Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Farm - The Cattle Part

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.


  1. We always brand with the cows in the same pen, but they're separate from the calves as the ropers drag them to the the flankers, and the man with the iron goes to the flanked calf. I'm taking it you do it a bit of a different way.

    We calve in April (it's still winter here in March) although we've moved the date back a little. Just do to various activities, we've ended up branding later in the year, often in June, by which time the calves are getting a little large. Because of that we've used Nord Forks in recent years.

    I found your entry here very interesting. I tend to find that cattle raising practices are extremely local, and methods and practices used in one place will not work in another. For that reason, I'm always interested in how other people do it, but I'm always skeptical when people who move in and have cattle try to suggest doing something different. I have an example of that from this past year that I'll keep somewhat to myself, but as a result one of my bulls ended up going down the wrong side of the mountain with a new fellow.

    I like the farm/cattle combination you've noted. Really interesting stuff.

    1. Most of the cows calve in an open pasture (~40 acres) so it's easy to find both them and their calves. Later in the year, there might be some that are calving in pastures that have more brush, which can make it hard to find their calves at times. I check for new calves every day, then a day or two later go back, catch them (either by hand or with a sort of shepherd's hook calf-catcher I have), band the bull calves, and put in an ear tag (there's no branding at all). After I let them go after tagging them, that's the last time I'll do anything to them until about the time they're weaned.

      One person can band and tag them, but I usually like to have someone there to watch my back and keep the cows off of me. Lately, it's gotten to the point where the cows are so aggressive and protective that I'm probably going to have to figure out some other way. I might have to wait until they're older, run them through a chute or one of those calf tables, and either band the bull calves or start cutting them instead. I'm not looking forward to re-learning how to do what I've already been doing.

      When you say that cattle-raising practices are extremely local, I'd agree. I'd guess that almost everyone does things just a little bit differently with their cattle around here, from the way they feed hay to the way they work their calves. Of course, everyone also kind of keeps to themselves and there isn't really anything going on like out West where all the neighbors get together to work and brand each others calves (which can be both good and bad).

      " a result one of my bulls ended up going down the wrong side of the mountain with a new fellow...", that sounds almost like a branding vs. tagging issue or something pretty similar.

      I'd bet that most of the problems with people moving into a new area and bringing their ways of raising cattle with them would be due more to problems with local customs and people issues rather than issues with the cattle raising techniques.

    2. "" a result one of my bulls ended up going down the wrong side of the mountain with a new fellow...", that sounds almost like a branding vs. tagging issue or something pretty similar. "

      Sort of a "I don't need any help keeping other cattle out of mine while I'm passing through your ground" and "I don't know what to do about it if I pick up a bull while doing that" issue.

    3. We do all our working of calves, except for tagging, with them flanked on the ground. When we ear tag calves (which we do not do with most of them, as we're cow calf) we run them through a chute. That's what we do for cows and bulls also, when we brand or tag them.

    4. I've always tagged calves so I can tell which ones are mine if they ever somehow get out (hasn't happened yet, but it could), so I can tell which ones have been banded already, which calf belongs to which cow, which heifer calves are out of which bull (so I can save replacements).

      I used to tag all the calves with the same color tag, but I started putting white tags in the steers and different colors in the heifers. It makes it easier to sort heifers from steers, but it can be a headache making sure you actually get the right colored tag in the calf.

      Since all the calves have a tag, I usually go out about once a week or so and "take inventory" of all the calves by checking off all their numbers instead of trying to count them (I can usually count them three times and get three different numbers). When I'm checking off all their numbers, it's easy to note if one looks like it might be sick, has a limp, looks better than the others, etc.

      All my neighbors do things differently, some don't tag at all, some notch ears of calves (one guy notches the tips of both ears and makes the nicest looking calf look ugly as sin), and some tag both ears.

      One neighbor down the road brands his calves, tags both ears, and then notches an ear for good measure.

    5. We have an ear notch as well, it's part of the brand registration system in our state. When we brand, we notch and vaccinate.

      One thing about this is that its often struck me how very tough, but dense to pain, cattle are. By and large, a calf goes through a lot in a branding, but they pick up and run off. Quite a few don't even really complain. The same is true of cows, of course, which also often get branded as adults.

    6. What's the reason for the ear notch if cattle are also branded?

      Branding isn't required in OK as far as I know, although when I talked to an insurance agent about insuring cattle (back when cattle prices first went up and reports of stolen cattle started popping up), they said that only branded cattle could be insured.

