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Publication #AN115

Florida Cow-Calf Management, Getting Started1

Bill Kunkle, Sharon Fox Gamble, and Mark Kistler2

Profitability in the cattle business begins with a set of production goals, a plan to produce a desirable product, and a desire to get the most from your investment. Regardless of the size of your herd, every effort should be made to realize a profit. Before purchasing cattle, new cattlemen should first focus on establishing pastures, building adequate facilities, and selecting a breed-type. If you are already in the cattle business, you should examine your operation closely to see if it can be improved.

Setting goals and working to achieve those goals ensures continued improvement within the beef herd. The following example describes a reasonable set of production goals for a typical beef herd:

  • Achieving 90% or higher calf crop, born within a 75-day calving period (% calf crop refers to the percentage of calves weaned from cows that were exposed to bulls)

  • Getting a calf from each cow every 12 months

  • Achieving heavy weaning weights (over 500 lb)

  • Providing adequate nutrition at reasonable cost

  • Receiving a good selling price

Many farms lack some of the characteristics of a successful cow-calf operation: managing the operation as a business, adequate handling facilities, a controlled calving season, adequate feeding that makes maximum use of farm-grown forage (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/an117), and a workable herd health program (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/an120). Making improvements in these areas can increase your profit margin.

Managing the Cattle Operation as a Business

The cow-calf industry generates relatively little income compared to the investment of land, cattle, feed, and facilities it requires. Producers with profitable cattle enterprises have generally had low land costs, used flexible marketing strategies, and been willing to use new technology. The cow-calf industry has been slow to adopt new technology, probably because many producers have small herds.

There are 1,000,000 head of brood cows in Florida and about 20,000 producers, which yield an "average" herd size of approximately 50 head per producer. But actual numbers show that 82% of these 20,000 cattle producers have fewer than 50 beef cows. Some cattlemen with small herds find it difficult to justify the investment in facilities and equipment necessary for functional feeding, breeding, and management programs. However, even small-scale producers must observe a number of important practices, essential to operations of any size.

Regardless of the size of your operation, you need to maintain both performance records and financial records of some type. Using performance records requires individual identification of cows and calves so that unproductive cows can be culled, and superior cattle retained in the breeding program. Performance records can be processed by breed associations or through the cooperative Extension service.

Any business requires financial records; a cattle operation is no exception. Records are essential for monitoring financial "health," as well as for tax purposes. Detailed budgets can be helpful in making decisions and are sometimes required by bankers prior to credit approval.

Personal computers can make budgeting and record keeping easier. Computers will not "think" for you, but they can greatly reduce the time spent to keep necessary information and to evaluate options. If you do not have access to a computer, contact your cooperative Extension service office.

As a manager today, you must be smarter than ever before. No longer will working harder and increasing production ensure profitability. You must also increase efficiency and learn to deal with financial aspects such as interest rates, inflation rates, flexible marketing, and land prices. Sound business practices, use of technology, and keen management are essential for improving efficiency and profitability.

In the past, low profits—even actual losses—could be overlooked because land values were constantly appreciating. When high interest rates led to increased operating costs, borrowing more operating capital was always easy because of the increased “paper" value of the land. In many areas of Florida, this era ended during the 1980s when a rapid drop in the inflation rate was accompanied by a sharp decrease in land values. Stable land prices have forced each farm enterprise to pay its own way.

One problem for the typical cow-calf program is that most calves are sold at weaning time (6 to 9 months of age, late summer and fall) when prices are lowest. Retaining ownership of cattle during backgrounding can be an alternative in some areas of Florida, enabling a producer to spread out marketing or to avoid marketing during periods of depressed prices.

Smaller operations are often at a disadvantage; their size frequently prohibits bulk purchases. Purchasing feed, fertilizer, and supplies in smaller quantities results in higher per-unit costs. Equipment costs, on a per-cow basis, are higher as well.

