Tuesday, June 25, 2024
HomeLivestockBeef CattleRaising Your Own Replacements? Maybe You Shouldn't

Raising Your Own Replacements? Maybe You Shouldn’t

We get a cross-section of livestock producers at the Ranching For Profit School. A session can include outfits with more than 10,000 cows and others with less than 100 attend the course.  When it comes to enterprise selection and structure, most of the small places look like miniature versions of the large ones.  That’s a problem because size matters and what works for the large scale producers isn’t always a good idea for folks working at a smaller scale. One size doesn’t fit all.

One of the things limited-scale producers should challenge is their replacement strategy.  Like most of their bigger neighbors, most small scale producers assume they should raise their own replacements. Assuming that a cow/calf enterprise is best suited to their situation (a dangerous assumption), most small scale producers are well advised not to raise their own replacements.  The gross margin per unit of heifer enterprises is usually significantly lower than the margin per unit in the cow herd they support. When capacity is limiting, it is hard to economically justify having an enterprise with a relatively low gross margin. Of course, if you don’t know your enterprise gross margins, decisions regarding enterprise mix and structure can only be based on guesswork and emotion.

Some argue that they have special genetics. This claim is similar to the results of a recent survey in which 90% of American drivers felt they had above average driving skills. By definition at least 40% of them are wrong.  I’ve been told by geneticists that producers with fewer than 400 cows simply don’t have a large enough of a genetic pool to select from to claim an outstanding breeding program.  This doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to raise quality cattle on a limited scale, but the deck is stacked against it.

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There are economic realities every business must face.  We must keep overheads low, the margin per unit high and recognize that size matters. If we are limited by scale, a limitation that is usually self-imposed, trying to produce profit by copying the business model of larger scale neighbors rarely works. One size does not fit all.

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Dave Pratt
Dave Pratthttps://www.ranchmanagement.com/index.html
Dave Pratt is one of the most sought after speakers and respected authorities on sustainable ranching in North America. He’s earned a reputation for innovative teaching with a practical edge and has helped hundreds of farmers and ranchers develop and implement strategies to improve their land, strengthen their relationships and increase profit. His programs, which include the Ranching For Profit School and Executive Link, have benefited thousands of families and millions of acres. Dave’s new book, Healthy Land Happy Families and Profitable Businesses has received high acclaim from industry leaders. Joel Salatin said, “This book delivers more meaningful advice in one small space than I’ve ever seen.” Wayne Fahsholtz, former President and CEO of Padlock Ranch advised, “If you are serious about wanting your ranch to be successful / sustainable, than this is an important read.” Stan Parsons called it, “…the best book ever written about ranching anywhere.”


  1. Same here Brian…we couldn’t find anything local which was appealing when we had the funds for purchase. Don’t know if the route we chose is the best. We bought several breeds of cattle all from different ranch origins but all were “preferred grass efficient genetics”. An efficient cow will have the same phenotype regardless of breed…you know what you want when you see one. We run them together and let preg check sort out the winners and losers in our environment, ecosystem and management. Not many local folks following the same grazing management nor have the same diverse forage base….so there is no ‘buy what you need, open the gate, and enjoy peaches and cream’!

    Placing total emphasis on weight….like any other single trait…is apt to reveal some unintended consequences of selection in the phenotype. Should we not also consider frame size? Weight gain within frame size? Should cow efficiency on standing grass not be the main metric? At what weight within frame do we start discounting gut capacity which is important on low quality forage?

    Commercial bred heifers mentioned above ran around $1800 back in March…a premium over local market. Not freely advertised so one should ask some high caliber folks about those type of cattle to find them.

    If we have efficient cows that wean 55% of their weight on standing grass at 10 months, the heifer from the 1000 lb cow weighs 550 lbs and needs to gain 100 lbs over the next 150 days to reach the magic 65% of mom’s weight (0.65 lb/d….1300 lb cow, 715 lb heifer 10 months old, and 845 lb at 15 months (same 0.65 lb/d). If she breeds fine…if not you’ll have a grass finisher to eat or market. Those gains are achievable on nothing but grass under reasonable grazing management. Both cow sizes fall in the 3-5 frame range. Where we get into trouble is saving heifers from dams weaning 30-40% of their mom’s weight…those will cost more $$ to develop. But the efficient heifers will keep costs under the $1800 mark easily!

    As a large HMI ranch manager told me one day. I’ve seen some good old big cows and some sorry little cows over the years….but I like your cow size!

  2. I completely agree that it would be cheaper to buy replacements. The problem we have in SW MO is that the only way to buy good young replacement cows are through dispersals. I’m curious what source other people have for buying replacements.

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