Congratulations! Getting a starter herd of cattle is an exciting opportunity for you and your family!
It’s obvious why we love having cattle, now: how much is it going to cost you to keep them?
The cost to feed 1,000 pound (non lactating) brood cows is $500 or $2.81 per day with $250/ton hay during the non grazing season. If you have a longer grazing season or lower priced hay, your costs will be less, per cow. If you feed hay during lactation, plan on spending more, since you will need higher quality hay for the cow and calf, if they are not on grass.
Figuring out your feed costs for the year will be a bit different depending upon what you are feeding, brood cows vs finishing steers, or the resources you have available, for instance plenty of grass or limited pasture and plenty of purchased feed.
I’ll show you how to work through figuring out what you’ll need for your cattle either way.
If you need a refresher on cattle terminology and production cycle, read my article Cattle Reproduction: The Basics For Beginners. You’ll be up to speed in no time!
Cost Of A Beef Starter Herd will help you plan your purchasing costs, if you are still in the planning stages.
Figure up your on farm grown forages
The easiest way to figure what your cattle will need is to figure up the grass they will have available to eat.
Then we’ll get to feeding them with purchased feed, once we have the grown in place feed numbers.
You can figure grazing days or likely hay production for the acreage, here we’ll go with hay production per acre.
Let me start off with two crucial points here:
- Your area will not have the same numbers as my area, find your stats. Your state agronomy guide is a good place to start.
- Hay production per acre is dependent upon rest periods between cuttings and weather. For the cattle equivalent you will need to do some sort of pasture rotation or plan on having less for your cattle to eat than your initial calculations suggest. If you set stock (don’t rotate your cattle) you will get much less growth per acre for the year.
Find the likely hay production per acre
The easiest way for me to think of how many cattle I can feed for the acreage I have is to figure up hay production for that land.
The cattle will be eating the hay as grass, I’m not actually planning on baling any hay.
10 acres of land for our example
Let’s go with 10 acres of land for this example.
Around here you can expect an acre to produce 2.5-3 tons of hay per year. 2.5 tons x 10 acres =25 tons of hay from your acreage
Next, we need to know how much hay an 1,000 pound cow will eat per year. She will need to eat 2.25% of her body weight in hay per day.
1,000 x .0225= 22.5 pounds of hay per day per cow
Since you are getting 2.5 tons of hay per acre and a ton is 2,000 pounds you will be getting 5,000 pounds of hay per year per acre.
Divide the hay produced per acre by how much she eats per day and you’ll get how many cows you can feed on your land per acre per year.
5,000 divided by 22.5 = 222.22 days of feeding your cow on each acre. But don’t stop quite yet, she will have a calf and that changes the math!
The numbers change when she has a calf!
If this is the case I would want to go up to at least 2 acres per cow and calf pair. Let me tell you why: her calf increases her intake!
Once she has a baby her nutritional needs will jump up to more like 2.6% of her body weight per day, which is 26 pounds of hay per day.
The other consideration here is time: your cow will need to be feeding herself and that calf for 7 months or so at the 2.6% rate of 26 pounds. On to more math!
7 months x 30 = 210 days of cow with her calf time
210 x 26 pounds of hay per day = 5,460 pounds of hay for the pair for 7 months
5,460 divided by 2,000 pounds in a ton = 2.73 tons hay needed for the 7 month cow calf period
Hay for the gestating cow
For the gestating part of the year, when the cow is not taking care of the calf, she will eat at the above rate of 2.25% per day or 22.5 pounds.
Now we need to figure out how much she’ll eat when she is not taking care of the calf, the other 5 months of the year
5 months x 30=150 days at the lower hay level
150 x 22.5= 3,375 pounds of hay for the 5 months dry time
3,375 divided by 2,000= 1.7 tons (I rounded up from 1.6875)
Now we’re getting somewhere! Your cow will need 2.73 tons of hay when milking and 1.7 tons of hay when gestating for a total of 4.43 tons of hay needed per cow per year if she and her calf were being fed only hay (no grass) all year long.
This example is 2 acres per cow calf pair
If you’ll look above, or just remember;) we are getting 2.5 tons of hay per acre in this example so 2 acres per cow will give the total of 5 tons of hay per year. Since she will be eating 4.43 tons per year this is just about right.
1st Or 2nd Cutting Hay? will show you how to figure out the differences between them so you’ll know what you are buying!