Low equipment and land costs afford the greatest profit potential. For example, a larger farmer with a medium-sized herd has certain advantages, such as greater purchasing power and available equipment. Any equipment that can be “borrowed” from the farming operation represents a reduction in per-cow cost of the cattle operation. A farmer who owns or leases good cropland generally has some marginal surrounding land - or land in rotation for vegetables or row crops - that can be utilized in a cattle operation. In this way, raising beef cattle can complement a farming operation: using the same land to generate a dual income reduces its cost. In fact, much of the land in Florida would be unproductive without cows!

Handling Facilities

More than anything else, the lack of adequate facilities for handling cattle accounts for the failure of producers to use such proven, moneymaking management procedures as pregnancy testing, implanting, controlling parasites, castrating, dehorning, and vaccinating. These practices are essential for profitability. Although most procedures are relatively simple, they cannot be easily implemented without some type of restraining equipment. A handling facility need not be elaborate or expensive; it can be both functional and economical.

Location of the facility is extremely important. An all-weather road is needed so that cattle can be moved at any time, by truck or trailer. Corrals should be located for maximum ease in gathering the herd, and fences should form natural funnels into the corral. Corrals should be located on well-drained soils. Trees or constructed shades are desirable if cattle are to be worked or kept in the corral during hot weather. (Many cattlemen opt to locate their handling facility near an existing barn.) Placing water tanks in some of the pens is also desirable.

Components of a typical cattle handling facility include holding pen(s), crowding pen, working chute, headgate or squeeze chute, loading chute, and scales. It is not always necessary to incorporate every component into every system; use only what is needed and affordable. Figure 1 shows a simple, properly designed handling facility, and Table 1 provides recommended dimensions for sizing such a facility.

Figure 1. 

A properly designed cattle handling facility makes management procedures easier and safer for both handler and cattle.


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Design your holding pens to accommodate the maximum number of cattle that will be worked at one time. For example, a producer with 30 cows would need a minimum of two pens to sort cows and calves. The first pen would hold 30 cows and 30 calves, and should be 1,020 ft2 in size (20 ft2/cow plus 14 ft2/calf, from Table 1). The second pen (measuring 600 ft2) would hold cows once they are sorted away from their calves. Other pens could be added for more flexibility.

Often, cost prohibits the use of solid fencing in the cattle sorting area. Wire fencing can suffice, as long as a single row of planks attached at eye level adds enough substance so that cattle notice the fence and do not try to run through it. Five-foot fences are usually sufficient for British breeds of cattle, but a minimum height of 5 ½ is recommended for Brahman-cross and exotic breeds.

A crowding pen is the confining area that funnels cattle into the single-file working chute. A circular crowding pen with solid sides is effective because the only visible escape route is through the working chute. If the crowding area cannot be made circular, it should be funnel-shaped, with one straight side and a crowding gate.

The purpose of the working chute is to align cattle into single file for treatment. The chute runs from the crowding pen to the headgate. Since cattle often balk or back up if they see the squeeze chute, the best working chutes are either curved or contain at least a 15-degree bend. Sloping the sides of the working chute is desirable because it reduces an animal's ability to turn around. Common faults are making the chute too wide, which permits calves to turn around, and inadequate construction, which causes the sides of the chute to spread when subjected to intense pressure. The tops of the posts in a working chute should be tied so they will maintain the width recommended in Table 1.

The headgate and/or squeeze chute, located at the end of the working chute, holds an animal securely during treatment. A simple headgate can be constructed from heavy lumber or pipe. A large selection of commercial headgates is also available.

Some producers consider the loading chute an essential part of their cattle handling system. Others, with fewer cattle, can use goose-neck trailers for hauling and do not need a loading ramp. Either way, you must be able to load cattle quickly before the first cattle entering the vehicle can come back out.

