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2 (or more) keys to profitable ranching

Cow calf profitability
While nothing is truly simple in ranching, there are fundamental keys to being profitable and therefore sustainable.

To state it as simply as possible, the keys to profitable ranching are good grazing management and adapted cows. However, it gets more complex than that. Nothing is more important to the profitability of a ranch than stocking rate and the reproduction rate of the cowherd that comprises that stocking rate. You can put a lot of qualifying statements (well, but----) around that statement; but in the final analysis, stocking rate and realized herd fertility drive profitability.

I sometimes wonder if some of the ranchers I watch really understand that without profitability, they will end up broke and lose the ranch or they will continually subsidize it with earnings from other endeavors and/or their own unpaid labor. It seems that they just want to enjoy riding their horses and being a cowboy or trying to breed better cattle when their definition of “better cattle” isn’t very clear and often doesn’t relate to real world ranch economics.

Now, I hope I haven’t offended anyone so much that they won’t finish reading the article—nothing wrong with being a good cowboy and riding a good horse when needed or raising “good” cattle. But it can’t end there.

Think of some of the ranch objectives most closely related to profit:

  • Reducing hay feeding and increasing grazing days.
  • Grazing well into winter and perhaps all the way through.
  • Good cow condition and herd fertility with little fed feed input.
  • High cows-per-person ratio.
  • Fewer acres required to run a cow on your ranch.
  • Cows that always breed early, never get sick or need attention, have good dispositions and always raise a good calf in your environment and with your management.

How do grazing management and adapted cows help achieve those goals? I know several ranchers who, with good grazing management, have built additional carrying capacity (the amount of feed available) and following that have doubled their stocking rate (the amount of feed consumed). 

Yet, they aren’t quitting. Their management and observation skills continue to improve and they are taking advantage of “compounding and cascading” effects previously set in motion. They are now working to triple their original stocking rates. 

Naturally the carrying capacity must precede the increase in stocking rate. When the stocking rate doubles and there is no addition to equipment, employees or facilities, overhead cost per cow is dramatically reduced—nearly cut in half. Think of the economic power of doubling your stocking rate. There will be some need for stock water development and simple, low cost electric fencing. This cost is usually small and has a very quick payback. 

The bigger cost is the cost of buying additional cows or holding back more breeding females and not having them to sell while your stocking rate is growing. However, the carrying capacity takes some time to increase. So, you will be increasing your stocking rate slowly over time and not all at once. In some low stocking rate areas of the western U.S., herding may be preferred to fencing.

Don’t confuse “stock density” with carrying capacity or stocking rate. Stock density is the number of animals on a given acreage at a point in time. 

You may have 1,000 cows on 40 acres today and tomorrow put the same 1,000 cows on 20 acres. You just doubled the stock density but did not change the ranch carrying capacity or stocking rate. High stock densities can create herd effect that will improve the function of ecological processes and lead to increases in future carrying capacity.

As you introduce changes in grazing management with fewer and larger herds in much smaller paddocks with frequent moves from paddock to paddock, the cows need to adjust—you need to adjust. If, at the same time, you are expecting the cows to graze more days each year and consume less fed feed, the cows must adjust or adapt even more. 

You will find that you have some cows that are well adapted to the changes and others are not. You have two choices—cull the ones that don’t adapt or help a little with some feed supplement. Most of us have chosen some middle ground to begin with, but eventually worked our way to very little supplementation. This requires culling the right cows and carefully reducing the fed feed. You will notice that the smaller cows adapt better to these changes. This enables further expansion of the stocking rate.

Chip Hines, retired rancher and writer, asks, “If one can do it, why can’t they all?” That is a very good question. You will notice that some of your cows can deal very well with a new grazing method—higher stock density, more frequent moves, etc. and a reduction of fed feed (hay or supplements) while others will not get pregnant or raise as good a calf.

As you improve your grazing practices and your cows become more adapted to your location and management, you will be able to get through winter with much less fed feed. Cows will maintain better body condition.

By culling the cows that don’t breed as you reduce the fed feed, you will find that some cows are adaptable to the changes if they are introduced a little slower. Just be careful to choose bulls that won’t undo what your cow culling is trying to do.

Because the cows are congregated in fewer and larger herds in small paddocks, labor requirement per cow is greatly diminished. 

I have only scratched the surface of how adapted cows and grazing management support each other and contribute to profitability. As you improve both, your cows will come closer and closer to fitting an economic definition of a “good cow.”  Your land and soil will be improving and you will be running more cows on the same ranch.

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