cut makes all the difference! Use the learning curve on a few animals. Mistakes are easier to absorb and you learn just as much.

I know that Countryside has a "non-commercial" approach, but don't discount information about commercial methods of farming. Take what you need and leave the rest. Also...the BEST way to learn how to keep cattle is to find a mentor. Either local or on the internet. Someone who knows what they are doing and is willing to answer all stupid questions and tell someone when they are screwing up. Invaluable.

I don't know if that is helpful. I tried to be. My offer still stands on a re-write! I've had lots of people tell me I ought to write articles, but I never have the time.


· Registered
2,270 Posts
Ooops...I forgot to mention the bull thing. Buying a sale barn bull can be a risk. They are there for a reason. STD's, throwing monster calves, lameness issues, low libido and infertility. Finding an older, not quite as aggressive, bull is ok, but how do you know? Better to ask around and see if someone needs to rotate a bull out of their herd and buy him cheap.


· Registered
2,270 Posts
Yup! Nothing is always good too :)

I was just teasing about that, but I wasn't sure what you really wanted me to look at. I did the best I could. Hope it helped.

1 - 8 of 8 Posts
This is an older thread, you may not receive a response, and could be reviving an old thread. Please consider creating a new thread.