Scales are a valuable addition to any handling facility. They are useful in obtaining weaning weights, as well as cattle weights for other purposes. Portable scales can be positioned conveniently in front of the headgate. In many cases, scales can be borrowed from supply firms or cattlemen's associations.

No single handling facility layout will fit every cow-calf operation. Determine which components you need, and then customize a layout to fit your type of operation, herd size, existing facilities, and available materials. The ideal facility is simply one that allows you to sort, restrain, process, and ship cattle as efficiently and economically as possible.

The use of existing fence lines and buildings can help economize the layout of a facility. Figure 2, Figure 3, and Figure 4 illustrate handling facilities of varying degrees of complexity - from simple corrals located in a barn corner or lot corner, to a circular facility for 25 to 75 head. Other plans are available from the cooperative Extension service.

Figure 2. 

Facilities for small herds need not be complex. These are two layouts for tame cattle in small herds.


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Figure 3. 

Small cattle corral for 30 cows and calves, or less; FLA 335, Florida Cooperative Extension Service.


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Figure 4. 

USDA corral plan 6230 has a circular crowding pen and working chute for 25 to 75 head and a good layout for loading and sorting.


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If your cattle operation utilizes leased property, or if you use several different locations to work cattle, then a portable corral might be your best option. It is desirable to have a small pasture or pen where the portable panels and chute can be set up each time cattle are worked. Although a portable corral requires extra labor to move, it offers a good way to manage cattle on property that does not justify investment in permanent handling facilities. Portable corrals can be individually built, or purchased from livestock equipment suppliers.

Planning and Construction of Fences

Before you build new fences, replace existing fences, or consider more crossfencing, you must do some initial planning. Your first consideration is establishing a well-built, permanent boundary fence. This is important for a number of reasons:

  • You have a fixed property line between you and your neighbor, or between you and the highway.

  • You can confine your cattle to your own farm. Liability for losses due to cattle-auto accidents or damage to surrounding farms easily justifies the cost of a well-built fence.

  • Your neighbors' cattle are also fenced off from your property, which helps protect your property, cattle, and breeding program.

When planning pasture and fence layouts, obtain copies of aerial photographs from your county office of the USDA; then sketch your plans on the photographs. Lay out fence lines as straight as possible. Once you have laid out fence lines, locate the necessary lanes and gates.

A primary consideration is deciding the shape of your pastures. Square pastures are the most efficient because they allow animals to obtain forage with minimum damage from trampling. This shape is also easy to subdivide. A pie-shaped arrangement is sometimes used to provide animals access to a central water source. With that layout, however, cattle tend to overgraze and trample the area closest to the water, and are likely to graze less toward the back of the pasture. Figure 5, Figure 6, and Figure 7 illustrate some possible fence layouts for a farmstead.

Figure 5. 

Farm with two pastures. Further subdivision would permit better grazing management.


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Figure 6. 

Subdivision of the two pastures to four paddocks, using permanent (-x-x-) and temporary (---) fencing.


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Figure 7. 

Further subdivision to eight paddocks uses temporary fencing (---).


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Gate placement is important for good animal movement. Locate the gate in one corner of the paddock so when the first cows move out, the others (especially calves) will follow rather than continue along the inside of the fence. Never locate a gate in the middle of a fence line with no way to funnel cattle toward it (Figure 8).

Figure 8. 

Gate placement is important for good animal movement.


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The most common types of wire fencing are woven, barbed, high tensile, and electric. (Usually board fences are needed only in corrals, where cattle are closely confined and might subject a fence to considerable pressure.) A cost comparison for various types of wire fencing is illustrated in Figure 9.

Figure 9. 

Labor and materials costs for installation of wire fencing, by type.


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Woven wire fencing is widely used for boundary fences, lanes, and lots. However, use of it is decreasing due to cost. Woven wire is sold in a variety of weights, designs, and protective coatings. Weight is determined by the gauge of the line wire (horizontal); the lower the gauge number, the larger the wire, the stronger and more durable the fencing, the heavier its weight. Stock fencing comes in four weights (Table 2). Stay wires (vertical) are usually the same gauge as the intermediate line wires and are placed 6 to 12" apart.

