Basic Beef Production Guidelines

Raising beef cattle can be a profitable enterprise. However, there are several management skills that each beef producer should have to be successful.
Basic Beef Production Guidelines - Articles

Updated: August 29, 2017

Basic Beef Production Guidelines

Each beef cattle enterprise has different resources: land, labor, capital, feed and management. To raise beef cattle profitably, you must manage these resources to maximize returns. Below are some guidelines to make this enterprise successful.

Where Can I Get Information?

A large amount of information is available on beef production through books and magazines. With the electronic age, you can also access information over the internet from many universities and in particular, their Extension systems. For copies of printed information, you can also visit your local Extension Office.

Other suggestions for developing a working knowledge of beef production are to join a local beef producers organization and visit with other local producers. Most producers are more than happy to share their knowledge. Be sure to visit their operations also for ideas on handling, management, and breeds. Another important person to gain knowledge from is your veterinarian. Discuss health concerns and management suggestions with your vet.

What Type of Cattle Should I Raise?

Normally, the sole source of your income from a beef operation will come from the calves produced each year. So, it is important that your cows produce a calf at least every 12 months. Be conscious of selecting as well as keeping good productive cows who will produce a calf every year without assistance, maintain their body condition without becoming overly thin or fat, and raise a calf with an average weaning weight that meets your goals. Other considerations to make when choosing cows are the breed and what type of operation (purebred vs. commercial).

Breeds of Beef Cattle

Beef cattle are generally divided into two different groups: maternal breeds vs. terminal breeds. Generally, maternal breeds are known for their milk production and mothering ability while terminal breeds are known for their growth and meat producing ability.

As with anything in life, there are some exceptions to this rule. Some breeds are also known as dual purpose breeds because they combine muscling for meat production with excellent maternal characteristics. For more information on breeds of beef cattle, visit the Oklahoma State Beef Breeds Directory. Crossbreeding can help you to combine the best attributes of individual breeds into one package. Choose traits that are important to you and then seek a breed or a crossbred that exhibits those traits.

Type of Operation

Before you get started in the beef business, you will need to ask yourself what type of operation you would like to run. Some of the typical options are cow/calf, backgrounding feeder calves, or feedlot. The cow/calf producer keeps a herd of cows to produce calves. The backgrounder buys weaned calves and turns them out on pastures until they reach 800 to 900 pounds. The feedlot operator purchases weaned calves or backgrounded calves and feeds them to market weight.

If you choose to become a cow/calf operation, you will also need to decide whether you would like to run a purebred or a commercial operation. A purebred operation typically raises cattle of one breed. Often a purebred operation will have all registered cattle that can also be sold through purebred sales. A commercial operation may have unregistered purebred cattle or they may have crossbred cattle. Commercial producers can have the benefit of hybrid vigor which is simply the ability of crossbred offspring to increase in productivity over the average of the breeds that were part of the cross. This means that a crossbred calf could grow faster and thus weigh more at a certain age than either of its parents.

Many purebred sales are held across the country throughout the year. Sales may offer only one breed or they may offer a large variety of breeds for sale. Also, you may want to become familiar with trends in the beef industry when choosing breeding stock. Choose bulls that will compliment the outstanding traits in your cows and improve their weaknesses.

Cows for a commercial operation can be bought at a purebred sale and then used in a crossbreeding program or you can contact individual producers to buy larger numbers of heifers that could be purebreds or crossbreds. Another option is to buy animals through an auction barn. Be aware however, that you are more likely to buy problem cattle through an auction barn. Unless a producer sells all his calves through the auction, he may be selling only cull calves.

Beef producers who purchase calves to background or place in a feedlot often purchase calves directly from a cow/calf operator. They may also purchase calves through feeder calf sales. Most buyers will pay more for calves that have been weaned, dewormed and vaccinated because the likelihood of calves getting sick is greatly reduced.

Beef Operation Management

Management of a beef operation depends largely on the interests of the producer as well as the resources available such as land, feed, facilities, and others. Management systems will vary depending on the climate. Operations that have hard winters will want to provide access to shelter for the cows during extremely cold weather and during periods of cold rain.

Facilities

Facilities for beef operations will vary from fencing to barns, sheds or shelters. Again, facility requirements will depend on whether your operation runs cattle only through the summer months or all year. Any operation should have some type of handling system that allows a producer to easily catch and restrain an animal for routine health care procedures. The handling system should include a corral system with a chute that leads to a head-gate.

A beef facility may also need feeding facilities. This could be as simple as a mineral feeder for a backgrounding operation. Or, it may include barns and grain and hay feeders for the cow/calf operation. In addition, a feedlot operation will need to account for adequate bunk or feeder space for the number of animals that are being fed.

A general rule of thumb for feeder space is to provide 18 to 22 inches for calves up to 600 pounds, 22 to 26 inches per head for calves 600 pounds to market weight, 26 to 30 inches per head for mature cows, and 14 to 18 inches per head for calves. If you have feed available at all times, these sizes can be decreased.

Equipment

Regardless of what type of operation you run, you will need to keep a certain amount of equipment on hand. Some of the smaller equipment that you would need might include syringes and needles along with medications for treating sick animals and halters for restraining those animals.

Large equipment needs will depend on your type of operation. If you plan to grow your own feeds, you will need a tractor and the various planting and harvesting equipment. For operations with pastures, you should have a brush hog or some type of mower to clip off the seed heads of pasture plants to keep them growing in a vegetative state. (A pasture plant will stop growing once it has produced seeds for the year.)

