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Capitalizing on Cow Costs

Updated January 09, 2023
Warren Rusche

Warren Rusche

Assistant Professor & SDSU Extension Feedlot Specialist

Rancher holding a notepad beside a feed bunk.

Originally written by Olivia Amundson, former SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist.

What factors influence the cost to maintain a cow per year? Multiple factors including feed, equipment, replacement expenses, and overhead costs all contribute to annual cow costs. In addition, unforeseen events within the country and world can play a drastic roll on market prices and futures, as we have seen in 2020.

Costs assumed are not going to fit every operation perfectly but here is a starting point. According to multiple calculations, average operating costs per cow are $863, respectfully. This will depend on operation management and availability of resources. With the cost of production for a cow being in the area of $863, the direct costs to run that cow will absorb 70% of that number. Those direct costs include things such as summer feed, winter pasture, vet and med, etc. Additionally, with an income of $798 per cow based off calf price and cull cow price, there is an economic loss of $65 per cow including all costs.

How can we take some of these essentials and focus on decreasing cow cost? Throughout this article, we are going to discuss some of the ways to help reduce the cost of raising that cow for the year with a particular focus on total feed costs, which represent the greatest proportion of expenses.

Costs to Consider

Variable Costs

Pasture production, hay production, purchased hay per cow, bull (pasture and hay), supplemental feed, salt and mineral, vet and med, reproduction (AI), labor, interest, marketing, land rent and any other miscellaneous expenses.

Fixed Costs

Livestock facilities, equipment upkeep, pasture, hay machinery/equipment, purchased breeding stock, purchased heifers (not bred), and miscellaneous overhead. Fixed costs in general will be HIGHLY variable between operations.

How to Make the Most of That Cow

1. Corn Residue and Cover Crops

Feed costs are inevitably the greatest cost to maintain a cow. Properly feeding breeding stock is important, as they are the long-term profitability of the herd. Some ways to cut costs in regard to feeding cows would be to use graze corn stalks or cover crops. If able to graze your own corn stocks or cover crops, the cost of feeding that cow for a few months is minimal, thus reducing some of the overhead costs. Profitable cow calf operations are those that observe an extended grazing season. Crop residue or cover crops can provide 60 days of grazing, sometimes more depending upon acres available and weather conditions.

2. Decrease Waste

Large round bales lose between 2-18% dry matter simply in storage loss, therefore, it is important to consider the amount of feed waste that is occurring when feeding cows. Cattle allowed unlimited access to hay with no restrictions trample and waste 25 to 45 percent of the hay. Considering the expense of hay, this becomes economically inefficient, it also increases the production cost of the cow.

Some big picture options to decrease feed waste, and specifically hay include; feeding hay from a bale feeder, feeding in well drained areas, feeding smaller amounts of hay at a time, and feed outside hay stored outside prior to hay stored inside. Consider storing hay in a shed to help reduce waste as well as store hay for several years.

Research has shown hay fed by a cone bale feeder resulted in the least amount of hay waste when compared to a ring, trailer, or cradle feeder (Buskirk et al., 2003). Cows that eat from cone and ring feeders are also less likely to waste feed since they are more closely mimicking the grazing position. Cows that eat head-down are less likely to throw feed onto their backs and increase feed wastage (Buskirk et al., 2003). These are all options to help minimize feed waste and increase the value of that cow. Using a feed mixer is another strategy to cut feed waste and provides additional options to cut feed costs such as incorporating silage or by-product feeds.

3. Limit feed the Cows

While cows need an adequate amount of protein to support the growing fetus, studies have shown limit feeding has no adverse effect on postpartum weight, calf weight or cow performance. Limit feeding whole shelled corn, crop silage, crop residues, and by-product feeds during late gestation or early lactation as an alternative to ad libitum hay can help reduce the cost of feeding throughout the winter (Schoonmaker et al., 2003; Jenkins et al., 2015). Percent crude protein should be no less than 8 percent when feeding gestating cattle. If stored feed is in short supply or you are trying to cut costs, limit feeding may be an alternative. A hybrid approach where a limited amount of more nutrient dense feed is offered in a bunk while cattle also have the opportunity to access a cheap, low-quality roughage such as baled corn stalks or straw can alleviate some of the aggressive behavior sometimes seen in limit fed cows.

4. Genetic Efficiency

Traditionally, producers have used expected progeny differences (EPD’s) to improve the genetic merit of their cattle. In the past, the primary traits focused on included growth and carcass. Putting selection pressure on factors that could lower costs, such as feed efficiency, could help lower production costs. Research has looked directly at genes that control intake and efficiency. Incorporation of more efficient genetics in the herd can reduce feed costs and intake without sacrificing production.


Feeding cows is one area of consideration when analyzing the cost of keeping a cow through her production year. Through small management choices, we can decrease the cost of the cow while maximizing on opportunities.