The various designs for woven wire fencing are identified by 3- or 4-digit numbers. The last 2 digits indicate fence height, in inches; the first 1 or 2 digits indicate the number of line wires. For example, style 1147 (a common cattle fence) has 11 line wires and is 47" high.

Most wire sold today is coated to protect it from rust and corrosion in the same manner as galvanized (zinc-coated) wire. Degree of protection depends upon thickness of the coating. Class I has the thinnest coating, and Class III the thickest. Aluminum-coated wire lasts longer than galvanized wire of the same class.

Barbed wire can be used alone or in combination with other fencing. Barbed wire is less expensive and somewhat easier to work with than woven wire fencing. It is usually sold in 80-rod rolls (80 rods equals 1320 = ¼ mile), and is available in several wire sizes and patterns (points per barb, barb spacing).

Electric fences are highly versatile; installations can be either temporary or permanent. Temporary fencing usually consists of one or two electrified wires. (More wires, some electrified and some grounded, are necessary for long-term installation.) For temporary installation of electric fencing, braided polywire is very popular. This style uses fine-gauge steel wire, braided with polyethylene strands into wire, ribbon, or tape. Installed under very little tension, braided polywire gives good results as interior fencing for cattle already trained to electric fences.

New Zealand-type, high tensile smooth wire is most commonly used for permanent electric fencing (Figure 10). For boundary fences, a minimum of five wires is suggested, with three wires electrified. Table 3 lists suggested wire spacing for electric fences designed to hold various types of cattle.

Figure 10. 

Electric fences can be used to subdivide pastures into smaller units to make grazing management easier and to allow grouping by age.


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Construction of adequate fencing entails setting posts, constructing fence braces, stretching fence, and driving staples. Corner and end post assemblies act as the foundation for a fence. The most common construction methods use horizontal or diagonal braces. Single-span assemblies can be used for fence lengths up to 10 rods (165). Use double-span assemblies for lengths of 10 to 40 rods (165 to 660). For lengths over 40 rods, use double-span construction plus braced line posts (Figure 11).

Figure 11. 

Corner and end post brace assemblies for permanent wire fencing.


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Staple length, diameter, and type of post all affect a fence's holding power. For treated posts, use 1 ¾" 9-gauge galvanized staples with slash-cut points. String wire on the “cattle-side” of the posts (unless appearance is important) and on the outside of any curves. Drive staples into posts as shown in Figure 12.

Figure 12. 

Proper stapling for fence construction.


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Getting on Schedule: A Controlled Calving Season

Some cattle producers fail to use recommended, money-making management procedures because their cows calve year-round. The absence of a definite calving season makes it difficult to schedule management activities such as care at calving, pregnancy checking, vaccinating, dehorning, castrating, implanting, and weaning. The following provides a strong case for controlled, seasonal calving:

  • Better care can be given at calving time. Care provided at calving directly affects calf crop percentage that, in turn, is the greatest economic influence on a cow-calf operation.

  • Pregnancy checking is simplified when cows are exposed to the bull over a known period of time.

  • Herd health care and management are simplified. It requires much less labor to perform several procedures simultaneously (such as vaccinating, dehorning, castrating, implanting, identifying, deworming, fly control, and weaning).

  • Culling of cows and selection of replacement heifers must be based on performance. Since calves born at different times of year gain at different rates, a meaningful evaluation of brood cows or replacement heifers requires a relatively short calving period.

  • Brood cow nutrition is improved. Winter feeding (one of the major expenses in maintaining a cow herd) cannot be effectual when dry cows, lactating cows, and first-calf heifers are wintered together.

  • Marketing is more profitable when calves are grouped by size and age. Large, uniform groups of calves usually bring a premium over those sold individually or in small, mixed lots.

