Beef Cow-Calf Production

The beef cow-calf business is well adapted to small-scale and part-time farmers who have land suitable for pasture and hay production.
Beef Cow-Calf Production - Articles


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Beef calf

Beef Cow-Calf Production

The United States is the leading beef producer in the world. Between 24 and 27 billion pounds of beef are produced annually in the United States. Beef consumption has been decreasing gradually since the 1970s, when it was over 70 pounds per capita, to less than 55 pounds today. While domestic consumption has been declining, foreign demand has been very strong with the U.S. exporting record amounts of beef in recent years.

Cow-calf production is the first stage of the beef production process. An average of about 2.2 years elapses between the breeding of beef cows and heifers and the time their offspring are ready for slaughter. Heifer calves may be retained for herd expansion or sold along with the steers to feedlot operators, who will continue to grow out these animals and finish them for slaughter.

Currently, there are less than 30 million head of beef cows widely dispersed throughout the United States on over 700,000 farms and ranches. Beef cows are raised in all regions where there is pasture and hay. At present there are 3.8 million beef cattle on 54,000 farms in the northeastern United States.

The beef cow-calf business is well adapted to small-scale and part-time farmers who have land suitable for pasture and hay production. As in most other regions, cow-calf operations in the northeastern United States are rather small. Because of the relatively small size of these operations, however, it has been difficult for individuals to develop innovative marketing programs.

Marketing and Preconditioning

About two-thirds of feeder cattle marketed from cow-calf operations are sold as calves in the third or fourth quarter of the year at or soon after weaning. Calves are sold directly to feeding operations or marketed through specialized feeder calf sales, livestock auctions, and electronic and video sales. A limited market also exists for selling top-quality steer calves to 4-H and FFA members as show prospects.

Because of the wide distribution of cow-calf operations throughout the United States, there are a lot of local markets for feeder calves. The sale prices of calves vary greatly depending on breed, weight, health, uniformity, group size, and the way in which the cattle have been managed. Regardless of whether the calves are sold through a local auction, direct to a cattle feeder, or through a broker, preparation for sale greatly influences sales price and profitability. Using a preconditioning program is an important practice that not only improves sale price but also enhances calf well-being on the farm and in the feedlot. Preconditioning includes weaning the calves about six weeks before sale time, starting them on feed, castrating, dehorning, vaccinating, deworming, and perhaps implanting them with a growth promotant. These practices help ensure that the calves will stay healthy and have a good start in the feedlots.

Most cattle feeders prefer to purchase groups of 40 or more preconditioned calves separated by sex, breed, and weight. Market outlets such as graded sales are popular because calves from different farms can be combined and sorted into uniform groups for sale either by brokers, through traditional auctions, tele-auction (buyers bid by participating in a conference telephone call), video auction (buyers bid after viewing cattle via a satellite downlink), or online auction (buyers bid after viewing cattle on the Internet). If producers market through a tele-auction, video auction, or online auction, their calves do not have to leave the farm to be offered for sale. Uniform sale groups require tight breeding and calving seasons (all within 60 days), proper nutrition of the cow herd and the calf, and strict selection of replacement heifers and herd sires with desirable genetic traits. Another possible marketing niche is the selling of high-quality calves to 4-H and FFA members at prices slightly higher than for commercial feeder calves. However, this market is very small and unpredictable.

Retained ownership is another production/marketing option. Retaining ownership of the calves from the cow-calf herd and either feeding the calves on farm or having the calves "custom fed" at a growing or finishing operation may be advantageous. Retaining ownership provides an opportunity for the herd owner to profit both from the cow-calf operation and from the finishing enterprise. Naturally, with the potential benefits come the additional risks of falling prices and death losses.

Starting a Beef Cow-Calf Herd

There are several different ways of starting a commercial beef cow-calf herd:

  • Buying heifers of either weaning or breeding age
  • Purchasing an entire cow herd
  • Purchasing individual cows from established herds.

When deciding on the source of cows or heifers, the genetic potential and health program of the herd should be considered.

If you have a good, relatively inexpensive source of feed, a good time to purchase bred cows and replacement heifers for spring breeding is in December or January. Feeding these animals until the pasture season begins is expensive, so their selling price will generally be lower. Animals that are purchased during this time of the year should be healthy and tested not only for pregnancy but also for the stage of pregnancy and projected calving date.

Housing and Facilities

A herd calving in late winter or early spring requires little or no housing. However, some provision for maternity pens or sheltered lots should be provided. Except when calving in very cold, wet, and windy conditions, cow herds perform best (and most economically) with shelter only from hills or windbreaks. As long as there is adequate shelter, cold temperatures are not as detrimental to cow or calf health as muddy conditions are with extreme variation between night and day temperatures.

