Making Money from Cattle

Making Money from Cattle

What breed of cattle should you choose?

Every breed of beef cattle has its strengths and weaknesses, depending on the terrain, production facility and current market circumstances. To give you an idea of the range of choices, the following is a list of all the cattle breeding associations in New Zealand:

  • Angus, Aubrac, Belgian Blue, Beef Shorthorn, Blonde d’Aquitane, Charolais, Chinina, Chiangus, Devon, Gelbvieh, Galloway, Hereford, Highland, Limousin, Marchigiana, Maine Anjou, Murray Grey, Parthenaise , Piedmontese, Red Poll, Romagnola, Salers, Santa Gertrudis, Shaver Beef, South Devon, Sussex, Wagyu, Welsh Black

Other breeds more of interest to lifestyle block holders will be the compact breeds. Traditionally, farmers have spent the last 30 years breeding their cattle larger in order to get better returns from meat processors. Today, with the explosion in numbers of small acreage farms, owners are looking for cattle breeds that are financially viable and easy to manage. They are looking for meat carcass yields to give them good dollar returns but also ease of handling and manageability on small acreage is essential. Miniature cattle can offer these opportunities and out-perform the larger breeds in many important ways.


The two main breeds of miniature cattle are Miniature Herefords and Australian Lowline. They are exceptional beef cattle that thrive on limited feed intake thus lowering production costs while producing half-size cuts of lean, flavourful, high quality beef. Miniature Cattle will winter on roughly one-third the feed of many of the crossbred cows popular today. They are fast maturing and have excellent birth to weight gains. They reach market weights earlier and for roughly one-third the feed costs and have very lean carcasses. Miniature Cattle are naturally quiet in temperament, are easy to handle and raise. This makes them very popular for small acreage farmers. They also have great advantages to the large beef farmers, who are looking ahead to producing smaller, high quality cuts of meat. Plus there are the advantages of less damage to pasture and facilities and more efficient feed conversion with higher carcass yields. This makes Miniature Cattle a very dual purpose animal suited to small farm requirements. On smaller farms, they may actually out-produce their bigger cousins and at the same time offer an easier management option to the large numbers of small farmers.

Certainly there are more and more choices of livestock available to the lifestyle block holder and the wonders of Artificial Insemination mean these are available to anyone.

Once the breed of cattle has been selected, the question then arises – what age and sex of cattle do we raise? The choice is between calves, heifers (immature cows), steers (neutered males), cows or bulls. Let’s examine the economic benefits of each class.

Calf Rearing

An attractive option for lifestyle block owners is to rear calves. The children will be delighted to help with the rearing and will learn from the process. You will need some basic facilities but these can be constructed quite cheaply. The essentials are:

  • * A covered area of approximately 2 square metres per calf
  • * Clean, dry pens with fresh bark chips or sawdust – change this bedding regularly
  • * Protection from winds and draughts
  • * Adequate ventilation
  • * Good drainage
  • * Good vehicle access for transporting calves and feed
  • * A supply of water for the calves to drink

The usual process is to buy male bobby calves from a dairy farmer who will be keeping the female calves as herd replacements. If you have a farmer nearby, that will save you the cost of transport and the dairy farmer will make a little more than selling them to the works – usually about $25-30 more. Buy privately from a farmer with high calf rearing standards, if you can. If you buy from the market, you should buy only heavy, healthy calves. They should be four days old and have been fed at least 2 litres of colostrum. Light calves tend to grow slower and have more animal health problems. A Friesian bull calf should be at least 40 kg. Weak, small calves will not catch up in growth to a healthy calf, despite what the auctioneer might say! Buy only calves that have a shiny coat and bright eyes. Don’t buy a calf if it is showing any signs of sickness or ill health. A damp patch around the anal area, or fluid faeces on the ground are clues that the calf has been scouring and such calves should not be bought. Don’t buy calves that were born premature as they may have been deprived of quality colostrum. If so, they will need a lot of food to catch up.

Care should be taken transporting the calves from the point of sale to the rearing facility. Using dirty or overcrowded trailers can lead to problems with the joints and the navel cord. These will show up as joint problems or navel infections before long. A trailer that has been divided into small compartments is ideal as each calf should have a square metre of space with no more than 5 calves per compartment.