What if I don’t have 2 acres per cow?
No problem, you’ll just need to supplement the part of the year that you will not have enough grass with purchased feeds, hay specifically.
Don’t get too hung up on buying hay, everyone that raises cattle needs to buy some hay.
Even people who are able to graze the vast majority of the year will still have at least a few days that they plan on feeding hay to their cattle.
Check out my Small Acreage Cattle Raising article for tips on raising cattle with limited land.
Year round cattle grazing resource
A great example of year round grazing and very little hay feeding is Greg Judy, look on my People You Should Know page. If you haven’t heard of him and how he grazes cattle, you are missing out!
Total cattle for this 10 acres
The total cattle you will be able to completely feed for the year off of this 10 acres is 5 head.
If you are willing to buy hay for a few months of the year you will be able to keep more cattle on the same land.
An easy figure here is to go with 10 cattle on this 10 acres.
If you were to decide to keep 10 head of 1,000 pound brood cows on your 10 acres, you are also deciding to feed them hay for about half of the year.
This is not good or bad, it is something for you to be aware of and plan into your budget.
Figure up hay costs for your herd
In our area, hay costs are all over the board, but generally higher than in past years due to the wet summer making hay harvest challenging.
7 Tips To Choose High Quality Hay shows you specifically what to look for when purchasing hay for your herd.
For example last week at the most popular hay sale in this part of the state 1st cutting hay was from $80-520 per ton. Wow, that is quite a spread in price!
Being upfront, anything under $150 or so a ton is not good forage this year. If you are looking for high quality hay, you’ll need to be thinking more in the $350-400 per ton range.
In a year where everyone with hay had super growing and drying weather, these prices would be significantly different. For this year, this is what we’ve got to work with.
From what we are seeing locally, anything less than the $350-400 mark is questionable.
Maybe you’ll get lucky and buy the load that is better than it looks, more likely, you won’t.
If you need higher quality hay, for lactating or growing cattle, you’ll need to purchase in the mid-high to high price range.
Figure up the cow with calf per day hay cost
This group is going to need the more expensive and higher quality hay. We’ll go with a cow calf pair as our example.
The cow needs 26 pounds of hay per day when she is feeding a calf. If the hay costs $400 per ton that is $5.20 hay per day.
$400 divided by 2,000 pounds in a ton= $0.20 per pound for hay
$0.20 x 26 = $5.20 per day in hay costs
If you have your 5 cows, you will still need to buy some hay to have on hand for the year.
The likelihood of your cattle getting the forage they need everyday, even if you have the land is small.
Have a bit of hay on stand by, lets say a ton. Spend the $400 and buy yourself and your cattle a bit of comfort on the junkiest of days.
With 5 cows this ton of hay will give you a cushion of over 2 weeks.
Figure up gestating cow hay costs per day
If you are feeding the 10 cows on your 10 acres you’ll need to come up with the hay for half of the year. Around here this is normal, not ideal of course, but normal.
Hopefully, you will have coordinated your hay needs with the gestation (meaning the calves are weaned) time of the cows so you can feed less hay per day and have more leeway in choosing the hay.
We’ll go with your cows being bred but not nursing (so you sold the calves) for the hay feeding period of 6 months.
Remember your cow will have her calf at the 5 month mark so for the last part of this you’ll need to have higher quality hay available.
6 months x 30= 180 days of hay needed x 22.5 pounds of hay per day=4,050 pounds of hay per cow, that’s just over 2 tons
If you are feeding the $400 per ton hay that is $800 per cow, if you are able to lower your costs a bit to $250 per ton hay you’ll spend $500 (or $2.81/day) per cow for the hay feeding period.
For your herd of 10 cattle, you will be spending $500 per cow or $5,000 total.
If your hay is not lactation quality make the last ton or so you buy the $400 per ton hay so add in the extra cost.
20 tons of hay x $250=$5,000 add on another $300 or so to make up for the last few tons having to be higher quality hay so that raises your total hay cost for the 10 cows for the year to more along the lines of $5,300.
What about finishing steers?
Good news, the answer is easy if you are using only forages: let them eat what they want!
Keep the higher value hay available free choice to the growing steers through out the winter.
Steers will need the higher quality hay, but they can grow on just the hay alone, no grain needed.
