Getting started with cow-calf production - Part 1

Beef cow-calf production is a popular business venture for many beginning farmers. Good production management practices is critical.

Beef cow-calf production is a popular choice of people interested in starting a farming operation. There are several reasons that make cow-calf production a popular choice. Beginning farmers can start small with less labor and capital investment required as compared to more intensive farming enterprises. This article focuses on the production aspect of rearing and weaning beef calves from a beef cow herd.

Before starting on the topic of how to raise beef calves, the topic of quality should be addressed. Beef cow-calf producers produce calves that are frequently fed and raised by someone else before the final product reaches the consumer. Producers entering the cow-calf production business should start with a plan to do their part to ensure the final beef product is of high quality. The beef industry has developed the Beef Quality Assurance program to help guide producers through a production process that ensures high quality calves for sale to feedlot operators and cull cows and bulls that are in good body condition, free of defects to the packer.

As with any business venture, entrepreneurs should have a good working knowledge of production practices. Nutrition, health, breeding, genetic selection, environmental protection and animal handling are some of the production topics that producers must have a proficient understanding. This knowledge frequently comes from experience of working on cattle operations but may come from various types of training courses.

Meeting the nutrient requirements of beef cows can be done more easily than many other types of livestock. Many other livestock require more precision in balancing rations. Lactating dairy cattle and feedlot cattle are examples of livestock that need more attention to detail in developing rations. Many beef cow-calf producers utilize pasture during the growing months and feed average quality grass/legume mix hay during the winter months. Most producers allow cattle to eat nearly as much as desired and supply a salt/mineral mix free choice. This feeding method frequently results in cows that maintain body weight and condition and allow for reproduction and lactation. As producers gain experience they can develop strategies to more precisely feed cows to minimize the overfeeding of forage to reduce wasted hay and save money.

One of the first and most critical factors for new producers to decide is the calving season date. Specialists at Michigan State University Extension recommend that producers limit the calving season to 60 days. The key factors that should be used to determine calving season included normal climate conditions, forage supply, labor supply during calving and calf marketing plan. Ideally, calves can be born on pasture that is warm and dry. Some producers want to calve early in the spring or winter to allow for heavier calves at sale time. Winter calving can be challenging with freezing temperatures but can also provide a relatively clean environment with many pathogens frozen and dormant. Calving early usually corresponds with calving in frozen or muddy conditions and requires more labor to ensure calves stay alive and healthy. Calving on green grass in the spring typically corresponds with the greatest yield and highest quality of grass available during the cow’s greatest demand for nutrients. Summer calving can be troublesome due the flies attacking young calves. Fall calving has been shown to provide an excellent calving environment with green grass, warm firm soils and moderate temperatures. Fall calving does have drawbacks such as breeding season occurs during the winter and lactation feed demand occurs throughout the winter months.

Other health concerns are also important to consider. Weaning time is probably the most stressful time of a calf’s life. Proper management is critical to provide the most ideal environment for newly weaned calves. Air quality is critical. Poorly ventilated barns should be avoided. Ideally calves will have a dry hair coat with protection from cold winds and air quality will be excellent. Ideally calves are fed the same feedstuffs they were consuming just prior to weaning and high quality water is easily available.

Vaccinations are an important part of a cow-calf herd management plan. Determining a vaccination program should be completed with the assistance of a veterinarian that understands the disease challenges on your farm and in your area. Herd health management programs should be designed to maintain high fertility rates in breeding cattle and calves should managed to minimize respiratory and bacterial challenges. In addition to managing disease issues on the farm, producers should prepare calves to face immune challenges during transportation and after arrival to the new owner.

Starting a new beef cow-calf operation can be both profitable and rewarding, however; there are many challenges that could cause failure. For more information on raising high quality calves from a beef cow-calf operation contact Frank Wardynski, Ruminant Extension Educator with Michigan State University at or 906-884-4386.

This article is part 1 of a 3 part series on getting started with cow calf production. For questions on getting started with cow-calf production contact your area MSU Extension Beef Educator. You can find their contact information on the MSU Extension Beef Team website.

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