Production Guide

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In most cases, commercial beef operations adopt at least one of the following production models:

  1. Cow-calf farms breed cows to produce calves that they raise until weaning time.
  2. Stocker or backgrounder enterprises put weight on weaned feeder calves.
  3. Finishing involves acquiring yearlings and feeding them until they reach a finished weight.

This publication focuses on cow-calf production. In addition to selling live animals to buyers at livestock auctions or other producers, cow-calf producers may retain calves through the stocker phase, feed them until processing time and then sell market-weight animals or packaged meat to consumers.


Before beginning cow-calf production, a landowner should evaluate whether a property meets cattle needs. Cow-calf production requires adequate acreage. Four or more acres per cow may be required, depending upon soils. A site should offer access to clean water. Cows may drink 20 gallons per day when temperatures are warm.

Sites also require well-maintained fencing, which creates a barrier to keep animals in the appropriate areas. Farms often construct fences using woven, barbed or high-tensile electrified wire and posts made from treated wood, rot-resistant trees such as Osage orange and steel.

Producers raising cattle benefit from having animal handling space and equipment, such as a headgate, chutes and pens. A separate bull pasture enables a controlled breeding season, which allows calves to be raised and sold in like-sized lots. Pens equipped to catch and handle animals for vaccinations and examinations and separate cows from calves during weaning are also helpful. Ideally, locate handling facilities in easy-to-access, level spaces that drain well.


Diet affects how well cows breed, calves gain weight and all animals maintain body condition. Weather affects feed intake, but an animal’s feed demand also depends on factors including its weight, breed, surroundings, body condition, physical activity and stage of production. Satisfying a cow’s nutrition requirements is particularly important within the three months after calving, which coincides with a calf’s nursing period and a cow’s conditioning for rebreeding.

Cow-calf operators rely on forage as a feedstuff. Known as the stocking rate, the number of animals a property will support varies according to the amount of dry matter forage available and animal feed demand. As selective grazers, cattle eat high-quality forage first, so forage quality greatly affects feed intake. Managed grazing enables producers to not only control forage quality but also utilize a greater proportion of pasture forage. Rotational grazing and strip grazing can most efficiently use forage. The latter works well for stockpiling — a practice that accumulates forage and holds it until the off-season to minimize purchased or stored feed use.

Producers may need to offer energy or protein supplements if available forage doesn’t meet nutritional needs. Growing calves may benefit from having supplemental grain or hay available from a creep feeder. However, reducing the hay feeding season is a key tool for improving profitability. In most cases, animals also require mineral supplementation.

Animal Selection and Care  

Herd genetics affect performance, and traits vary by breed. Farms select animals based on traits such as fertility, temperament, maternal instincts, growth rate, feed efficiency and carcass quality. Visual cues, such as hair color, play a role, too, because the marketplace considers these characteristics.

When choosing animals, seek out performance data or expected progeny differences, which approximate how well an animal may pass desirable traits to offspring compared with another animal. Keep herd records, so you can verify whether cows are calving annually and animals are meeting expectations. Tools such as ear tattoos and eartags can help you track animals.

Ultimately, cow-calf producer profitability hinges on cows delivering and raising healthy calves. Calving seasons increasingly are timed during late winter or early fall. Operations have the best results when they maintain short calving seasons. A roughly 60-day season optimizes on-farm labor and yields an even calf crop. Management practices such as culling cows that don’t rebreed on time, adopting synchronized artificial insemination and selecting capable bulls can shorten the calving period. Assume a mature bull can breed roughly 25 cows.

Cattle producers must also prevent and problem-solve animal health challenges such as parasites, anaplasmosis and pinkeye. Quarantining new animals and following other biosecurity protocol can limit animal exposure to health risks. A large-animal veterinarian can prescribe medications, suggest vaccination protocols or provide knowledge to remedy animal health issues.


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Berger, Aaron and T.L. Meyer. Beware of Stocking Rate Creep. University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Blocksome, C.E. and G.M. Powell. Waterers and Watering Systems: A Handbook for Livestock Producers and Landowners. Kansas State University.

Buschermohle, Michael J., James B. Willis, W. Warren Gill and Clyde D. Lane. Planning and Building Fences on the Farm. University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.

Felix, Tara L. and Melanie Barkley. So You Want to Raise Beef Cattle. PennState Extension.

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Lacy, R. Curt, Carole Hicks Knight and John C. Mckissick. Profitable Cattle Marketing for the Cow-Calf Producer. University of Georgia Extension.

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Melvin, Kelly and Katie Mason. Grazing Management Principle for Beef Cattle. University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.

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