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Small Scale Beef Production

Small scale beef production may not be a farm or ranch's primary operation, but it can provide a very nice additional income.  It can also serve as a primary income stream for small farms and ranches if managed carefully.  However, beef production is not necessarily a guaranteed source of income, let alone profit.  Let's take a look at what it takes to succeed with small scale beef production.


Herd Management

Raising a few steers each year on surplus grass requires relatively little planning, equipment, land or expense.  Tens of thousands of families each year raise a few steers for the freezer, or to share with family and friends and are content with the knowledge that their yearly beef supply was raised according to their own standards.  They may not even consider whether it was cost effective to raise their own, compared to buying beef.  However, when families, farms or ranches start to consider raising beef as an income stream, suddenly things get a bit more involved.  The numbers of animals handled per year typically jumps from 3 to 4 steers, up to several dozen, or even several hundred.  Suddenly, herd management does become an issue. 

Herd health, breeding, fencing, infrastructure and related items must be carefully considered.  Tasks become large enough that they need to be scheduled, and sometimes budgeted, in advance.  Manpower becomes an issue because of the number of tasks to be completed, and/or the number of animals to be handled.  Outbuildings, fencing, transportation, and handling equipment all need to be acquired and then maintained to effectively handle large numbers of animals safely, regardless of species.  If herd and flock owners are to stay ahead of the workload and keep their animals well managed, they will need to consider how all these elements come together to help the work get done.  If mismanaged, these elements become their own headache.  Well managed, they make the work easier.  Our Herd Management page discusses some of these issues.


Grazing Management

The vast majority of profitable small beef herds are managed at relatively low cost on pasture.  Conveniently, rotational pasture management is an ideal way to raise top quality beef.  Rotational pasture management is its own specialty and the volumes written on this topic go well beyond what we could create or even reproduce here on this single website.  That being said, we'll take a look at the core principles of rotational pasture management in the context of managing production livestock.  We'll also provide a great deal of additional resources for those who wish to learn more about this fascinating, challenging and rewarding form of resource management.  Bottom line, beef production and rotational pasture management go hand in hand.  We'll provide information to get folks started.


Processing Options

One of the biggest bottlenecks in small scale beef production is the issue of butchering the animal, and providing cut and wrap services, in a manner that is cost effective, humane, practical and within regulatory compliance.  Fifty years ago that was a relatively simple proposition as most rural areas were serviced by at least one or two butchers, abattoirs or slaughterhouses.  However, many rural areas have lost such professional services.  Furthermore, on-farm processing for large animals is often logistically problematic.  So what's a small scale beef producer to do?  We'll take a look at modern abattoir services, the rise of mobile processing options, on-farm processing equipment and the revival of small scale butchering skills as a community celebration of local food production.


Regulatory Oversight

The issue of regulatory compliance is prickly at best.  Some folks want to work strictly within the boundaries of existing regulations, because they don't want the burden of looking over their shoulder.  Some folks choose to operate under the radar and try to stay small enough not to be noticed.  Many small farms and ranches are caught in the uncomfortable position of feeling the need to meet regulatory obligations, without having many financial or labor resources to do so.  We'll take a look at current and likely future regulatory issues related to beef production, and how existing small scale producers are working profitably within those boundaries.  We'll also look at how producers find support when the long arm of the law comes knocking on their door.


Beef Operation Budgets

For those who are considering small scale beef production, it can be helpful to look at those operations who have already paved the way to profitable production.  After all, why re-invent the wheel?  We'll take a look at the budgets published by various small farm beef enterprises to show what it took them to reach and maintain profitability.


Sales & Marketing

The best beef in the world won't do a producer any good if customers won't buy it.  How can small scale producers reach the marketplace?  Furthermore, how can small scale beef producers successfully compete against low-ball cheap import beef in the grocery store?  Surprisingly, small scale producers have multiple options.  Yes, it is possible to sell high quality beef, at profitable prices, to a grateful group of customers.  We'll look at how to determine the right pricing point, and how to reach those customers.


Additional Resources

Many universities, extension agents, conservation districts, non-profit groups and farming/ranching advocacy groups have published various guides, reports, documents and brochures to help small scale producers succeed with beef production.  Many of those resources are available for free download.  A number of authors have also published books on this topic, and how they have identified, addressed and overcome many obstacles to reach their current successes.  And finally, a number of monthly magazines and periodicals cover small scale beef production, rotational pasture production, or some combination of the two.  Below are a number of PDF's, websites, presentations and books which address small scale beef production.

The University of Arkansas Extension has published a wonderful Best Management Practices for small scale beef herds.  This free PDF download covers a variety of herd management issues which small scale beef producers should consider to minimize costs, maximize productivity, and optimize their overall business. 

Pennsylvania State University has a Beef Production webpage with an extensive collection of PDFs, pamphlets and website links to various information sources.  These materials cover a wide range of topics relevant to beef production - Best Management Practices, budgets, herd health, production models, grazing and feeding details, etc.  This is the single best source we've yet found for lots of detailed information - a veritable one stop shop for small scale beef production information.

Iowa State University published an article entitled "Understanding Costs of Cow/Calf Herds", which covers both basic and advanced concepts and principles for tracking and evaluating the costs associated with beef herd operations.  Their unique document provides data I had not seen elsewhere, such as differences between financial and economic analysis, the cost differences at different operational scales, and how producers can use concepts such as fixed vs variable costs, and rules of diminishing returns, when making decisions about herd management.

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms has written one of the definitive books about pastured beef management in his book  Salad Bar Beef. While certainly not the first book on pasturing cattle, many consider this book to be one of the sparks which re-fired the interest in, and practice of, modern pastured beef management in the United States.

Ongoing Research

We have just started writing about this aspect of small scale farming and ranching operations.  So we ask the readers' patience as we carve time out of our schedules to write on the above topics.  And just to keep things interesting, small scale beef production is evolving and changing almost before our eyes.  Even as we continue to gather information and write pages on all the above topics, sometimes we'll learn of new developments which invalidate or dramatically change prior recommendations.  We'll do our best to keep up with current developments and provide the latest and greatest as we have the time to do so.  But please be patient as we put together all this information.