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Cattle Management Practices for Difficult Times

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Posted Jun. 30, 2008

I can't remember a time when the grass has been as green, the cows have been as fat, ponds have been as full, and producers have been as worried about their future and the future of agriculture as a whole. The really frustrating part about the predicament we find in mid-2008 is that so many of the contributing factors are beyond our control. It is easier to deal with a crisis when it is an act of Mother Nature (e.g., the drought of 2005 and 2006) than when fingers can be pointed at something tangible (e.g., individuals, groups or policies) that results in hardships, however unintended they may be. Seemingly, the only silver lining is that calf prices have stabilized and are staying relatively strong.

At the forefront of every agricultural producer's mind right now are the three F's: FUEL, FEED and FERTILIZER. There has been considerable brainstorming conducted at all levels of agriculture (producer, industry and academia), and there are no easy solutions to these problems. However, to implement a "glass half-full" attitude, there are opportunities that come with these hardships, but you have to be in a position to take advantage of them.

Specific to cattle producers, there are management practices that cost nothing or very little to implement, but that can have dramatic financial benefits. A truly profitable cattle producer is one that not only does a good job of increasing revenue, but monitors costs as well - a point that far too often gets overlooked. These practices are often discussed in industry publications, producer meetings and in personal interactions. However, I have found that the harder the times, the more openminded we get. So, here again are some strategies for your consideration.

  • Dehorn calves prior to marketing. I bought a pair of dehorners the other day for around $20, and I have only seen a couple ever broken. Data collected by Oklahoma State University suggests that by doing this simple procedure, you will increase sale prices by $3/cwt.
  • Castrate bull calves prior to marketing. This requires minimal labor, but, by doing so, data indicate that sale prices will be raised by about $3.50/cwt.
  • Cull open cows. It is important to optimize cow weight and flesh when doing so. There are times when it makes sense to feed a cow to increase flesh or get to a better market. However, each year is different, so calculate your costs and let the numbers answer this question.
  • Pull your bulls or cull later-calving cows. Smaller producers may choose the latter because a place to put a bull is lacking, while larger producers can usually dedicate infrastructure to bulls during the off-season very easily. The point here is that, regardless of size, this practice can be implemented. The resulting "defined" calving season will save in both labor and feed costs, not to mention a more uniform calf crop.
  • Produce calves to fit a predetermined market. This is a frame of mind and starts with your breeding program. In times like these, you need to have a really good reason not to have crossbred cows in your pasture, running with a really good bull that you know something about.
  • Keep records to help make management and marketing decisions. Simply keeping first and last calf birth dates opens marketing options and doesn't take a lot of effort.


Obviously, this is not an all-encompassing list and you may be thinking, "How come he didn't mention this or that?" That's the point of this article - to get you thinking of ways to be more efficient without spending a lot of time or money. Being creative and critical will go a long way in these difficult times. I suggest that, if you are not doing the things listed above, you have a pretty good place to start.