So You Wanna Be a Cowboy

Most of us who are interested in making a living off of our land by grazing look first at cow/calf pairs. It’s not surprising, cows are enjoyable, easy to manage, hardy, and I think there is a little bit of all of us that like the idea of being cowboys or cattlewomen. But we do need to ask ourselves, are we in this grazing business as a hobby or to be a productive and profitable business? If it’s a hobby, great! There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, if your intention is to be a business, it’s important to consider the costs associated with cow/calf and some of the alternative grazing enterprises that may allow us to meet our goals of managing our land well as graziers while also achieving higher levels of profitability.

First question: what are the costs and how can we reduce them? Well, there are many costs including summer grazing, winter feed, depreciation, vet expenses, breeding, and many more. The University of Minnesota’s FINBIN data after surveying 102 farmers showed a net loss after labor and management costs of $275/cow (see figure below). There are ways to improve this number that would be too complicated to go into in this column, but in short, improved grazing management, grazing cover crops and crop residues, improved stockmanship and other changes can all help reduce your cost to raise a calf. When we move more towards a system that mimics nature and away from a high input system, we have the potential to improve profitability.