One of the most important facilities in a cow-calf enterprise is a corral and chute. These are essential for normal management and health maintenance practices (e.g., vaccination and deworming), as well as for pregnancy testing or assisting a cow at calving. A cattle-handling system can be designed as a one-person operation using wing fences and crowding gates to assist in moving cattle to automatic head gates. For possible designs for cattle-handling facilities, consult the suggested references at the end of this publication.

Health Program

The most important component of a herd health program is the use of vaccinations. Any health program should include vaccinations for infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), parainfluenza 3 (PI3), bovine syncytial virus (BRSV), bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), haemophilus sommus, leptospirosis, and clostridial diseases. Fecal samples should be taken on a random selection of all cattle of different ages to determine internal parasite infections. An appropriate deworming schedule can be developed from the results of the fecal tests. Treatment for lice and flies is also essential for maintaining animal well-being and performance.

Another way of reducing cattle health problems is to isolate the herd. Purchasing herd replacements from breeders who have long-established vaccination programs and a history of well-managed cattle can reduce herd health problems. Calving early in the spring also reduces the seriousness of various calf diseases. Producers should be sure to consult a veterinarian when developing a health program.

Use of Growth Promotants

Cow-calf enterprises can benefit from the use of growth-promoting implants. These implants can increase both feed efficiency and growth rate. Some growth promotants can be used twice during the pre-weaning period (weaning at seven months of age). Preconditioning programs also include implanting at or shortly after weaning. Make sure you follow the implanting instructions and recommended length of time between implants. Implanting can increase calf weaning weights by 4 to 8 percent and is one of the most profitable individual practices that can be applied to beef cattle management. The final market for your beef and consumer acceptance, however, will dictate whether you should use performance enhancers.

Nutrition and Feeding

One of the advantages of the beef cow herd is that relatively low-quality forages can be fed to the bred cows after the calves have been weaned. For a cow herd calving in March (calves weaned in October), relatively low-quality forages can be used for the three-month period from November to January. However, relatively high-quality forages should be available for the cows starting approximately two months before calving. Feeding high-quality forages during this period allows the cows to gain weight, rebreed quickly, and produce sufficient milk to yield heavy calves at weaning.

It is important to provide trace-mineralized salt and a source of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium throughout the year, preferably through free-choice loose salt and mineral sources. In many areas, mineral supplements should also contain selenium.

Spring calving usually is preferred in the northeastern United States for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Feeding least-cost high-quality forages soon after calving
  • Making the best use of low-quality forages early in the winter during the immediate post-weaning period
  • Grouping calving in the spring for sale in the fall
  • Rearing calves in a more healthy environment on pasture as opposed to rearing fall calves in a dry lot over the winter


Approximately two-thirds of the forage requirements for a cow-calf herd should come from pasture and the other third from stored feed (hay or silage). Feed costs for the cow herd can be reduced by grazing corn fields after harvest and providing cool-season stockpiled forages such as tall fescue. Pasture with tall fescue and similar early growing grasses also can be used as calving areas. Some small grains, such as rye or wheat, offer the same potential for early winter and spring grazing. Midsummer grazing can be improved with the use of brassicas, annual grasses such as sudangrass, and alfalfa/grass combination pastures.

Many intensive grazing systems have been developed for beef cattle. Intensive rotational grazing systems can increase beef production per acre by 25 percent or more without reducing cattle performance. Other practices, such as creep grazing (in which the calves graze the pastures in a rotational scheme ahead of the cows), also can increase calf weaning weights and reduce or replace grain in the diet.

Environmental Impacts

In the normal course of operations, farmers handle pesticides and other chemicals, may have manure to collect and spread, and use equipment to prepare fields and harvest crops. Any of these routine on-farm activities can be a potential source of surface water or groundwater pollution. Because of this possibility, you must understand the regulations concerning the proper handling and application of chemicals and the disposal and transport of waste. Depending on the watershed where your farm is located, there may be additional environmental regulations regarding erosion control, pesticide leaching, and nutrient runoff. Contact your soil and water conservation district, extension office, zoning board, state departments of agriculture and environmental protection, and your local governing authorities to determine what regulations may pertain to your operation.

