Prairie Farmer Logo

Commentary: What’s going to happen to the U.S. livestock industry as one generation retires? Young farmer and University of Illinois student Olivia Charles has a couple of ideas.

March 21, 2024

3 Min Read
A young woman feeding cattle from a white bucket
EVALUATION: Mount Carroll, Ill., producer Olivia Charles hand-feeds a group of first-calf heifers shortly after purchasing them to evaluate their well-being and temperament. Courtesy of Olivia Charles

by Olivia Charles

When my grandparents started talking about retiring from beef production on our family farm, it lit a fire in me. I was determined to continue their livestock legacy. Simply put, livestock production is in my blood.

I set out a plan in August 2022 to start my own herd. And now, as a 21-year-old and a senior at the University of Illinois, I own half of the beef herd at my family’s farm, with plans for continued growth. This spring my dad and I are calving out around 60 head, but my goal is to increase that number to 100 by next year.

I’ve learned it’s not easy. With a beef farmer as my father and a veterinarian mother, sick calves have been landing on my doorstep from as early as I can remember. I grew up checking cattle with my father and going on farm calls with my mother. The hours can be long.

And getting started can be financially and emotionally draining. So many big purchases are needed to get started — for example, pasture to buy or rent, a corral or barn with a chute for calving, a trailer to haul animals, and more. The insurance premiums and government subsidies are few and far between in livestock farming. When animals become sick, you can exhaust significant resources and still lose the animal. The emotional aspect of not being able to save a living thing and the hit to your wallet can be hard to handle.

Lessons in the barn

This all sometimes makes it hard to stay positive. Last summer, I lost two calves to a respiratory disease. And the calf I had picked out as a bull replacement didn’t work out and had to be castrated.

But I overcame those problems and maintained my drive by relying on my father and other credible producers to learn more about how to move forward and improve efficiency in my operation. This year, I created a business plan with the help of my father and my banker. I made herd management goals with the help of my veterinarian, and analyzed market reports to decide where and when to sell. I am learning how to manage a business, create goals and make strategic decisions.

Finally, I learned that it’s important to purchase high-quality cattle based on the goals of your farming operation, whether you are looking to purchase a long-term herd of young cows or turn a quick profit on a load of short-term old cows.

A herd of cattle in a field looking at the camera

I also realize that past generations have grappled with livestock production problems of their own. So now, it’s up to me and my generation to work through the problems of today.

Goals will change from year to year. My goal started out as continuing my family legacy. That still holds true, but it’s evolved to encompass growth in the number and quality of cattle on my farming operation. After I graduate from the University of Illinois in May, I plan to continue farming alongside my full-time job as a seed salesman. My goal is to never stop learning and use my experiences from agriculture to improve my community and inspire others.

I hope my story will inspire more young producers to get involved in the livestock industry — and stick with it. The entire U.S. beef herd is shrinking yearly as my grandparents’ generation retires. Now, more than ever, we need knowledgeable and enthusiastic young people to produce livestock.

Charles is an agricultural communications student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She comes from a beef cow-calf, corn and soybean farm in Mount Carroll, Ill.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like