When we first bought the farm in 2007, we knew we wanted to raise cattle. Having been raised with cattle and showing steers at the county fair, cattle was in my blood so to speak. My husband worked on his family’s dairy farm and missed it so very much. Cattle is something we knew well and wanted to have on our farm.

Below, I will highlight two types of beef cattle farm models that we have used. One model, involves buying new feeder calves every year and raising them until they are finished (i.e., ready for processing). The second model is about keeping a cow and her calf, then finishing the calf. I will provide an overview as well as the pros and cons, from our perspective.

Cattle Models

2019 Feeder Calves Right Off the Trailer.

Feeder Operation Model

Feeder calves can be purchased directly from a breeder or from a local auction. Feeder calves are weaned and about six months old. All we had to do was graze them until they are between 18-24 months of age before they are sold as freezer beef.

Pros of Feeders

The advantages of this model are many when calculating your inputs.

  1. One Overwinter Season. Calves only have to be overwintered for one season before they are processed. This helps to sustain your hay inventory. Some years are better for hay than others. If you have a small farm like ours, every bale and acre counts.
  2. Less Mouths to Feed. We didn’t have to feed the Dames. This means utilizing the pastures for only calves to sell for profit.
  3. No Breeding or Births. By not having to keep a bull or purchase semen straws, this model eliminates the monthly maintenance costs. Plus, we didn’t have the disappointment of a still born calf, mastitis, calf rejection, or difficult birthing.

Cons of a Feeders

  1. Yearly Purchase Costs. Each year, we invested in new calves. This can be a large output of capital before you have even sold your prior year’s calves.
  2. High Market Prices. Yearly expenses are completely dependent on market prices. Some year’s prices are better than others, but always plan for higher prices every year. You can find current market prices {HERE}.
  3. Availability. Our second and third lot of feeders were fair calves. They were very quiet, docile, and use to being handled. We knew they would be the best option for our intensive grazing technique. However, they were hard to find. Most years we only had three and they were not enough to keep up with the ever growing pastures.
  4. Unfavorable Cattle Breeds. Some cattle breeds are better suited for grass than others. We like the English breeds which tend to be smaller framed than the Continental breeds and perform much better on grass.
  5. Untrained on Electric Fence. Most of the calves we bought were never exposed to electric fence. They were either housed in a barn or on larger farms with permanent fencing like barb wire. Again, we use the intensive grazing technique and electric fence is the key component. This was a headache the first couple months as they were consistently on the wrong side of the electric fence.
  6. Exposure to Infectious Diseases. Auction calves might bring in disease and viruses from elsewhere. I’m not referring to shipping fever, but bovine conjunctivitis and bovine papilloma. The best way to insure the health of your herd is to buy directly from a breeder and avoid the auction barn.

Cow-Calf Operation Model

This was the model we chose for our first herd in 2010. We bought four Limousin heifers. Next, we needed a bull. Ideally, a bull is best suited if you have at least 10 cows to breed. We have less than 10 so we opted for Artificial Insemination (AI). My husband is trained to AI so we can breed the cows when they are ready.

Nine months later, we had four calves. The calves stayed with their mother until they were six months old before we weaned them. Don’t worry, they were not traumatized. The calves were really just on the other side of a strong fence and can still nuzzle with mom.

Once the calf is weaned, it is considered a feeder calf and will grow for another 12-18 months before he is sold for freezer meat. If the calf is a heifer, we may keep her for breeding to add to your herd or as a replacement heifer. The steers will automatically go into the food chain. Here is the secret about steers. As they get older, they just get meaner. It’s true. They end up becoming the bully of the herd and nobody likes them.

A grass-fed cow-calf operation model takes at around 33 months from the time the Dame is bred to when the calf is processed. That is not including the time to raise the heifer until she is ready to breed. But once we made it to our first year of calving, the next years showed a steady stream of calves and profit.

Pros of Cow-Calf

  1. Up-Front Costs. The initial investment is in good quality heifers. Once they are purchased, the only yearly costs are vet, hay, and maintenance expenses.
  2. Bull Selection. Whether we Artificial Inseminate or purchase a bull, we can select the right breed and size of bull for our herd. If we want to dial down the frame size of the herd, we will breed with a bull with a low birth weight English Breed bull.
  3. Familiarity. Calves know the pastures and are use to intensive grazing. They are also familiar with us so they are less flighty.
  4. Closed Herd. No new calves are brought on the farm. Consider it isolation or the familiar “stay-at-home”. This eliminates foreign infectious disease exposure to our herd.

Cons of Cow-Calf

  1. More Mouths to Feed. For every cow, their is the current year’s calf and last year’s calf to feed. This can be stressful on the hay inventory especially when we have a poor hay crop. Grazing is even more difficult when there is a dry season with zero grass growing. More times than not, hard decisions need to be made to sell some head in order to prevent overgrazing or drying up our hay inventory.
  2. Open Cows Part 1. An Open Cow is a term meaning an unbred cow. With our first herd we were hit or miss with AI. With a young family, I was not able to watch the cows for signs of ovulation so we would miss the 12 hour window to get the cows bred. Some cows were bred, others we missed. No calves, no profits.
  3. Open Cows Part 2. Open cows become overweight, because they are not lactating, making them more difficult to breed. With this impediment, our offerings of freezer beef was irregular year to year.
  4. Still Borns. Death, unfortunately, cannot be avoided with livestock. On a small farm, one still born calf can be defeating when we already too many open cows.

We tried both Models

We had to make a hard decision in 2017 to abandon the cow-calf model and switch to the feeder model. However, in 2020, we decided to return to the cow-calf. Why? We were very disheartened and frustrated with the viruses brought in from the feeders. There is nothing more saddening than watching pinkeye spread through your herd. That was enough for us.

In 2020, we bought eight black Angus cross heifers and purchased a fine selection of Red Angus semen straws for Artificial Insemination. We are back where we started, but we have learned so much along the way.

Ultimately, the right model is a personal preference depending on the size and needs of your farm. I know that the feeder model would have worked better for us if we could have bought feeders directly from a closed herd cow-calf operation. Disease can break you.

In the meantime, we await for the birth of two calves this spring and more breeding this fall.

Check back again for more posts about maintaining our herd and lessons we learn.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the info. Can’t wait for your next post!!!

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