On arrival at your farmlet, you will need to teach the young calf how to drink, be it from a bucket, bottle or teat. As noted above, the newborn calf should be fed 10% of their body weight in colostrum in the first 24 hours after birth. Warming the colostrum feed will help to increase the temperature of the newborn calf. The better quality colostrum will come from an older mother’s milk. She will produce a greater volume and her milk will have more antibodies. Milk extracted soon after the cow gives birth will give the best quality colostrum which can be then stored in a freezer.

cattleIt is important that calves be fed according to their size. A typical 40 kg Friesian calf should not be fed more than three litres of milk per day for the first week. Once the calf is one week old, it should be fed about 10% of its body weight each day. Do not over feed the calf as this will cause stomach problems (scouring). This is less likely to occur if the calf is fed twice each day. You can also dilute rich milk with water to make it more easily digested and this will be easier on the calf’s stomach. Scouring is also a symptom of viral and protozoa infections. Often the only way to identify the cause of scouring is to perform a faecal culture. The scouring calf should be removed from milk and fed electrolytes three times per day to replenish lost fluids. Products to stop or treat scouring are readily available or you can seek veterinary advice if you are new to calf rearing.

The normal practice is to feed calves on whole milk for 2 – 3 weeks and then switch to skim milk. Skim milk will cost you around $3 per kg. The calves should not drink more than six litres of skim milk per day. Because skim milk has less fat, it should be supplemented with cereal meals like barley or maize. Such meals will cost around $0.65 per kg. They should be fed to the calf in the dry condition.

After 3 – 4 weeks, you can also start allowing the calves to graze, by introducing them to clean high quality pasture. The paddock should be sheltered, with short, leafy pasture and be handy to the rearing facilities. The best pasture, as far as calf-rearing is concerned, is a grass and clover mixture still in the leafy stage and not longer than 15 cm (6 inches). The earlier the calves learn how to graze, the better the growth rates will be. The calves should be weaned off milk around 8 – 10 weeks old, depending on the strength and size of the individual calf. They should be provided with top quality pasture during this weaning period. They should be rotationally grazed – that means moving from paddock to paddock. A dairy farmer would move the calves to a paddock a couple of days before the milking herd is to graze that paddock. Even on a lifestyle block with limited grazing, it is not a good idea to leave the calves grazing the same paddock until maturity as the risk of worms is greater. It is important that the calves be vaccinated at an early age, usually against salmonella, Brandenburg and especially, rotovirus. The latter is a big problem in New Zealand as it debilitates the immune system of the calf, making it susceptible to all sorts of other nasty diseases. A worm drench is usually necessary around weaning as they start eating larger amounts of grass.

Your target weight for a Friesian weaner calf will be around 100 kg and with good rearing practices, your calf should reach that weight in 12-13 weeks. Calves reared to 100kg by mid November command a premium, but after that date, the return is reduced by $30 to $40. The total cost of rearing a calf to around 100 kg, including food and vaccination, will be around $200 so obtaining the best price is important. Calf prices vary each season but hopefully your 12 week old weaner should be worth around $300.

Breakdown of Rearing Costs:

(2006 approx.figures)

Bobby Calf


Milk (25kg MS @ $3.50 per keg)


Meal 12 kg @ $0.65 per kg


Total‚   $180.30

Plus vaccination costs.

Intensive Beef Finishing

All successful beef finishing system have one thing in common, namely profitability is determined mainly by the amount and quality of feed eaten. In this case, the profit is determined by buying well, maximising weight gain and selling when the market is right. The objective of any beef finishing operation is to maximise the margin between the buying and the selling price within any one year. Usually the replacement cattle are bought at the same time as the finished cattle are going to slaughter. This margin is largely influenced by the following factors:

  1. your ability to obtain the best price for their finished cattle
  2. your skill in replacing these cattle at a price less than the ruling market price
  3. your ability to put liveweight gain on their cattle so they reach the targeted carcass weight and quality requirements as quickly as possible
  4. turning over your cattle as often as is possible

There are many different breeds, classes, ages, and condition of cattle that can be purchased for finishing. The particular market you are targeting will determine the type of cattle purchased. For example, if you want to target the local trade you might choose early maturing cattle such as Angus heifers with typical carcass weights of 210 -220 Kg. But if you were targeting the North American manufacturing beef market, you might choose Friesian bulls and finish to carcass weights of 300 Kg.

