When starting a cattle operation, several factors should be considered before buying livestock

Starting a farming operation of any capacity can be very daunting, especially a cow/calf operation. Where should you start? Should you buy bred heifers or mature cows? How many head can your land handle?

The initial consideration should be funding. Would-be-producers will need to put together a management plan with a budget prior to purchasing any livestock. The upfront capital to start an operation may require a loan and securing financing could be difficult. If you do not already have property, consider renting. It is significantly cheaper to rent than it is to purchase, especially as a beginning rancher.

The next important step is to get the property ready to operate. This includes repairing fences (or replacing where needed), sampling soil to determine fertility needs, the addition of livestock watering systems and controlling weed problems.

“Sometimes it is very difficult to do these types of items properly with livestock on the property,” said Dr. Randall Wiedmeier, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension.

To have the most efficient grazing system, the top priorities should be soil fertility, weed management, and an appropriate head per acre ratio. It is important beginning producers determine if a cow/calf operation is the best use of their farm and time resources. Cow/calf operations require some level of management 365 days per year and management sometimes is not very flexible. The University of Missouri Extension, Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and the USDA-NRCS host grazing schools across Southwest Missouri annually. If you are considering starting an operation and would like additional information of the previously mentioned topics, consider attending one of these grazing schools to expand your knowledge.

As you make all of these decisions, one of the most important decisions will be buying your livestock. Should you buy mature cows or bred heifers? Ideally you should seek something that will provide a quick turnaround for your initial animal base.

“Consider pregnant females, cow/calf pairs or stocker calves,” said Dr. Phillip Lancaster, assistant professor of beef cattle production at Missouri State University. “Each of these will provide income in one year or less.”

In regards to pregnant females, Lancaster suggested bred cows rather than heifers because they are typically more cost effective and will be better mothers. They will also wean a heavier calf.

On the subject of replacement heifers, many beginning cattle producers have small herds of between 10 and 40 cows. In fact most of the cow/calf producers in Southwest Missouri are of this size. If small producers decide to raise their own replacement heifers, they will be limited to using a calving-ease bull year after year. This can lead to some production problems. Many of the experts in the field of beef cattle production advise that small cow/calf farms buy all of their replacement heifers, which will allow more flexibility in bull selection in the long-run.

The road to ranching can be long. It’s important to educate yourself and gain hands on experience. If you don’t have a lot of cattle working experience, it’s important to expose yourself to that and get your feet wet. It is a big job.

“If you find a producer you think is doing it right, befriend them,” said Lancaster. “Get yourself a mentor.”

Take heed to Lancaster’s advice and slowly begin to integrate yourself into the operation. Consider all the possibilities, find a lender, research your livestock, and find support. Once you have accomplished those four tasks, you’re on the right road.


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