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

Question:

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?

Answer:

(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 (www.shaklee.com) 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.)
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Jena: Since Countyside doesn't normally pay writers, are you willing to settle for half of nothing? You are welcome to do a complete rewrite if so.

Ken S. in WC TN
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
How many farming operations don't have the first head of livestock? How many with livestock don't have the first head of cattle? I think you answer would be no.

Ken S. in WC TN
 
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