Feed Requirements

Beef cattle will have varying requirements depending on their age and stage of production. Calves will need a higher level of nutrition to allow for their growth, while mature dry cows will need a relatively low level of nutrition. Pregnant cows in the last third of pregnancy require more nutrients than dry cows. Feed requirements also increase for cold weather and especially for cold rains.

Calves can be creep fed before weaning by setting up an area accessible to only the calves. The creep feed may contain grain, hay or both. Creep rations can vary greatly depending on the price of grains.

The protein requirement decreases as the calves mature. For example a creep ration for nursing calves could start at 18% protein. Near weaning time (generally around 6 to 8 months of age) the level can be reduced to 14%. This level can be maintained until you stop feeding grain daily. This will depend on what type of operation you have and how much importance you put on maximum growth.

Backgrounded calves often receive only pasture. This allows them to grow slowly until the fattening phase when they are in a feedlot. The purpose of backgrounding is to add weight to calves using a cheap feed source. Because these calves are older they are much less likely to become sick once they enter a feedlot. Typically these calves have also been through a rigid preventive health program.

Mature cows should receive adequate nutrition so that they gain weight during the last third of pregnancy. The protein level for cows is not as important as the energy. The body condition of cows at calving has a large impact on their ability to rebreed. Therefore, cows that are thin going into the winter months may need higher quality hay or possibly grain to help them improve their body condition for calving in the spring.

Bulls can be fed similar to cows. When they are young and growing or while they are in production (breeding cows) they will need higher quality feed. Bulls should be in good body condition at the start of breeding season to insure adequate sperm production for breeding the cows.

Breeding Season

Breeding seasons will vary depending on when you want your calves born. Many producers will breed cows to calve in the spring so that they can take advantage of the flush growth of spring grass. Other producers may breed cows to calve in the fall for the same reason. Regardless of when the calves are born, the bull should be allowed to run with the cows for a specified period of time, typically 60 to 90 days. This allows you to feed all your cows as one group, wean calves at the same time and feed those calves in the same group. If you sell your calves at weaning time, you should also have a more uniform group of calves in terms of weight and age.

When breeding cows you will need to consider how many bulls can cover the number of cows you plan to breed. A mature bull will be able to cover up to 30 cows on average. For yearling bulls, decrease the number of cows to 20. In preparing bulls for breeding season, they should be in good body condition, not overly fat or thin.

Many producers use artifical insemination or A.I. to breed their cows. This practice allows them to use very high quality bulls that they may not otherwise be able to afford. These cows can be bred through visual identification of cows who are in heat or cows can go through an estrus synchronization program so that all the cows are bred at the same time. This allows a producer to time the breeding as well as when he expects the cows to calve. Be sure to have a back up plan or a "clean up" bull who can breed any cows who don't settle through the artifical breeding process.

Regardless of whether the cows are bred naturally or through A.I., a producer can use performance data to help select bulls to mate to certain cows. This information tells a producer what to expect for birth weights, weaning weights and yearling weights. This information can also predict milk production in females as well as carcass characteristics in feedlot cattle.

Calving Season

Producers have different methods for calving cows. In general, you will need to decide if you want to calve the cows outside on pasture or inside the barn. The time of year that you calve will determine to some extent where you calve. Cows calved in the colder part of winter or during periods of cold rains should have those calves inside to decrease the chance of losing calves. Keep in mind, however, that inside calving can increase the incidence of calf scours (diarrhea).

warmer times of the year, cows can calve outside on pasture. Be sure to observe the cow and her calf to make sure the calf is receiving adequate amounts of colostrum, the first milk that is rich in antibodies that protect the calf against sickness.

Weaning Time

Most calves are weaned at 6 to 8 months of age. You can increase the weaning weights of your calves by deworming them 1 to 2 months prior to weaning. In addition, calves will be less stressed at weaning if they have access to dry feed, either hay or grain prior to weaning.

Health Programs

The old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is very true in the cattle business. Time and money spent preventing diseases is much less costly than treating the disease once it occurs in the herd. Calves should be dewormed one to two months before weaning and then vaccinated for IBR, PI3, and BVD as a minimum. Vaccination programs will often include HS (haemophilus somnus), BRSV (bovine respirator syncytial virus), pasteurella haemolytica, Lepto, and clostridia. Mature cattle should receive an annual booster vaccine.

Where Can I Sell My Calves?

Two of the easiest places to sell your calves are through a local auction barn or through a local feeder calf sale. This is always a gamble because you never know what you will receive for your calves. Sometimes that gamble can work in your favor as well as against you. When taking calves to the market, look for those times of the year when demand is high and you are more likely to receive higher prices. For example, early fall and early spring are good times to sell your calves.

Other options for selling calves are to develop your own direct market. This might be selling freezer beef, breeding stock, or feeder calves to a feedlot. Other options are to produce a value-added product such as beef stew or market your beef through your own restaurant. Producing a unique product can also develop niche markets. Be sure to check on any government requirements for selling processed products. Or, you may want to focus on organic beef or grass fed beef. Use your ingenuity to come up with your own special product, but be prepared to spend some time and effort on marketing that product.

Closing Thoughts

Whether you raise purebred breeding stock or commercial cattle for market, you will need to sit down prior to getting started and make some decisions. Spend some time thinking about what you would like to do as well as developing a business and marketing plan. Developing the plans will help you to focus on the goals you wish to achieve as well as provide a valuable source of information to lenders if you plan to borrow money.

Instructors

Agriculture Sheep and Goat Production Beef Production Forage and Pasture Management

More by Melanie Barkley