    7. Branding is required by law in Wyoming. Since some of our brands got rolling in the pre statehood days (I have a brand that's older than the state) there was some poor recordation of them at first and some are quite similar to each other. Other early ones are actually identical, except for placement. The ear notch helps distinguish which are which.

  2. I'm out of my league on this post because the closest I've come to raising cows is standing on the other side of a fence watching them. The livestock on our farm were of the pig and honeybee variety.

    The one similarity though seems to be the ebb and flow of profitability in raising those creatures. Some years you think you're sitting pretty and other years you are lucky to break even.

    1. The thing I like about cattle is that they mostly eat grass, so any feed cost fluctuations are due to the weather and not some commodity traders driving the price of feed up or down. Plus, I can sell my cattle at any point from 300lb. to 1200 lb. depending on the weather or the markets.

      I don't think I've ever not made money with my cattle, although I've broken even during the stocker phase (the time between weaning at ~500 lb. and ~800 lb.).

      As high as cattle prices have gotten, I'm bracing myself for the crash that should be coming sometime in the future by trying to cut my input costs right now. Cattle prices have crashed more than a few times in the past and it'll happen again.

    2. I'd agree with this all the way around.

      The other nice thing about cattle is that they're comparatively work free, compared to some other livestock, like sheep,. They are not 100% work free by any means, but a good herd of cattle can feed it self for at least half the year, doesn't need a lot of help calving except perhaps for heifers, etc.

    3. That's what spooks me about adding something like sheep or goats.

      I don't really want to deal with trimming hooves, getting livestock guardian dogs, bottle feeding a bunch of lambs, or worrying about winter shelters.

      I could be wrong about the amount of work involved, but that's the impression I get about sheep and goats.

    4. Sheep are very labor intensive.

      I'm amazed now days about how I see bands of sheep here with no tenders. It almost shocks me, as whenever I see sheep, I look for the tenders, or at least the dog. But I'm seeing quite a few sheep with no tenders. Labor cost must be too high to hire herders.

      Sheep are born looking for a way to die, and everything kills or eats them. I participated in the last gathering of sheep on my in laws place, and one old ewe just turned around and died on the spot for spite. I've never seen anything else like it. In contrast, a few years ago my brother in law and I worked and worked to get up a sick cow on trail that just refused to move, but wasn't dead. We finally gave up and moved on, figuring she was lost. She caught up with us (and her calf, miles and miles later and was really angry at at the time. I think she just had an upset stomach and didn't care to move.

    5. The other thing about sheep is that there's never a season you aren't working them, more or less.

      With cattle, there's winter feeding, calving, branding and shipping, more or less. But sheep have all sorts of other stuff going on. Docking and shearing, for example.

    6. There's an extended family that raises a whole lot of sheep locally (about 10-12 miles away).

      From what little I know about the family, the grandfather started out with sheep and now two and three generations later the various grandchildren (who must be in their 60's), etc. are still in the sheep business.

      Every winter, they put hundreds of sheep out on wheat pasture (which quite a sight). The first time I saw that many sheep out on a wheat field what I was seeing didn't seem to register in my head and at first glance I thought I was looking at a bunch of unmelted snow even though it hadn't been cold enough to snow in a long time (It's a strange feeling to look at something and not see it for what it is).

      I haven't driven down all the roads in that area, so i don't know what sort of working facilitates they have, but I don't know how they manage to shear all those sheep. I also don't have a clue where they sell all those sheep.

    7. Shearing is usually accomplished by traveling shearers, although the owners always help.

  3. Hogs really weren't too bad labor wise. We did our walk through every morning and turned on the feed system but only spent about a half hour and then we were done. We generally did a fifteen minute walk through in the evenings as well. Most of the work came with the new litter which had to be clipped and marked just like cattle, though there were definitely more offspring per animal than cows! That amounted to a couple days every three months of pretty intensive labor. There was also all the random odd things like sick animals or lame animals that had to be dealt with from time to time. It certainly all adds up.

    Besides the feed aspect that you brought up, I think one of the biggest advantages of cows over other forms of livestock is the initial investment to get started. Up in our neck of the woods, cows just need a loafing shed to hang out during the coldest parts of the years and maybe some structure in place for feeding silage or hay. Hogs on the other hand needs tens of thousands of dollars of buildings, feed storage units, crates (if farrowing), water systems, ventilation systems, etc. When my parents got into hogs, it took many years of profits just to pay off the initial input before they were truly making money. We always free ranged some hogs as an overflow kind of setup which required much less initial inputs but certainly wasn't very scale-able to raise a large number of hogs that way.

