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Animal Health Notebook

The Tale Of The $125 Cow

I call her the $125 cow because I can keep her and her calf around the ranch for about that many dollars per year.


Extremely old, extremely small, extremely lazy, and/or extremely unprofitable are all “box” descriptions of a majority of cattle operations in North America.

At least one or more of those descriptive terms fit most of us who are cow-calf producers.

I've also read that the cow-calf segment of the beef industry has incurred a greater monetary loss since WWII than any other segment of agriculture in the US. Now that the equine industry (in many areas) is no longer seen as a viable part of farming/ranching, that statement may likely be correct.

I argue that the key to re-establishing profits in the cow-calf operation requires us to examine history, find our mistakes and fix our ideas.

A sustainable cattle operation requires high annual profits – good profits each and every year. One of the results of high profitability is it lures energetic, young minds into our field who inject new ideas from “outside the box” into the business. This is not happening.

I seem to recall at one time I was young and energetic and filled with novel ideas. Now, most of my novel ideas really are “old” ideas.

One old idea of which clients have rightly accused me of possessing for three decades is the idea for the need of a much smaller, right-sized cow. I used to call her the $125 cow because she could be purchased at the sale for $125. Now, however, I call her the $125 cow because I can keep her and her calf around the ranch for about that many dollars per year.

The following list details the cost for maintaining my 850 pound, late-spring calving cow:

  • Pasture rent (5.5 tons of forage dry matter), fertility, and maintenance = $80/year
  • Annual supplement and water = $70/year
  • Hay, 200 pounds dry matter/week for 6 weeks = $5.00
  • Vaccine, fly control, parasites = $6/year
  • Fuel, used truck, haul bills, contract labor = $15/year
  • Depreciation -- N/A

I am not figuring depreciation for tax purposes since I do not know how. Cows generally start depreciating as to sale value after their fifth birthday. At 850 pounds, I am estimating her market value to be 1,000 dollars at five years of age.

I do realize that I must be one of the few producers in North America who wants this near perfect cow.

I expect her to be productive and highly profitable into her late teens or early twenties.

Thirty-five years ago, I would see cows like her in most every pasture in this part of the country. Today, they are quite rare. However, a few are still around.

The cow and her calf cost me about $175 per year to keep until weaning because I am somewhat inefficient in the cow/calf business.

You see, I run a grass stocker and grass finishing operation. I keep my wife’s cow around for fun and to make $800 per year. I also enjoy sleeping indoors.

I usually keep her bull calf until he is a mid- to long-yearling, weighing near 850 pounds. This costs another $65. Sometimes I lease him for 90 days to breed cows. Afterward I castrate him and ship him with a commodity load.

In 2012, the bull lease was $300, and the commodity load price was something over $1,100 per head. In 2013, the commodity load price was over $1,200 per head.

Since I have a grass-fed market, I also have kept the steer or heifer for another six to 10 months for another $75. This ups my sale price to $1,600 dollars at 1,000 pounds.

I promise you – it isn’t bad. Maybe I need more of these cows.

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