Low Cost Cattle Production

Ranchers live and work in a production driven sector of the economy. Historically, cattle producers have been motivated to maximize the weaning weights of our calves since our commodity, beef, is sold by the pound. The heavier the weaning weight, the bigger the paycheck.  Ever increasing input costs for labor and supplemental feed are driving producers to take a harder look at the cost of production.  Sustainability in the business requires that we consider profit as well as production.

Website_CalvesThe largest single annual input in the cow-calf enterprise is forage.  A cow consumes approximately 3% of her body weight each day.  A 1200 pound cow, which these days is a small cow, requires about 36 pounds of forage a day regardless of whether she harvests it herself or if it is delivered to her in the form of a hay bale. A cow’s nutritional requirements increase incrementally as calving season approaches and it peaks right at calving.  The post-partum period requires that the cow be in good condition to produce milk for the calf, recover from calving and prepare to rebreed in three months.  To accomplish this with the traditional February/March calvers in Montana, the cows require a large amount of good quality hay before and after calving.  A low input herd calves in May and June and can harvest the required nutrients during this critical period directly from green grass, which happens to be in its most productive and nutritious stage of growth.  The trade off is younger calves and lighter weaning weights.  For a low input program to be successful, these reductions must be offset by more calves weaned for every cow exposed to the bull and less input cost for each cow.

When considering the viability of becoming a low input producer, a variety of factors weigh into the decision an individual producer must make regarding calving dates and resulting inputs.  The large amount of forage available in the higher country of Montana is only available as summer forage.  In order to make use of this forage while accomplishing herd management objectives, operators have been motivated to have the cows “calved out” and “bred up” prior to moving to the mountains.  A breeding season in April, May and June means a calving season in January, February and March.  Another significant challenge comes in providing adequate amounts of nutritious “standing” forage for the winter months. The allocation of available labor and the wise use of ranch assets and infrastructure must also be considered. Project Lead: Les Gilman

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