How to survive the transition from
conventional to grass-fed cattle ranching

Transition to Grass Fed Cattle Ranching

Image Credit: USDAgov, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

"I want to switch my existing cattle ranching business to grass fed production. How do I make the transition?"

This question is one of the most common stumbling blocks for cattle ranchers considering making changes to their cattle farming strategy. And for good reason - changing your beef production strategy is not something to be undertaken lightly.

Many cattle farmers are eager for change because their current plan is not working anymore. Their new strategy looks simpler, more profitable, more environmentally sustainable, or is simply a more enjoyable way of doing things.

But getting from here to there can look like an insurmountable task. Even the smallest change to your calving date, pasture rotation, or herd management strategy can have huge domino-like effects that affect everything from your marketing strategy to disease pressures and your business' cash-flow. Accommodating even modest changes often requires a fairly drastic rethinking of your fence and water infrastructure. 

The temptation is to dive in with the plan only half-baked because of the eagerness (or desperation) to change what you are doing. Half a plan is even more dangerous than not making necessary changes at all.

Only begin the transition AFTER your new cattle ranching plan is fine-tuned and absolutely complete! It's also the key to a smooth and short transition period.

It's the little details of your plan that will spare you the grief and potential train wrecks that can arise when you fail to foresee some of the knock-on effects of your changes. 

My book, Grass Fed Cattle: how to produce and market natural beef, is a blueprint for how to plan all the little details in a systematic manner. The example farm plan article series shows how all the different parts of the plan can come together into a simple plan-of-action.

In the meantime if you cannot put your business on hold during the planning phase (which is usually the case when you own cattle!) continue to operate your existing business as usual without making any changes until you've finished making your new plan and planned out all the steps of the transition process.. 


The essential ingredients of a plan for raising cattle:

Here are some of the components of a complete cattle farming business plan:

  1. The farm plan example shows how use maps to plan your infrastructure, your grazing and herd management, and your contingency plans for every stage and every season of your cattle production year.

  2. A cattle production calendar is essential for planning how your cattle year will look - start to finish - in your new strategy. It allows you to match weather, temperature, grass growth, and grass quality with the key dates in your cattle's lives. This, in turn allows you to schedule calving, weaning, grass finishing, and slaughter dates to happen at the most advantageous times, forecast disease pressures and nutritional shortages, and maximize fertility, conception rates, and calf survival. Chapter 23 of my book provides detailed instructions on how to set up your own cattle production calendar.

  3. Calculate what it will cost to make the necessary infrastructure changes to your farm. Measure the miles of new fence on your planning maps. Calculate the miles of wire and number of posts needed. Go to the store and price them out. Then add 25-50% to your calculations as a buffer to account for the unexpected.

  4. How will you finance the changes (infrastructure, cattle purchases, etc)?

  5. Plan your new marketing strategy using the cattle production calendar to identify the most advantageous sale dates and identify how those dates will affect cash flow on your farm.

  6. Calculate exactly what your expected revenues will be from your new production and marketing strategy.

  7. Calculate exactly what your operating costs will be, month to month, with your new strategy.

  8. And calculate any income disruptions you will need to weather during the transition stage (such as if you move your calving season or switch from selling yearlings to grass-finishing). How much of a financial buffer will you need during this transition period until revenues from your new production strategy come on-line? Cash flow is important - you need to have sufficient savings or alternative income sources in place to weather the transition period if there is a temporary delay in sales.

  9. Mentally walk through every aspect of the plan to ensure that it is viable and realistic. The cattle production year calendar discussed in point # 2 is a great tool to help you visualize all the little details of the unfolding year. For example - if you plan on grass-finishing your own cattle, will your butcher be available to process the volume of cattle that you need slaughtered at the time when you need them slaughtered? Are they set up to handle any special slaughter requirements that you require for your market (such as organic certification)? If you plan on buying young calves to grass-finish instead of producing your own calves, are they available, at what price, and how will you settle new cattle on your farm to avoid shipping fever and other diseases that commonly affect cattle after transport? If you are planning to sell organic beef it may be particularly challenging to source calves that are organically certifiable. And when buying in, how reliable is your cattle supplier - will they abandon your contracts during years when the 10-year cattle cycle is paying a premium for calves? Mentally walk through the plan before you build it!

  10. Create a methodical step-by-step road map for implementing your plan so that once you begin making changes you no longer need to spend time or energy on planning. For example, year one, infrastructure changes; year 2, shift calving season by 3 weeks, etc.

  11. Don't do anything until your entire plan is ready. Then dive in and get it over with as fast as possible to minimize the disruption and get life back to normal as quickly as possible. And recognize that there will be challenges along the way - no matter how much planning you do there will still be adjustments and extra fine-tuning needed as your new cattle ranching plan is put into practice. Accepting this in advance prepares you so that when challenges do come up, they don't lead to discouragement, panic, or stress. Expecting some unexpected challenges is key to maintaining confidence in your plan and allows you the mental flexibility to deal with challenges as they come along.

  12. And remember to enjoy the adventure of it all. Happy farmer = happy cows.


My own transition example - changing the calving date

One of the most drastic changes I made while managing my parents cattle ranch was to move the calving season from the fall (September) to the summer (June).

The financial cost of delaying breeding by 9 months was not an option. Instead we moved the breeding season ahead by 4 weeks each year until we achieved the full 3 month shift. This meant that the transition period lasted 3 years! 

Each transition year had very different financial considerations, as well as different calving, weaning, breeding, vaccination and sales dates.

As key dates lined up with different weather patterns, disease pressures also changed. Different key dates required different grazing strategies, feeding programs, and nutritional supplements each year throughout the transition process to account for the shifting ages of the calves. 

Our marketing strategy evolved throughout to account for different weaning dates. Instead of selling 800 lbs calves in August, they were heavier much sooner, which eventually led to grass finishing and direct-marketing cattle.

Even our calving strategy had to change drastically. Catching, tagging, and processing calves in fall calving pens isn't all that different than most people's spring calving programs. But that calving strategy has to be drastically changed to accommodate a summer pasture calving program with calves born onto large open pastures, into warm dry weather, and with lots of tall grass to hide in. 

The only solution was to create a detailed plan for the final ideal year as well as for every single year throughout the transition process. Yup, one complete plan for every single year until the new strategy was in place. With a herd of over 400 brood cows, those plans were an absolute lifesaver to keep chaos at bay.

The cattle production calendar allowed us to foresee how to adjust vaccination, weaning, and marketing dates. The calendar and the grazing maps also allowed us to foresee how changes to our marketing strategy (selling much older calves) would affect our stocking rates, and how to account for that by adjusting our herd size, forage production, and marketing strategy along the way. And the cattle production calendar also allowed us to foresee the cash-flow shortages that would occur during the transition process (caused by delaying sale dates (selling older calves), so that we could put aside the appropriate financial reserves beyond those needed to make infrastructure changes.

Although we definitely ran into some unexpected challenges along the way (hopefully you can avoid most of them by reading my book), the end result was that we eliminated almost all our calving problems, our conception rates soared, calf survival rates went way up, disease pressures went way down, and feed and labor costs plunged.

Lower costs, more market opportunities and happier cattle made me a much happier farmer - it was so worthwhile to take the plunge! Hopefully the lessons I learned along the way (and share in my book Grass Fed Cattle) will help you plan an even smoother transition process to help you achieve your ideal cattle production strategy.

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Related Articles:

  • Grazing Management Summary - a handy stripped-down reference list of the seven Core Grazing Rules that anyone raising beef cattle needs to know in their sleep.
Happy Cow


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