Risk Management

You should carefully consider how to manage risk on your farm. First, you should insure your facilities and equipment. This may be accomplished by consulting your insurance agent or broker. It is especially important to have adequate levels of property, vehicle, and liability insurance. You will also need workers' compensation insurance if you have any employees. You may also want to consider your needs for life and health insurance and if you need coverage for business interruption or employee dishonesty. For more on agricultural business insurance, see Agricultural Business Insurance. For more information on farm liability issues, see Understanding Agricultural Liability.

Second, check to see if there are multi-peril crop insurance programs available for your crop or livestock enterprises. There are crop insurance programs designed to help farmers manage both yield risk and revenue shortfalls. However, individual crop insurance coverage is not available for all crops or livestock enterprises. If individual coverage is not available for what you produce, you may be able to use the AGR/AGR-Lite program to insure the revenue of your entire farm operation. To use AGR-Lite you must have five years of Internal Revenue

Service (IRS) Schedule F forms. For more information concerning crop insurance, contact a crop insurance agent or check the Penn State Extension website.

Another way to manage risk in the livestock industry is by forward contracting through the futures market. You can use the futures market to both "lock in" your cost for purchased feed and the price you receive for your livestock. The idea behind forward contracting is to reduce income variability and set a price well in advance of when the animals are sold. Waiting until the sales date to determine the price for your cattle involves much risk. Although you may receive higher prices in some years, lower prices are also a distinct possibility. Obtaining a higher price than expected is certainly good news, but obtaining a lower price may have a major negative impact your ability to weather the volatility inherent in the cattle market. Using the futures market allows you to eliminate this concern and lock in a price that meets your business goals and cash flow requirements. However, using the futures market does not ensure that you can generate a profit. During periods of high feed costs and low livestock prices there are often very few livestock producers who can generate a profit.

Sample Budget

Included in this publication is a sample beef cow-calf budget summarizing the costs and returns of a cow-calf enterprise using a feeding program of hay and pasture. The cow-calf enterprise assumes the sale of steer calves at 550 pounds and heifers at 525 pounds and includes the cost of growing replacements. This budget should help ensure that you include all costs and receipts in your calculations. Costs and returns are often difficult to estimate in budget preparation because they are numerous and variable. Think of this budget as an approximation and make appropriate adjustments using the "your estimate" column to reflect your specific production conditions. Additional livestock budgets can be found on the Penn State Extension website. More information on using livestock budgets can be found in Enterprise Budget Analysis.

You can make changes to the interactive PDF budget files for this publication by inputting your own prices and quantities in the green outlined cells for any item. The cells outlined in red automatically calculate your revised totals based on the changes you made to the cells outlined in green. You will need to click on and add your own estimated price and quantity information to all of the green outlined cells to complete your customized budget. When you are done, you can print the budget using the green Print Form button at the bottom of the form. You can use the red Clear Form button to clear all the information from your budget when you are finished.

Sample Budget Worksheet

Initial Resource Requirements

  • Investment in Cattle and Equipment: 50 females @ $750 to $1,200 per cow $37,500-60,000
  • Two bulls @ $1,000 to $2,000 $2,000-4,000
  • Total $39,500-64,000

(If artificial insemination was used during the early part of the breeding season, one bull would be adequate)

  • All-purpose building for calving, hay, and grain storage $5,000-12,500
  • Corral or handling facility with headgate $500-5,000
  • Fencing $5,000-8,000
  • Feeding bunks and racks $250-1,000

For More Information

  • Becker, J. C., L. F. Kime, J. K. Harper, and R. Pifer. Understanding Agricultural Liability. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2011.
  • Comerford, J. W., L. F. Kime, and J. K. Harper. Beef Backgrounding Production. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2013.
  • Comerford, J. W., L. F. Kime, K. E. Knoll, and J. K. Harper. Dairy-Beef Production. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2008.
  • Greaser, G. L., and J. K. Harper. Enterprise Budget Analysis. University Park: Penn State Extension, 1994.
  • Kime, L. F., J. W. Adamik, E. E. Gantz, and J. K. Harper. Agricultural Business Insurance. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2004.
  • Thomas, H. S. The Cattle Health Handbook. North Adams, Mass.: Storey Publishing, 2009.
  • Thomas, H. S. Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle. 3rd ed. North Adams, Mass.: Storey Publishing, 2009.



Pennsylvania Cattlemen's Association
27 Tompkinsville Road
Scott Township PA 18433
Phone: 570-254-6856


Prepared by John W. Comerford, associate professor of animal science; George L. Greaser, senior research associate in agricultural economics; H. Louis Moore, professor of agricultural economics; and Jayson K. Harper, professor of agricultural economics.

This publication was developed by the Small-scale and Part-time Farming Project at Penn State with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Extension Service and research funds administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.