Many small-scale farmers and homesteaders are attracted to the idea of raising cows. They hold the promise of great profit – but there are challenges that must be addressed and many factors to take into account prior to making an investment.
Firstly, it may sound like an obvious point, but cows are significantly larger than other ruminants that are farmed (such as goats and sheep). They require extensive lands and other infrastructure – and that means significant initial investment and ongoing costs related to maintenance. Before we go further into the article you may be interested in seeing bulk milk tanks.
Multiple paths to profit.
Cows can be raised for a number of reasons. There is meat, milk, and also the sale of calves (calves can also be a by-product of milk and meat farming – and can provide a welcome cash injection to the operation). However, it is absolutely essential that the farmer be crystal clear about which path to the profit they will be taking – each has its own pros and cons. The fact is that cows represent a significant cost – in terms of time, cash, and other resources. Without a well-thought-out plan, those resources can be squandered.
According to Colt Knight a livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension not being clear on a strategic direction can lead to confusion over what resources are required, he comments “It makes a huge difference in the type of land and infrastructure you need.” Ashley Robbins, a livestock and field crops agent for Chatham County at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension echos this sentiment “They need to decide what their goal is going to be.”
Is diary doable?
Diary framing on the small scale is very rarely profitable. It requires economies of scale in order to be successful. One of the reasons for this is that a dairy cow will only begin to produce milk at around 24 months old. They are ready for milking after they first produce milk (colostrum) for a calf. Robbins does however provide some encouragement when she comments that once the cow starts to produce milk it can be milked for up to two years without having another calf.
But the fact remains, there is a significant amount of time investment in each animal prior to it beginning to produce marketable amounts of milk. That can put the business under enormous initial strain as far as sunken costs are concerned.
The next challenge is actually bringing that milk to market. The regulations and rules governing the sale of milk can be onerous – and complex to understand due to regional variations governing dairy. Knight is of the opinion that small-scale dairy farming is not a path to profit, due in part to the regulations.
Note, for example, that 1 state (including Maine, California, and Pennsylvania) will allow the sale of raw milk through retained outlets. However, 17 other states will only allow raw milk to be sold on farm premises. Then there are eight states that will only permit the sale of raw milk through ‘cow share’ agreements where the owners of the cow are paid to house, feed and milk their cows.
Raising cows for slaughter.
One of the keys to success when it comes to raising cows for meat is knowing how the animal will be processed (where and who). It is extremely unlikely that the farmer will possess the specialist skills and tools to slaughter and butcher the animal. So the process will have to (in most cases) be outsourced and choosing the right service provider is essential.
Again, raising cattle for meat is time-consuming and will require at least a period of medium-term investment for no return. A grass-fed cow will be ready for slaughter at between 28 to 30 months old, while a grain-fed cow will be ready at between 15 and 16 months.
However, raising an animal for personal consumption is easier. The best approach is to purchase a stocker or heifer between 600 and 700 pounds then allow it to grow out over the summer. By Autumn the animal will be ready for slaughter. A reputable meat processor can assist. According to Knight meat for personal use can be prepared by a custom slaughter facility. However, selling the meat will require that the facility be inspected, licensed, and approved by the regulators – and the inspection will be by either state or federal employees depending on whether the meat is to be used in-state or in another state.
Raising cows successfully will depend on doing the homework – and a solid strategic plan. Without due diligence (and deep pockets) the chances of success decrease dramatically.