What type of cattle operation will suit you?

by Farmer Liz
We are only new to the cattle industry, and I may get some of the terminology wrong in this post, but I was hoping to explain a few things that I've learnt about the cattle industry in Australia.  Broadly speaking, there are three different types of cattle operations.  The first is “cow and calf”, where you own a number of cows and a bull, aim to produce one calf from each cow per year, and either fatten the calves or sell at weaning age.  This leads to the second type, which is to buy those weaners and fatten them to feed-lot size.  Finally, some very dedicated and skilled individuals will chose to run a stud, producing consistent pure-bred cattle, particularly bulls, which may be purchased by cow and calf operations as breeding stock.  Each type of operation has its pros and cons and the one that’s best for you will depend on your land, your available time, and knowledge of cattle, and of course you can have a bit of a mixture if you want to.

our pen of steers at the sale yards
When we first bought our property Cheslyn Rise, it was already fenced and had a nice wooden stock yard, so it was very easy for us to buy a load of 17 steers from the sale yards with the aim of fattening them.  Fattening weaners is the quickest and easiest way to get started with cattle.  All you need is fences, a yard and ramp, and your property registration (NLIS in Australia).  The hardest part is when you first get the weaners, because they are young and don’t know your property, they tend to run around and break fences at first, but when they get used to the place, they should almost look after themselves, particularly if you have plenty of grass for them to eat (read about our stressful experience with steers here).  

The best thing is, if you start to run out of grass, you just sell the cattle.  However, this can be a problem if everyone else needs to sell at the same time, as the market value for your cattle can decrease by several cents per kg.  In our experience, its very difficult to make a profit from fattening weaners.  I guess its one of those things where its just too easy, no pain, no gain right.  The problem is that the per kg price of steers decreases as they get heavier.  We bought our steers at $2.10/kg when they weighed around 300 kg each.  When we sold them they were around 400 kg each and the price was only $1.70/kg.  This was an extreme example, as we had to also sell in a depressed market during the dry period, however it does show that it can be very difficult to make any profit unless you are very clever and buy and sell at just the right times.  By the time we paid for transport, stock agent fees and various other related fees, not to mention the hay we fed them over winter, we only just broke even, there was certainly no profit to be made.
the brafords
After we bought the steers, we could see that it wasn’t going to be easy to make a profit, so we started to investigate buying cows thinking that it would be better to breed calves instead of buying weaners.  Eventually we found a herd of cows through a private sale.  We wanted to buy a group that had been together for a while.  The alternative is to buy one or two cows (usually with calves) from the sale yards each week, but then risk that they don’t all get on with each other, and they will all look different.  That may sound ridiculous, but you actually get better prices if your weaners all look the same!  Anyway, if you’re buying cows and calves you are going to be keeping those cows for a while, they are an investment that produces you a calf each year, so you do need to chose your breed carefully.  We tried to find a breed that would do well on our property (in the heat and with poor grass at times) and had a reputation for easy calving and good mothering (more about the Brafords here).

Keeping cows is more of a commitment.  You can't just change your mind and sell them all (or not very easily).  You need to find a bull, and keep him on your property (and not fighting all your neighbours' bulls).  You need to brand and tag the calves before you sell them, to castrate the males and consider vaccinations.  Cows are more likely to have problems that require the vet, trouble with calving and just with their feet and all sorts of silly things.  The cows are more work, but the return is far better, the weaners cost you very little to produce (only some winter feed, ear tags etc) and sell for around $2/kg.  The longer you can keep them the better, but they do need to be weaned to let the cows recover before the next calf.  If you want to fatten them for longer, it all gets more complicated with managing pasture and keeping cows away from calves, but it is even more profitable.

So now we have tried raising weaners and keeping cows and calves, but we won't be attempting stud breeding any time in the near future.  At the recent Nanango show we spent most of our morning watching the beef cattle judging in the yards, it was very practical, breed was unimportant, the animals were judged on the amount of meat on their bones and value to an abattoir.  We made a brief visit to the stud cattle shed, where the animals were being shampooed and prepared for their walk around the show ring.  The animals were huge, obviously bulked up on grain, not like the grass-fed beasts in the beef yard, and lounging on clean hay to keep them out of the dirt.  I think this comparison will explain why we're not interested in stud cattle, we would much rather put effort into being recognised for producing good beef on grass than for shampooed grain-fattened bulls!

We are very happy to have found the Brafords, and even though having cows is more work overall, it is less stressful because they haven't broken through any fences so far!  We still have the option to buy weaners if we have too much grass at some stage, but we won't be relying on them to make us money.  Now I know I've over-simplified the industry, so please correct me if I've got something wrong and add anything I missed.  What do you prefer?  Weaners or cows and calves? 

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