Jul 23, 2014
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The Cow Herd Struggles to Expand

July 16, 2014
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Expansion of the beef herd will take some time.

By: Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist, NDSU Extension Service

Numbers always are floating by, but, if one stops to read them, they mean something.

For example, I picked up a pamphlet that had the 2013 net returns per acre for several crops in western North Dakota. Based on cash-rented land, there was a spring wheat net return of $55.65 per acre, $77.32 for winter wheat, $28.35 for corn as grain, $93.73 for soybeans, $71.04 for oil sunflowers and $36.73 per acre for alfalfa/grass hay.

The numbers were provided by the North Dakota Farm Management Program in "Highlights from the 2013 North Dakota Averages" pamphlet. The program provides enterprise analysis for many agricultural operations, including beef cows, and is well worth reviewing.

Also listed was the western North Dakota net return for beef cows at $244 per cow. All the numbers indicated some positive outcomes for production agriculture in western North Dakota; thus, the question or quick thought of attempting to compare the use of land for crops with cow production.

Was it fair to actually compare using the land for crop production versus beef cow production? I dropped the question.

Later, as I was driving by a quarter, of 160 acres, of grass the Dickinson Research Extension Center owns, the question resurfaced. Why do we have cows on this quarter of land when the center could focus on crop production? I dropped the question.

Then, as I was writing this week’s BeefTalk, the question came to mind again. Why does the center run cows on a piece of land that could support crop production? This time, the question could not be dropped for a third time. After all, across the road was a crop field.

I was nervous to actually face up to the reality of crop versus cattle production, so let’s return to the opening. Based on cash-rented land, spring wheat net return was $55.65 per acre, winter wheat $77.32, corn for grain $28.35, soybeans $93.73 and oil sunflowers $71.04. The average net profit for these five crops was $65.22 per acre.

Compared with leaving the land in hay production, the net return per acre for alfalfa/grass hay was $36.73, so crop production was better than hay production. However, what about letting the cows graze the quarter section? As noted earlier, the net return per cow was $244, which is a good number. However, if one needs nine acres per cow for the grazing season, the net return per acre is $27.11. If one needs 12 acres per cow for the grazing season, the net return per acre is $20.33. If one needs 15 acres per cow for the grazing season, the net return per acre is $16.27. Now I know why I did not want to ask the question.

I like beef because I like raising beef cows and I enjoy the beef industry. However, now someone else is asking me why the center does not break up the 160 acres and switch to crop production. I stutter a little bit and tell the person that I like beef because I like raising beef cows and enjoy the beef industry.

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