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New Year Resolutions for Cow/Calf Operations

Updated February 05, 2021
Headshot of Olivia Amundson

Olivia Amundson

SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist

Sun rising over a ranch during winter.

Written by Taylor Grussing, former SDSU Extension Cow-Calf Field Specialist. Updated by Olivia Amundson.

With the first month of the New Year passed, now is a good time to evaluate the last year and make new resolutions and goals for 2021. This usually begins by finding records from the last 12 months, whether that’s in the Red Book or on a scratch pad in the tractor. Wherever it is, find it and sit down on a cold winter night and start studying what was good and what areas might need to be changed going forward. Here are some areas that might be worth more attention in 2021.

Feed Testing

With feed costs making up 60 – 70% of the expenses on ranches, it is not only important to pay attention to the quantity of feed on hand, but more so the quality of feed. Ranchers have done a fairly good job at minimizing feed costs and it is to the point that we can’t cut costs anymore in this category. Yet feed, specifically forage quality can vary from year to year even if it was harvested off the same field due to different growing and harvest conditions. If feed on hand is of excellent quality, are cows being over fed? However, if quality is poor, more nutrient dense forage or supplements may need to be purchased to create a balanced diet. I’d recommend spending the dollars to test forage and work with a nutritionist to design a balanced ration that will pay you back in cow performance and calf health come calving time.

To determine if a protein or energy supplementation is needed, refer to the Clearing up Confusion on Protein and Energy Supplements for more guidance on this. Determining the cost of available supplements should be evaluated on a cost per unit of nutrient basis. Refer to the Feed Nutrient Calculator for additional information.

Live Calves

Calving season will be here before we know it, and increasing the number of live calves can have a greater impact on the operation than cutting a few dollars on feed costs. Data from Eric Mousel from UMN Extension has reported financial records from MN Financial Standards Council and categorized ranches into profit groups in the top, middle and lower 3rd of operations. Low profitability operations had 2.3% greater death loss and 5% fewer calves weaned than the high profitability operations. That’s 7% difference in live calves that have the opportunity to be marketed. Focus on increasing live calves going into 2021 possibly by altering pre-calving health protocols, supplementing extra colostrum at birth or better post-calving management. Simply maintaining more live calves to weaning will generate more income and increase production efficiency.

Pounds-Per-Cow Exposed

Weaning weights have not changed greatly in the last decade, even with adaptation of genetic technology. Therefore, the true measure of production efficiency needs to be measured in pounds weaned per cow exposed. This equation would look like [(#calves weaned/#cows exposed) x 100]. This will measure both calf performance and reproductive efficiency of the herd. Using the Reproductive Management Score Card you can track calving, breeding and weaning data to determine how reproductive efficiency is affecting whole herd profitability.


The cattle cycle hardly ever behaves as expected which can create a challenging market for producers to work in. Some folks call it a “business man” market and you can’t just show up to the sale barn and get the best prices anymore without doing a little homework. Therefore, take the time to study the cash and futures market, consult an economic specialist and determine when is the best time to market calves and cull cows. Implement communication between cow/calf producers and feed yards to deliver the type and kind of cattle desired. This may lead to changing future breeding and feeding programs, but if more profit is realized it will be worth it in the long run.

Step in to 2021 with a resolution to make better management decisions and dedicate yourself to keeping records. SDSU Extension is here to provide resources and assist you with all areas of the operation. Find contact information for our specialists on the SDSU Extension Our Experts page.