April 24, 2023
by Wesley Tucker
Come drought or rain, a cattle operation can match forage output if you have a safety net of disposable animals.
My last column focused on how to use livestock to manage forage production swings. It explained the idea of disposing of an animal to reduce mouths to feed in winter. It prompted a reader to ask: Which animals work best in this system?
To be clear, disposable livestock are not inferior; they are opportunities to add value. Disposable simply means they can be quickly moved off the farm without damaging your core business model — momma cows.
We’ve heavily invested in genetics for generations. That’s why drought is so devastating if our only choice is to pay $100 per bale for hay or sell off some of our core business. What if we could quickly reduce the mouths to feed without being forced to sell the future of our herd?
Choose your cattle wisely
Flexibility is key whether keeping or selling cattle to manage the swings of forage from surplus to deficit.
Consider the options with these groups:
Stockers. Adding stocker calves to the grazing platform allows stocking rate to fluctuate quickly. Sale barns are full of calves waiting to show up at the exact time you need them and leave when grass growth slows.
The idea of bringing in new animals can seem daunting. But we already have a built-in stocker enterprise — our calf crop.
At weaning, you’re faced with a choice: Sell calves or wean and grow them bigger. How much bigger is always relative. With an abundance of grass, consider adding 150 to 250 pounds. With current feed prices, the value of gain is incredible for additional weight, especially from a cheap source such as grass.
In my home state of Missouri, that’s one reason producers are switching to fall calving. When the spring flush arrives, they have a built-in second enterprise by simply growing calves bigger.
Replacement heifers. Most producers retain heifers to replace 15% of the cow herd each year. But what about heifers not kept for replacement? Are you sure you’re selecting the right ones?
Why not retain most of your heifers with a low-cost development program including a very short breeding season? Let Mother Nature select the most fertile heifers.
The value of gain is good enough that you may be surprised by the profitability of heifers. If you end up with extra bred females, even better. They’ve added more value to the operation and can be sold before calving.
Open cows. Cull cows are one of the few animals that increase in price per pound as they get heavier. Depending on the time of year and available forage resources, adding condition to open females before selling can add significant value.
Depending on age, they can also be bred and moved to another calving window. If you breed them, make sure to resist the temptation to let them stay in your herd. Market them as bred females and keep your calving season short.
Freezer beef. Consumers want to buy local. Market disruptions from the pandemic created wonderful opportunities for producers to sell halves and wholes to neighbors or customers across the country. Many producers are adding freezer beef to their grazing platform and value to the operation.
Contract cattle. You may be reluctant to bring in someone else’s livestock to your farm, but adding a custom-grazing enterprise — cows or stockers — can build in flexibility. You decide when they show up and when they leave. Adding custom-grazed dry cows during your spring flush can turn that extra grass into cash with minimal effort.
Make a decision
However you choose to incorporate disposable livestock in your operation, the flex to match stocking rate with what Mother Nature provides can reduce winter feed costs and increase profitability.
Ironically, producers often find disposable enterprises add more value to their operation than the cow-calf herd. But when it turns dry, it’s easy to you put wheels under the disposable livestock without having to sell off the core production factory you’ve spent generations developing. It is truly a win-win.
Tucker is a University of Missouri Extension ag business specialist and succession planner. He can be reached at [email protected] or 417-326-4916.
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