There are many options for beef finishing.

Weaners to Yearlings

The first one is to take weaners through to yearlings. Bull beef is one of the most common beef enterprises where bulls of dairy origin are purchased as weaners. Most of the bulls reach the targeted slaughter weight during their second summer, although some may need to be carried through for a second winter. Of course, having bulls on a lifestyle block may not be that desirable, especially if there are children living on the block. Only buy bulls if you are prepared to have holes in your paddocks and you can put up with a lot of noise.

If you have not reared your own calves, you will need to get a stock agent to purchase a mob for you. Or, if you have sufficient knowledge and experience, you can buy the numbers you need at the nearest stock auction. The weaner might cost between $250 – $350 depending on breed and condition, with the beef type breeds being the most expensive.

You can arrange for the weaners to be delivered to your block by a reputable transport firm. But you will need an unloading ramp to unload the stock from the truck. For small numbers of animals, it might be easier to hire a stock trailer and collect them yourself from the market. So what are the essential needs for raising yearling bulls:

  • * A good supply of water
  • * A good yard/handling facility
  • * A restraining device for treating the animal
  • * Shelter belts to provide shelter from wind and heat
  • * Electric fences to rotate your pasture
  • * A supply of hay, hayledge or silage for winter/ mid summer feeding
  • You will also have to consider where you will sell your yearlings.

Bull Beef

Dairy beef production involves the raising of dairy-bred bulls for the processing or manufacturing beef trade. You can buy 100 kg weaner bulls in November and raise them over the next 14-15 months when they will have reached 270 kg or so. Two-year-old bulls will reach average carcass weights of 315 kg. Or you can keep for 2.5 years when a carcass weight of around 330 kg would be average.

Bulls grow 10-20% faster than steers, so they achieve heavier slaughter weights earlier and can be slaughtered at 15 to 18 months of age. Bulls have a maintenance requirement of about 15% higher than that of steers, which means that the feed requirement of bulls is actually greater than that of steers of the same liveweight. For the cattle of same liveweight and feed intake, bulls will gain about 10-15% extra liveweight than that expected from steers. Typical buying/selling margins would be around $500/head in a good season.

Raising Heifers

Here you would buy 180 kg 18 month heifers in March and kill at 18 months at old at 230 kg carcass weight. Heifers may suit a small holding more than steers or bulls so this alternative, while not as profitable as the quicker-gaining males, might be preferred by lifestyle block holders.

Raising Steers

In this option, yearling steers are usually purchased in late winter and sold for slaughter at 26-30 months with a typical carcass weight of around 300 kg. You will pay around $400 for a good beef type, depending on breed and condition. You will need the same requirements as listed above. You can choose to take your dairy beef Friesian steers onto maturity. Friesians steers are a better choice than Jersey steers. Their heavier carcass weight and higher grades gave them a monetary advantage over the average Jersey carcass. Friesian and Friesian-Jersey-cross cattle are suitable for production of manufacturing or hamburger-like beef products.

There are two options:

1. Buy a 200 kg weaner steer in April and kill at 18 months at 280 kg

2. Buy 200 kg weaner steer in April and kill at 2.5 years at 330 kg

Breeding Cows

With this option, you keep cows breeding and producing calves as much as possible. You would be best to buy cows that are already in calf as that saves you the trouble of AI or finding a bull. If you buy in calf heifers you might have more problems than you can handle, that being their first calving. In calf cows will command a premium but the additional cost is probably worth it for a lifestyle block farmer. You will need well-fenced paddocks to prevent problems at weaning time. The new mothers and calves will need a sheltered area as the calves need to be kept warm and dry. It is not important to house a calf that is with its mother, as the constant supply of milk will keep it warm.

You then have the options of selling the bobby calf, rearing the bobby calf to a weaner, taking the weaner through to a yearling or further if desired. It is estimated that it costs $850 to rear a heifer to the stage of entering the dairy herd. The breeding of dairy cows is not an option on a lifestyle block as it means you have to have a milking shed and this is too expensive to consider for a small herd.

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