    1. All I know about pigs is what I've read about raising them, although when I built a loafing shed next to the working pens a few years ago I did lay it out so I could have the option to raise a few pigs in the fenced area around it in the future (on a small scale so I could raise some bacon for me). I don't know if I'll ever get around to raising some pigs, but everything is basically there.

      I've always thought it would be interesting to raise pigs in a Swedish-style deep-bedded hoop building so I could produce mountains of compost along with the pigs. Supposedly the start-up cost is much lower with that type of system and the hoop building can be used for other uses if you ever decide to get out of the pig business.

      Over on the Beginning Farmer blog/podcast, Ethan built a hoop building and at one time was planning on raising some pigs in it, anyone that's interested should listen to his podcast over at: I've read his blog almost since the beginning and it's given me a lot of ideas (if you go back and read some of the old blog posts and come across any of my comments, you should realize that I've changed my mind on some things since then, so don't hold me to everything I might have posted).

      The only equipment or infrastructure I needed for cattle was some good tight barb-wire fences, a few electric fence energizers, some simple working pens, a handful of bale feeders, and a stock trailer. I guess I should also include the hay equipment, or at the very least a bale spike for the tractor. Almost everything paid for itself pretty fast, and most of it could be sold tomorrow to raise some cash if I decided to quit raising cattle.

    2. Rich ...
      I just realized you are blogging and that I have a lot of reading to catch up on! You know me, so you do know that I love the pigs and will be moving them into the hoop building with deep bedding as soon as the waterers start staying frozen ... and the compost is wonderful!

      But, I agree about the input costs. At this point since I'm not able to raise my own crops the best I can do to help control feed costs is grind/mix my own feed and work with a local farmer purchasing grain out of the field. I do move my cattle daily, so I would say that my labor is actually fairly similar between the pigs and cattle. As for the sheep ... we have hair sheep which means no sheering and we purchase lambs and breeding stock from a farm that hasn't wormed in four years and has had great success. Keeping the sheep rotated like the cattle is the key.

      Like I said, plenty of reading for me now :)

    3. Opps ... that was me ... Ethan, the beginning farmer.

    4. I hope you find the reading somewhat interesting, just make sure you also try to read the comments. Some of the better stuff can be buried in the comments.

      I have to admit that your blog is one of a handful, (The Beginning Farmer blog, Ron's Lack of a Better Plan blog (now gone), and Yeoman's blog (also now gone)) that helped lead me to starting this blog.

      Everybody on those blogs that shared their part of the world and their thoughts on a variety of subjects made me also want to share more about my little part of the world.

    5. Anonymous Ethan, there should be a way that you can log in such that your name will link back to your blog. The curious in us may wish to do that.

  4. I should elaborate a bit and say that there are low cost ways to raise hogs but they aren't very scale-able as a business. We had overflow hoop buildings and they work fine but it is ten times the work to wean and process pigs that live like that. They are hard to catch, momma more defensive and they generally turn their environment into a huge mudhole which is hard to maneuver in. The other struggle is that the market pays a premium for lean pigs which aren't the sturdiest pigs to raise outdoors. Heritage breeds do better out there but then you don't get a great price for them at the market due to fat content.

    1. That's sort of the model that Ethan over on the Beginning Farmer blog is using to raise heritage breeds of pigs out on pasture and down in the woods. He's created his own market for his heritage breed of pigs by direct marketing them locally as pork.

      His blog and podcast is on two sites:

    2. Pigs are one animal for which there seems to be a fair amount of direct marketing around here, making them a real exception to the rule. One of my wife's uncles was raising them for awhile in that fashion, and then stopped as the economics weren't ideal, but plenty of other people are doing it. We've bought pigs several times in that fashion, and have always been very pleased with the results.

    3. I'd almost forgotten until I was thinking about some of these comments, that when I originally rebuilt the weaning pen (it was also a casualty of the tornado) that I made sure to use woven wire around it so that I would have the option in the future to try my hand at raising some pigs. I've heard stories that my grandfather and his brothers used to use that same area to raise pigs about 60-70 years ago (although it's hard to imagine 40-50 pigs out there in that pen).

      When I built the loafing shed, I also made sure to position it so that I had options about how it could be used in the future. With a little work, that area could be used for pigs, sick cattle, calves born in a blizzard, chickens, turkeys, etc.

      With the price of corn, soybeans, milo, etc. coming down in price, it might be an option to try my hand at raising a few pigs if only to see if I can do it.