September 30, 2012

Rounding up the profit

Peter Hagar, Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator

---- — There’s an old saying: “Another day, another dollar.”

Whether you are spending it or making it, every dollar is crucial in the long-term sustainability of your farm operation. In the beef business, there are a lot of dollars left unrealized for a myriad of reasons. While raising beef cattle is done by many small farmers as a hobby, there is no reason not to try to maximize your potential return. A recent speaker at one of our beef meetings offered an amusing comparison. He said your beef farm can either be an entertainment center or it can be a profit center. I’d like to think that it could be both.

If you are running a cow-calf operation, there are many ways of adding value to your calf crop that will return far more than the cost. First, breed for and raise a calf that fits the market you have decided to enter. A lot of folks put a lot of emphasis on the breed of cattle, but you should really want to find a cow that will thrive on the conditions on your farm and breed her for a calf that will sell for the best price. If the current feeder-calf market is looking for black angus steers, why not breed your cows to have black angus calves? Not only can you keep your cow herd of choice, but the resulting cross bred calves will generally grow faster.

Breed your cows to calve in a four-to-six-week period. A group of uniformly sized calves will be more attractive to a buyer who wants to fill a trailer fast. Even a group of five will generally bring more than a single calf. With proper record keeping, you can decide when to introduce the bull and remove him four to six weeks later. Cows that don’t breed can be identified and culled from the herd.

Tag, worm and vaccinate your calves. Proper identification allows for better record keeping, worming will ensure faster growth and vaccination will prevent disease once the calf leaves the farm and enters a totally new and stressful environment. A study has shown that castrating, dehorning and vaccinating feeder calves can add an average of $12 per hundredweight for male feeder calves. For a $10 to $15 investment, that can mean a potential profit of $50 on a 500 lb. calf.

Wean your calves before taking them to the sale or selling them to a buyer. Weaning is stressful and stress makes for sick calves. Sick calves at auction sell at a discount of $10 to $38 per hundredweight. Why would you want to take that chance? Unfortunately, too many feeder calves are not preconditioned. When you check out the auction prices after a feeder-calf sale, you can be sure that the highest prices went to those that were.

For many small beef farmers, the problem lies in a lack of handling facilities. It’s easy enough to put up an electric fence and pasture cattle, but handling beef cattle requires sturdy equipment. After spending a summer on pasture with little or no human contact, the natural response for any beef calf is to flee when cornered. Five hundred pounds of scared calf generally goes right thru or over just about anything. Without a proper corral, chute and head gate, routine vaccines and procedures can be difficult to accomplish.

However, proper facilities do not have to be shiny, new and expensive. With proper size and design, a corral and chute can be constructed at fairly low cost. Probably most important is having a well-built beef-cattle head gate. Old dairy stanchions are usually not acceptable. For both animal health and human safety, the right equipment can make a difficult job much easier.

For information about vaccination protocols and basic handling facilities needed to perform these crucial tasks, call the Extenison office 561-7450 or email

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450, 561-0183, email