Back in a previous post about the farm, I said I was going to write about the cattle part of the farm, but after trying a few times to write a coherent post, I found that it's harder to write about the cattle than I originally thought it would be. So, instead of trying to explain every little detail (if anyone's interested in raising cattle, there are plenty of better places to go to for info), I'm just going to throw a few of my thoughts out there about the role of livestock on the farm (most of it might only interest people that have their own cattle, so you've been warned).
On paper, the cattle have always made at least half of the money made on the farm, although the "farming part" (growing wheat, etc) and the "ranching part" (raising cattle, hay, etc.) of the farm sort of work together as a system, so it's hard at times to isolate one from the other.
Most of my hay comes from baling either crabgrass, sorghum-sudangrass, or a failed sorghum crop that I've grown during the summer in between wheat crops. To my eye, baling hay seems to improve the cropland since it helps with controlling weeds (it can be hard to prove that). The cropland also benefits from the cattle when I graze the fields as either sorghum stubble over winter, or crabgrass and sorghum-sudangrass in the summer.
Without the cattle, I'd lose the opportunity to either capitalize on those hay crops or salvage a failed crop. Without the cropland, it would be harder to bale enough hay or would take more cash to buy the same amount of hay.
Since it's hard to put a number on the true value of all those different combinations, I tend to think that it's important to have both cattle and cropland on the farm (the combination is worth more than the sum of its parts). As I start growing more cover crops, the synergy between the cattle and the crops should grow even more (instead of 2+2=5, it'll hopefully be 2+2=6).
Although I don't know if I'd advise anyone else start out that way, I
started with some bred heifers (a relatively uniform group of ordinary
commercial Black Angus heifers). It was a real learning experience
starting out with those bred heifers, from learning how to manage their
body condition so that they didn't have trouble calving to learning
what to look for to make sure they weren't having trouble calving.
There are a number of locals that sell some decent registered Black Angus bulls, so it was relatively easy to find a good bull that first winter for a reasonable price. At the time, I was of the opinion that buying bulls and raising my own replacement heifers was the best way to build a herd (I still think that way to a degree). If I was starting out again, I think I'd try to buy more bred heifers in the early years instead of raising my own replacements.
Over the years, I've figured out that it's best for calving to start around the first of March so that I can end up with a weaned calf sometime in October that'll be ready to go out on wheat pasture sometime in November. By calving starting in March, I usually avoid really cold weather, and the cow will be producing more milk in April and May when the calf can actually take advantage of the extra milk production.
Before the droughts hit in 2011 and 2012, I was able to get my calving season shortened to under 45 days, but starting in 2011 the heat started climbing right before the breeding season. It was over 100 for almost the rest of the summer which really affected the bulls' fertility, so that my calving season has been spread out over a much longer period ever since. I may eventually have to move to a spring and fall calving season if I decide that I really want to shorten my calving seasons.
I've always tagged and banded calves right after calving. I like to tag them as soon as possible so I can tell who's who, and which calf belongs to which cow. Banding as soon as possible after calving has always seemed to be easier and less stressful on the calves, but I might have to start doing things differently next year.
It used to be easy to catch a calf, hold it down, and then band it while the cow stood there calmly watching (easier with two people, but also possible to do it alone). For some reason (I'm starting to think it's due to black vultures moving into the area), almost all the cows have gotten much more aggressive in recent years to the point where it's pretty stressful on the guy holding the calf down trying to count to two before putting on a band. After getting knocked off of a calf last spring, I was so gun-shy for a few days that I was hoping for all heifer calves so I wouldn't get stomped into the ground trying to deal with any bull calves. I haven't decided what I'm going to do next year yet.
For the last few years, all my calves are sold after weaning at the stockyards at about 500-600 lb.. In the past, I've weaned them, then put them on wheat pasture until early spring then sold them as feeders at around 750-800 lb. Some years, I made a little money doing that and other years I broke even after putting all the work in over the winter.
When the drought hit in 2011, I didn't have any choice about putting any calves on wheat pasture (I was short on hay and thinking about selling cows at the time), so they were all sold as soon as I could get them weaned. That fall, I also had to sell a group of the prettiest replacement heifers I'd ever raised which was almost painful. I got a good price on those calves, probably made as much money as if I'd put them on wheat pasture, and had to do a lot less work that winter.
Since then, I sell all my calves at weaning and don't really use that much wheat pasture. Of course, the boom in calf prices, dry winters, and higher wheat grain prices also played a role in making that decision. But, with wheat prices coming down and cattle prices going even higher, it might make sense to start grazing more wheat pasture.
Years ago, I had the idea that I could direct-market beef and make more money from my cattle herd. For a few years, I was able to sell about 3 steers a year to about 8 different people (as halves and quarters) and usually managed to make an additional $1000-1200. The last year I sold beef, I could have loaded those 1100 lb. steers up, sold them at the stockyards, and made about the same amount of money without dealing with the butcher, extra feeding, and all the stress of dealing with a bunch of customers. So that was the last year I direct-marketed beef, for me it's easier to find some other way to make $1200, I can't imagine selling all my calves as finished beef to an even bigger group of people.
I could easily write much more about what I think about cattle, but at this point I'm probably stating the obvious to those that already own cattle and boring people that don't have any cattle.
As always, I'm open to any questions or suggestions. I can't guarantee that my answer or observation will be an entirely correct one, but I can guarantee that I'll give you my biased opinion.