  • Replacement heifers can get bred too young when bulls run with the cow herd year-round.

  • Calves born during the summer months weigh much less at weaning than calves born in fall or spring. Heat, insects, internal parasites, and poor pastures (together with younger age at weaning) make summer calving undesirable. Avoid summer calves!

Obviously, the best way to develop a controlled (or definite) calving season is to maintain a controlled breeding season. This means the bull must be separated from the cow herd. A short breeding season and a short calving season of 90 days or less are recommended. (Figure 13 illustrates the undesirable result of a long breeding season.)

Figure 13. 

A 90-day breeding season avoids the large variation in age and weight of calves shown here, and improves herd health, nutrition, and marketing.


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In herds where the bull stays with the cows year-round, there might already be some natural concentration of calving. Such concentration often occurs in late winter or spring because pastures are at their peak of quality in the spring or early summer, and nutrition plays a major role in determining when brood cows cycle and conceive. No system of getting on a controlled breeding program can completely avoid delaying some cows' natural calving schedules. However, if spring calving is desired, taking advantage of any preexisting, natural concentration of calving can minimize problems.

You will encounter fewer problems if you convert from year-round calving to a controlled calving season gradually, over a period of a few years, rather than trying to switch in one year. These are some steps you can follow to get your herd on a controlled season:

1) Build a good, strong bull pen or a well-fenced bull pasture. Electric fences may be needed for some bulls.

2) Remove bull(s) from herd. Select removal date to correspond with the latest date you want calves born on your farm. Remember, you want to avoid summer calves.

3) Sixty days after removing the bull(s) from the herd (or at a convenient date near this time), pregnancy check all cows and cull:

A. all nonpregnant, dry, breeding-age females that have been running with the bull.

B. all nonpregnant females with calves 5 months of age or older.

4) The first year, you should shorten your breeding and calving seasons to 6 months.

5) Start breeding replacement heifers about 21 days ahead of the final, long-range planned breeding date for your herd (approximately May 20, for spring calving).

6) The second year, follow the same steps, but confine the breeding season to 4 ½ months.

7) The third year, follow the same steps, but confine the breeding season to 3 months. Breeding season can be shortened further in subsequent years.

Much attention has been focused on removing the bull to maintain a controlled calving season. However, effective use of a short breeding season absolutely requires that bulls be fertile, and cows cycling. It is also desirable that calves be born early in the calving season. Furthermore, an adequate nutritional program is essential to maintaining a concentrated calving season, if cows are expected to rebreed within a short time interval. More detailed information about nutrition can be found in http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/an117, and reproduction is discussed in http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/an119.

Choosing the Calving Season

You should select the time of year for calving that best suits your pasture program. In north Florida, many producers using permanent pasture such as bahiagrass choose a winter calving season because it complements their pasture program. Fall calving is also frequently used when winter pasture has been planted for the herd. In south Florida, both fall and winter calving are popular.

Fall Calving

(October-December) In south Florida, warm season pastures stay green much of the year, and some producers with improved pastures calve in the fall; then cows get rebred before spring, when dry weather often reduces forage growth. Usually, fall-calving cows are in good body condition at calving. But because warm-season pasture quality is low, supplements might be needed to avoid excess loss of condition and to get cows retired. Fall calves offer some flexibility in marketing: they can either be sold at weaning (late spring or early summer) or grazed for a period of time. The market price for fall-born calves is usually better than for spring-born calves. In north Florida, many producers who plant winter pasture calve their herds in the fall.

Winter Calving

(January-March) Calving in the winter is practiced widely by cattlemen using bahiagrass pastures. Winter-born calves are 1 to 3 months old by the time warm season pastures start growing in north and central Florida. Calf gains are good in spring because high quality forage increases the cows' milk production. These calves have heavier weaning weights for fall marketing than spring-born calves. But winter-calving cows require an ample supply of good quality feed in February and March if they are expected to rebreed on time.

