I spent my first four years in the grazing business running custom cow-calf pairs. It wasn’t profitable for me and I determined that it wasn’t the best use of my resources (as I discussed in some of my On Pasture articles in 2018). In spring 2018, I switched to being a seasonal operation. I bought 35 open yearling Red Angus heifers in April from a grass genetic cow-calf operation. I ran them with bulls, pregnancy checked them, and sold them at the Ohio Land and Cattle fall production sale in November.
I expected to have some issues to work through during my first try at this project, and there definitely were. Some things went right, some went wrong, and though I ultimately took a loss on the heifers, I plan to raise another group in 2019. I feel that I can avoid making the same mistakes twice and can develop heifers profitably in 2019. Here’s a summary of what I did right with my 2018 group.
I set my stocking rate correctly when choosing to buy 35 heifers. They came in averaging 600 pounds, and were sold at 750-800 pounds. I had a big enough herd that they ate all the grass I wanted to remove. No grazeable grass was left unused, therefore converting the maximum amount of grass to cash. But it was not so big a herd that they exceeded the sustainable carrying capacity of my farm. I did not get sucked into overgrazing in an attempt to keep them fed.
I managed my grazing better this year than in any other past year. The spring flush came and my cattle were swimming in grass, but I kept them moving fast enough so as to leave most of the forage for the rest of the year. For the first month or two I was excited because it appeared that my farm could support a good deal more heifers than my carrying capacity calculations indicated. But I told myself to save as much grass as possible, because I know from experience how quickly forage can disappear. I was right to predict that the gap between forage growth rate and cattle consumption rate would close later in the year. At the time the heifers got on the Ohio truck in November, there were only a few days of grazeable forage left ahead of them. If I had taken off too much grass in the spring, I might have run out of grass in the fall.
I was very fortunate to get a wet summer. The grass never stopped growing and there was only a week of hot weather (above 90 degrees). My ponds stayed full. Excellent water supply in all areas of my farm gave me maximum paddock design flexibility. If it had been a dry summer, I probably would have run out of grass. Therefore I will probably decrease my stocking rate slightly in 2019 just to be safe. You should always stock for a dry year, not a rainy one. You can always bale extra grass or take on more cattle, but having to dump cattle in a drought market flooded by panicking farmers stinks.
I had almost no startup costs or heifer-specific overheads for the heifer enterprise. I redesigned my working facility to be a little bigger, but since it is used by all cattle enterprises I have, I did not attribute that cost directly to the heifers. My corral needed work anyway. The bulk of the costs for the heifer project were direct costs: purchase, trucking, hay, mineral and marketing expenses.
The quality of the heifers I bought was very good. They came through a stressful arrival and first few days on my farm with flying colors. I did not treat a single one for anything the whole time I owned them. They were well-muscled with large gut capacity and an appropriate frame size for all-grass production. I bought them private treaty instead of from a sale barn, because I wanted to know their genetics and management history. I also knew I didn’t have the resources to treat the kind of problems cattle can pick up at the sale barn. I didn’t want the potential losses from disease.
Through a combination of expertise and luck, a lot went right in my first year as a seasonal heifer developer. But of course, I made plenty of Boneheaded Beef Business Blunders. I’ll share them next month, as well as my plans to avoid them in 2019.