If your hobby farm includes beef cattle, you’ve likely experienced a big upturn in the beef market the last few years. The “buy local” food trend increased the numbers of people interested in buying locally grown and processed beef.
Of course there’s more going on than just eat local market pressures. Add COVID-19 and the rush to buy and fill a freezer with good, locally sourced meat and produce, and you have a perfect storm of demand for beef.
You might be a breeding stock operation, a cow-calf producer or a freezer beef specialist. But whatever type of beef operation you own, in the last three years you’ve had a strong market in which to sell your animals.
Time to Upgrade!
All this increase in demand for local beef is likely to continue as new beef processing and marketing options develop.
Farmers with enough land and farm help are, in response, increasing the size of their herds. Private butcher operations are increasing their capacity for slaughter. New butcher facilities are being built, and meat inspector positions are being added to support those new facilities.
If you want to make sure your beef operation stays competitive, now is the time to upgrade your herd and your herd management practices.
The upgrade process starts with evaluating each animal in your herd. Ask yourself:
- Have you kept the same bull more than five years?
- Is he easy to manage?
- Is his influence positive in your calves?
- What about your brood cows? (A good brood cow can remain productive for 10 years of more.)
- Are any of your cows a management problem?
- Has your breeding season expanded from 60 to 90 days to more than six months or even longer?
Herd Management Practices
Proper herd management practices are the foundation of any productive herd.
Good herdsmen check the health and wellbeing of their cattle daily. They provide quality feed and pastures and a regular health management program that includes yearly vaccinations and a regular worming program.
They keep good records, tracking a list of traits their calves inherit from their parents. In the beef industry we call these EPDs: Expected Progeny Differences.
What traits are important to your cattle operation? Calving ease (birth weight) and docility are two important traits that help produce profitable calves and make your herd easier to manage. Other important traits include calf weaning weight, yearling weight, maternal milk and carcass traits such as marbling, rib eye area and fat thickness.
Different breeds track other individual EPDs. But these are the ones everyone tracks for good cattle.
Bull vs. AI
If your cattle are healthy and well cared for, the easiest and fastest way to upgrade a herd with the traits that are most marketable is to purchase a new bull. You may also choose to move into AI (artificial insemination).
There are pros and cons to both options.
Bulls need separate facilities to be well managed. Purchasing a single herd bull of good quality will come with a hefty price tag. Do your homework, buy from reputable bull sales or through private treaty from well-known breeders.
Your state probably has a cattleman’s association that produces specialty bull sales offering a variety of breeds. Don’t shy away from registered stock with published EPDs.
Artificial insemination is less costly than buying a quality herd bull. You can figure about $75 per cow or heifer. AI bulls have published EPDs, and you get multiple breed choices.
On the downside, AI takes more time and requires handling your cows—usually three to four visits into your cattle chute.
One major pro is estrus, or heat synchronization, which brings all your cows in standing heat at the same time. An AI technician can then inseminate your whole herd in one trip. The result is your cows and heifers will calve within a few days of each other, giving you a more marketable calf crop.
Keep in mind, however, that AI is not 100 percent accurate. Up to 30 percent of your cows may not be bred. Most operations will buy or rent a lesser quality “clean up” bull to catch open cows.