Spring Calving

(March-May) Spring calving can be justified for some beef operations using native and woods pastures, but it is not recommended for most operations. Spring-calving cows can be wintered on residual pasture and lower quality hay because they are “dry” during winter. Calves are born when pasture quality is good; but 3 to 4 months after calving - just when milk production is peaking - forage quality declines. Consequently, calf weights are usually lower at weaning because calves are younger and have lower gains.

Summer Calving

(June-September) Summer calving requires one word of advice: Don't! These calves will have the lightest weaning weights of all. Heat, insects, and poor pastures make this a poor option.

Pasture - Your Feed Supply

How many acres of pasture do you need for each cow? This depends on the level of forage production, as well as the cattle and their management. Levels of forage production vary with species, soil fertility, moisture, temperature, season, and other factors. Cattle stocking rates are usually defined by the months during which forage production is limiting.

In north and central Florida, warm season forages are usually the primary feed source for the herd from April to November (with hay or winter pasture providing feed from December to March). The stocking-rate-limiting months for warm season pasture are usually April and May, which means pastures must provide adequate forage growth during these months. During the summer, excess forage can be harvested for hay, if profitable.

In south Florida, most producers use neither hay nor winter annual pastures. The stocking-rate-limiting months for warm season pasture in south Florida range from December to May, depending on the year.

Although stocking rates are always situation-specific, some basic guidelines can be provided. Typical stocking rates for established pastures (excluding wooded acres, ponds, and wetlands) are listed in Table 4. Additional information on pasture establishment, fertilization, and management recommendations and options can be found in http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/an118.

Tables

Table 1. 

Corral dimensions for cow-calf operations.

Holding Area, ft2/head

 

Cows

20

Calves

14

Crowding Pen, ft2/head

 

Cows

12

Calves

6

Working Chute - verticle sides

 

Width

28-30"

Length (minimum)

20'

Working Chute - sloping sides

 

Width at bottom inside clear

18-20"

Width at 4' inside clear

30-33"

Length (minimum)

20'

Working Chute Fence

 

Recommended minimum height

50"

Depth of posts in ground (minimum)

36"

Corral Fence

 

Recommended height

60-66"

Depth of posts in ground (minimum)

30"

Loading Chute

 

Width

26-30"

Length (minimum)

12'

Rise (inches/foot)

3 ½

Ramp height for:

 

Stock trailer

15"

Pickup truck

28"

Stock truck

40"

Tractor-trailer

48"

Double-deck trailer

100"

Source: Midwest Plan Service, 1987. Beef Housing & Equipment Handbook, MWP S-6. Iowa State University, Ames.

Table 2. 

Woven wire fence weights, by gauge.

 

Gauge for Wire Lines

Weight

Top, Bottom Lines

Intermediate Lines

Light

11

14 ½

Medium

10

12 ½

Heavy

9

11

Extra-heavy

9

9

Table 3. 

Suggested number and spacing of wires for temporary electric and permanent fences, by cattle type.

Cattle type

Distance to Ground

(by wire #)

#1

#2

#3

#4

#5

Cows

30"

Cows and calves

17"

38"

Hard-to-hold cattle

17"

27"

38"

 

Boundary fence

5"

10"

17"

27"

38"

Table 4. 

Stocking rates for established pastures.

Bahiagrass

1.5 to 4 acres

Bermudagrass, Stargrass, Limpograss

1.0 to 3 acres

Native Range Pasture

5 to 25 acres

Footnotes

1.

This document is AN115, one of a series of the Animal Sciences Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date October 2001. Revised September 2007. Reviewed September 2012. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Bill Kunkle, professor and Extension beef specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences; Sharon Fox Gamble, livestock Extension agent, Volusia County; and Mark Kistler, former county Extension director Okeechobee County, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.