A Strategy for Building a Beef Cow Herd
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Building a beef cow herd is challenging for beginning and younger cow-calf producers due to the intensive capital requirements and approximate 27-month lag between the initial purchase of heifers and the sale of a calf crop. A three-phase herd-building strategy and summarization of the results of an economic analysis of the strategy for the Oklahoma cattle market are described below.
In Phase I, the producer borrows the necessary funds to purchase 100 weaned heifers in this example. (Alternatively, bred heifers could be purchased to shorten the time to calf sales, but at a higher initial cash outlay.) The weaned heifers are placed on pasture and bred at around 14 months to 15 months of age. Open heifers are sold as feeder heifers and the revenue is used to pay down debt, as well as feed and veterinary expenses. In Phase II, heifers calve around 24 months of age and calves are weaned with 70% of heifer calves retained as breeding stock. Steer calves and remaining heifer calves are sold. In Phase III, cows are rebred three months after their first calving and sold about four months later. As second-calf heifers (“two-coming-threes”), they are at their highest market value. It is assumed open cows are culled at cull cow prices.1 By selling weaned steer and heifer calves, rebred cows and culled cows, sufficient cash may be generated to repay debt incurred for the initial heifer purchase and operating expenses. At the end of Phase III, the producers retains part of the heifer crop—approximately 29 head. In most years, the producer has paid off all debt and operating expenses, owning the 29 heifers debt free. Replicating the process, the producer can build a herd of 100 cows in about four years.
1 This is a conservative assumption as the culled cows are under 30 months of age and qualify as “Grade A” beef.
In ShalekBriski et al. (2021), this strategy using calf prices, cull cow prices, feed prices and pasture rental rates for Oklahoma was analyzed. Data from 2003-2019 were used. The production assumptions and production costs are summarized in Tables 1 and 2. Oklahoma budgets resulted in positive net cash flows and net returns for 13 of the 14 cycles, which is summarized in Table 3. Feed costs were approximated using
|Heifer Weight at Purchase||450 pounds|
|Heifer Age at Purchase||205 days|
|Percent of Initial Heifer Purchase Financed||100%|
|Interest Rate of Financed Initial
|Age at Breeding||450 days|
|Age at First Cull||570 days|
|Weight at First Cull||810 pounds|
|Age at Calving||733 days|
|Calf Age at Weaning||205 days|
|Weaning Weight: Steer Calves||450 pounds|
|Weaning Weight: Heifer Calves||425 pounds|
|Cow Rebreeding Age||833 days|
|Cull Open Cows Age||938 days|
|Weight of Culled Open Cows||1,180 pounds|
|Age of Bred “Twos-coming-Threes”
|Weight of Bred “Twos-coming-Threes”
|Assumptions for All Phases|
|Percentage of Operating Expenses Financed||75%|
|Interest Rate of Operating Expenses Financed||5%|
*Source: ShalekBriski et al. (2020)
CowCulator (Lalman and Gill, 2017), feed prices and pasture rental rates varying by
Results are encouraging for most cycles except for the 2014 cycle. If heifer calves were purchased in fall 2014, net cash flow was projected to be negative as feeder calf prices in 2014 were abnormally high. Conversely, cattle prices were lower in 2016 when the steers and heifers from the 2014-purchased heifers were sold. This resulted in negative cash flows for the fall 2014 cycle.
|Production costs ($ per head)*|
|Feed Expense: Pre-breeding||250d|
|Veterinary and Medical Expense: Pre-breeding||$15|
|Feed Expense: Gestation||283d|
|Veterinary and Medical Expense: Gestation||$5|
|Feed Expense: Lactation, Rebreeding
|Veterinary and Medical Expense: Lactation,
Rebreeding and Post-Lactation
|Feed Expense: Bred Cows Post Weaning||90d|
|Open Cows Post Weaning||7d|
|Veterinary and Medical Expense||$5|
*Source: ShalekBriski et al. (2021)
The abnormally high calf prices in fall 2014 resulted in high net cash flows and net
returns for the cycles beginning in 2012 and 2013. Initial heifer purchases were at
lower prices relative to 2014 prices. Sales of calves, rebred cows and cull cows from
the 2012 cycle were made in fall 2014, resulting in extremely high returns for the
2012 cycle. The 2013 cycle sold cull heifers as feeder heifers into the fall 2014
market, also resulting in high net cash flow and returns.
Sensitivity analyses were used to evaluate the robustness of the strategy to decreases in herd revenues and increases
|Baseline and sensitivity of net cash flow (top) and net return (bottom) due to reduced revenue and increased cost.|
|Revenue as % of baseline||Cost as % of baseline|
|Cash flow≥0||13 years*||10 years||8 years||10 years||8 years|
|Net return≥0||13 years||13 years||8 years||13 years||9 years|
* Number of years (out of 14 simulated) with positive net cash flows (top) and net returns (bottom).
in heifer purchase cost and operating expenses. The resulting net cash flows and net returns also are reported in Table 3. Revenues were decreased by 10% and 25%. At the 10% revenue reduction level, the strategy is projected to have positive net cash flows and net returns 10 and 13 cycles of the 14 cycles. At the lowest revenue level, just 75% of baseline, the strategy is projected to have positive net cash flows and net returns eight of the 14 cycles. Similarly, all costs were increased by 10% and 25%. Net cash flows and net returns are slightly less sensitive to cost increases than to revenue decreases. A 10% increase in costs had projected positive net cash flows and net returns 10 and 13 cycles of the 14 cycles. A 25% increase in costs had projected positive net cash flows and net returns eight and nine cycles, respectively, of the 14 cycles evaluated.
Along with the high capital outlays and long-term lags, beginning cow-calf producers face other difficulties, such as land acquisition, student loan debt and knowledge to efficiently run the operation. However, the results of this strategy are encouraging. The timing of purchases relative to large price swings results in either large positive (if bought low and sold high) or negative (if bought high and sold low) net cash flows and net returns. In more “typical” years, building a herd for a first-time cow-calf producer seems financially feasible. Operating debt is incurred but can be paid down through selling cull heifers, steer calves and open cows. However, individual producers should work with county Extension educators and agricultural lenders to evaluate their personal situation before investing in breeding heifers.
ShalekBriski, A. E.A. DeVuyst, C.S. DeVuyst, R.Sahs, M. Stockton and K. Ramy. “Financing Beef Cow Herd Building for Beginning Ranchers,” Journal of Applied Farm Economics, 2021 (forthcoming).