By: Katelyn Thompson, Michigan State University Extension
Deciding how to market your calf crop is an important undertaking when considering the options available to cow-calf producers. Marketing your calves indicates that you are putting forethought and preparation into the product that you are offering to potential buyers. This forethought will ideally allow you to hone in on your target market and understand how you as the producer can meet the needs of your customer, whether they are a feedlot buyer or direct consumer. Deciding your target market has the ability to shape your operation, so it is important to identify and understand your market.
Weaned calves, ideally pre-conditioned for 45 days, can be sold at livestock markets to enter more traditional avenues of finishing feed yards or private treaty to individuals who want to finish out a beef. This may be your ideal situation if you do not have the capacity to feed out cattle or background to yearling age. It is important to market low risk calves that can handle the stress that comes with transitioning to a new location. Having a pre-conditioning program in place that includes vaccination, dehorning and castration, and weaning protocol in place is imperative. Another avenue with the calf crop at this stage would be to retain ownership and contract out the feeding of these cattle. As the owner of the cattle, you would pay the contractor a yardage fee per head per day of the cattle being in their care.
If your decision is to retain ownership of calves and raise to yearling size or finish to slaughter weights there are options to consider. If there is access to adequate pasture, the decision may be made to background the calf crop. At this point, you would ideally be adding pounds to the calf crop at an economical rate that can be capitalized by selling for greater profit as yearlings. At the yearling point, the cattle can be marketed similarly as weaned calves through livestock markets, private treaties or contracted feeding.
A third alternative would be for you to finish out cattle to slaughter weights. Smaller operations just starting out will likely want to market cattle directly to the consumer. Direct marketing can be a very effective business model and allows the producer to maintain control over the calf crop from start to finish. Direct marketing can mean that you are marketing to family and friends, local restaurants and establishments, and farmer’s market type venues. This avenue requires you to be closely in-tune to what your customers want and to find a niche to distinguish yourself from the competition.
There are many factors that impact your decision, including pasture availability, facilities, market conditions, who your customers are and what they want, and other variables. The structure of the cow-calf industry allows for several options to market the calf crop and those decisions can be formulated to fit your operation. An informative publication, How to Direct Market Your Beef, from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), provides some useful starting out advice. Also, University of Georgia Extension provides beneficial insight into how to know your market.
Starting a new beef cow-calf operation can be both profitable and rewarding; however, there are many challenges that could cause failure.