The main advantage to grain for steers or other fast growing cattle is that the easy to use calories from grain allows for much faster finishing of the calf, meaning it reaches butchering weight sooner.
How much sooner? With heavy grain feeding, a steer will be finished at around 18 months, this is not biologically appropriate and actually weirdly fast compared to the more natural time line of without grain that is more like 26-28 months.
If you want to feed your steer in the biologically appropriate way, don’t feed grain.
Whatever you do, do not let anyone talk you into grain only for steers! Yikes, that will be hard on their digestive systems! Keep the hay in the ration.
Let the eat hay free choice, this way the steer can eat what he needs to make his body/gut function well and he can adjust hay intake as needed.
Do you really need grain?
No, you do not need to feed your cattle any grain, ever. Cattle are ruminants and ruminants do not need grain.
However, cattle do need to have plenty of good quality forage to eat everyday to grow well and be healthy. This year, at least, all of that hay is pricey.
Since your cattle are counting on you to come up with something, it could be the time to consider adding a bit of grain to their diet.
Let me be upfront with you, I am not in favor of giving grain to cattle, or other ruminants, they do not need it.
Grass Fed Vs Grain Fed goes over the pros and cons of feeding cattle grain or going with all or mostly grass based production.
However, if you are in a situation where feeding a few pounds of grain per cow per day will save you scads of money in hay, to me that is something to consider.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether feeding grain to your cattle is right for you. Let me leave this section with a few points on grain.
- Keep free choice roughage (hay) available at all times. Don’t skimp here, if she wants more hay, she needs it!
- Keep the amount small, like 2 pounds each per day and see how it works out for your cattle. Monitor overall health, especially hair coat and manure, and adjust as you go. You’re going for a slick hair coat and pudding like manure.
- The more grain you give them the more you are risking digestive problems in your cattle
- Grain can be used as a treat, like a training treat for dogs. For me, it is much easier to sprinkle some grain and have the cow happily come to me rather than me herding her into a pen.
- For fast growing bovines like steers, feeding grain will get them to butchering weight much quicker (18 months vs 26-28 months grass only)
Uncommon alternatives that work!
Smaller scale feeding alternatives
Most people are not aware of all of the grazing opportunities you have with cattle.
Cattle love to eat left over produce like squash and carrots or leafy greens. They also enjoy fallen fruits, like apples.
Granted, these are all more small scale opportunities, so now onto some larger acreage feeding alternatives.
Larger scale feeding alternatives
Cattle can graze corn fields after the field has been harvested. We did this with our mixed group of a few cattle and the main flock of sheep.
The livestock will eat the missed ears of corn and parts of the corn plants, mostly the leaves.
Have some supplemental hay available if you decide to graze a harvested corn field, this way when the cattle want to balance their intake for the day, they can.
Off farm feeding opportunities
A third grazing opportunity is right of way areas, like under power lines. These areas must be kept clear, of trees meaning they are growing grass.
If right of way areas around you are being mowed, ask about putting your cattle in there to graze it down instead.
A caution here, a few years ago the power line was planning on spraying a herbicide that had a residual (chemicals in the spray are still active) of 10 years!
Yikes, that’s a long time! We only found out about it when our neighbor who has milking goats, asked about what the spray would do regarding lactating does!
Obviously, you do not want your cattle on that land, since the residual spray will be in the soil and in plants that grow there.
Hopefully, this thoughtless spraying is no longer practiced! To be on the safe side, check into past spraying before you move your cattle on to a new area.
The “best way” to feed cattle
You should know that there is no best way to feed cattle, there is the best way to feed cattle with the resources you have available.
Cattle can be happy and healthy on only grass or a roughage and grain mix.
The way you choose to feed your herd should be the way that serves your farm and your cattle to the highest health of both.
What do I mean by highest health of both cattle and land? I mean look around at what your neighbors are doing and how they are doing it.
If you don’t like what you see, change what you do.
Are the local cattle happy, with slick hair coats? Then they are healthy and thriving in the management system they are being raised in.
Is the land looking better and more productive each year?
Then what ever system is being used is improving the fertility of the land and making this part of the world a healthier more vibrant place to live for livestock and people.
The main point here is there are many different areas with different resources and different needs. Your job is to match your cattle and the farm to the best use of these resources.
Resources: my hay needed per cow per day calculations are based off of Determining How Much Forage A Beef Cow Consumes Each Day by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln