Any new business venture requires time, money, and lots of knowledge but often people get into the cattle business unprepared because it seems fun or they inherited the family farm. If you are ready to literally roll up your sleeves and start a cattle business you will first need to have a good business plan. This article is intended for those just starting to acquire the knowledge they need before purchasing their first cow.
Creating your business plan
Do you really want to start a cattle business? Many cattle ranchers share stories of neighbors or acquaintances who got into the cattle business naively and had nothing but vet bills, overhead, and lots of mud. The cattle business is hands-on, so if you cringe at the idea of having your arm shoulder deep in the back end of a cow, then you won't enjoy calving season. Treating sick animals, stepping in cow patties, surviving the elements and never having a day off is a very short excerpt from a cattleman's job description. Also remember that someone is going to eat that adorable little calf someday.
What type of cow operation are you interested in?Three main categories are a seed-stock operation, where you are breeding high-end purebred animals to sell as future breeding animals and show stock; commercial cattle breeding, where your animals are intended for the meat market or replacement brood cows; or a feedlot, where you do no breeding but buy young animals and get them to finished weight before selling to the butcher. When breeding purebreds for seed-stock your buyers will want to know lots of information on your animals, which may require you to ultrasound them to measure rib eye area and intramuscular fat percentage. You will need to weigh your animals at birth and weaning and you will most likely be breeding by artificial insemination and maybe embryo transfer. When starting a seed-stock operation your marketing plan is equally important to your cow quality and you need to have the resources for both. A commercial herd requires far less paper work but often requires large numbers of cows to make a substantial profit. You will still need to keep good track of your animals to make sure your bulls are producing the calves you want and that your heifers grow into reliable producing mothers. If breeding is not your thing and you don't have much pasture space a feedlot may fit you best. Expect a huge feed bill, and to be constantly buying and selling animals. You'll need lots of contacts and steady buyers.
What sets you apart? Every business needs clear goals that make them unique. If you breed seed-stock, what breed of cow suits you and your local market best? Will you breed with frozen semen to the best bulls in the country and rent or buy a lesser value clean-up bull for the cows not caught, or will you have your own high quality top dollar bulls? If you breed commercially you will most likely have crossbred cows and breed to your own bull, but what makes your herd special? Are you interested in raising organic cows? Does you registered bull's offspring qualify for registration as half bloods? As a feedlot do you have a special feed blend that gets your steers to weight quickly? Do you have a specific buyer, work in conjunction with a nearby butcher, or open your own butchery?
What facilities do you need? How many cows or cow/calf pairs can you support? Your cattle need shelter. If you are making your own hay or grain you will need equipment to do so. A cattle farmer would be lost without a skid steer or at least a tractor with a loader to clean out the barns. Having your own truck and stock trailer will also make life easier but may not be necessary.
Where will you buy your cattle? If you are buying seed-stock cows at an elite breed auction, prepare to write a fat check as there is no ceiling on the potential cost of a well bred cow. Commercial cows should cost less but you will need to have a good eye for a cow's health and conformation. You can also buy privately, which might get you a great deal, especially if buying many animals from a cattlemen who is downsizing or retiring, but you could also easily overpay if you don't know your market.
How will you market your product? Maybe you have a buyer before you even start or maybe you will sell at commercial or purebred auctions as you build a name and begin to find private buyers. Would it benefit your business to advertise in cattlemen's magazines? Do you have a special bull you want to promote? Any business with a great product can only prosper if others know about it. Make sure buyers know you have cattle to sell.
Keep learning. People who run successful seed-stock companies are almost obsessed with researching their cow's genetics. Commercial cattlemen with large numbers of pregnant cows get better and better at pulling calves, doing their own vet work, and learning what to breed their animals to for the easiest birthing. Feedlot operators improve their eye for cheap animals that have the potential for quick growth and fast profit. Read, research and attend lots of auctions to learn more about your cows and your market.