If you are considering raising beef cattle, you may think that you will have to buy a bunch of cows and a bull and learn all about bovine reproduction. You may believe that you'll need to buy hay equipment, lots of land, barns, and other things. Of course, that is one way to get into the cattle business. However, you can raise cattle without ever having a cow give birth on your farm. In the United States, cattle operations usually fall into one of four categories.
1. Cow-calf operations
Cow-calf operations are your typical farm. The farmer has a bunch of cows, has them bred, either by artificial insemination or by a bull. The goal is to raise one calf per cow per year. The calves are usually sold at weaning or by the time they are a year old.
Many people enjoy this type of farming. They carefully cull their herds to make sure that they are breeding animals that raise the largest calves in that first year. These operations are usually beef animals, and they sell pretty much all their steers and, unless they are raising replacement heifers, most of their heifers.
One downside of this operation is that the farmer is responsible for every stage of life for the cows. He must be diligent about herd health and having his cows bred on time each year. This work is all year long, too. Even in the heat of summer and cold of winter, the cattle must be cared for.
2. Stocker Operation
Some people prefer to run a stocker operation. These folks buy calves at weaning age, fatten them on summer pastures and sell them in less than a year. This is a great way to use empty fields without the year-round commitment of farming. The steers can keep the fields mowed and fertilized for you, get fat on your grass, and put money in your pocket at sale time.
The success of this venture is largely tied to the price of beef. If you end up in a dry year and have to sell when everyone else is trying to sell, you won't be able to make as much money. Some years, just the investment of the weaned calves can be difficult if the cost of weaned steers is high.
Feedlots buy the fattened steers, and sometimes freshly weaned calves and put weight on them by stuffing them with large quantities of grain. The feedlot is the last stop for the cow. From the feedlot, the animal goes right to the slaughterhouse. It's pretty unusual for small-time farmers to be in the feedlot business. Commercial feedlots feed hundreds of animals and can buy enough corn to get a very good price per pound, something that small-time farmers can't usually do.
4. Seed-stock Operations
Seed-stock operations raise registered cattle of a particular breed and sell them for their pedigrees. These types of operations require careful attention to detail and conscientious record keeping. These operations sell their heifers and bulls to other farmers to improve their herds.
The beauty of being a small time farmer is that you can be a combination of all of the above. Here on our farm, we raise a small herd of cross-bred cattle whose offspring are often sold at the sale barn. We also have a small herd of registered animals. We sell our young registered bulls and heifers for their pedigrees. Additionally, on our farm we usually have one or two steers hanging around. If our family doesn't need the meat, we will fatten the animals and sell them to friends and neighbors who will have them processed for beef.