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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What information can you give me on starting a small scale grassfed cow-calf operation?


Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with information on small scale grassfed cow calf production in central Texas.

Grassfed beef cattle production, whether you’re raising 100, 10, or one, is predicated on, as the name implies, grass. But here grass is referring to the whole pasture resource. Cattle are, of course, primarily grazers, which means they eat grass and other herbs such as clovers, vetches, medics, as well as many other plants we might at first consider weeds. I fact, I have observed cattle eating thistle, knapweed, dock, and certainly dandelion. Most plants are edible at least during some stage of their life. Usually this stage is the vegetative stage, before a seed head emerges on the plant. During this stage plants have the highest concentration of nutrients and are the most palatable to livestock. We as cattle raisers can take advantage of this state of affairs by managing our pastures to stay in the vegetative stage as long as possible. To accomplish this it is necessary to implement some type of grazing management plan.

A grazing management plan need not be complex. It merely has to direct the grazing animal to eat when and where you want them to in order to keep the plants in their growing stage (vegetative stage). The basic principles of grazing management include:

1. proper timing of grazing (corresponding to plant stage)
2. proper intensity of grazing (duration on the pasture)
3. residue or plant height after grazing

It is important to allow the plants to get to sufficient height prior to turning the cattle onto the pasture. By waiting until the grass is 5 to 8 inches high the roots have become well developed and the plants can handle defoliation. Grazing intensity, or duration, can be taken care of by designing a suitable rotational grazing system. Rotational grazing, as the name implies, involves moving the cattle periodically from pasture or paddock to paddock. For instance, a good rule of thumb is to split a pasture into 10 to 16 paddocks with electric wire or electric tape, and stock each paddock heavily for a short amount of time. You can easily stock 25 cows to the acre in this system, and adjust as the season progresses. By doing this you are forcing the cattle to eat all that’s there, grass, weeds, and all. But before the animals eat the plants to the ground, you move them to the next pasture. This takes into account the third principle. It’s important to leave several inches of grass to allow adequate leaf area for subsequent regrowth. Depending on the species, you will need to leave from 2 to 6 inches of plant stubble at moving time. A 10-paddock rotational grazing system that allows animals to graze each pasture for 3 days will give each paddock 27 days of rest. Most grasses in your region will need 15 to 25 days of rest between grazing events (in early spring) and 25 to 40 days (during the summer) to allow adequate regrowth.

Two excellent publications to assist you in setting up a rotational grazing system are:

Grazing Systems Planning Guide
University of Minnesota Extension Service Distribution Center,
405 Coffey Hall, 1420 Eckles Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108-6068
Delineates the components of a grazing system by taking the farmer through the grazing management planning process. You can also view/download it at

Extending Grazing and Reducing Stored Feed Needs
Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, Bryan, Texas
This publication outlines strategies that can be used in some or many areas to extend grazing and reduce stored feed needs, thus increasing profit.

Breed Selection

For pasture finishing, most producers select animals from herds that have mature weights under 1100 pounds, as these will most likely finish at the proper time. Pasture-finished beef cattle are usually marketed between 16 and 24 months of age. Regarding appropriate breeds, there is evidence that selecting body type, including size, is more important than breed type for pasture-based operations. “…there are important differences between domestic grazing animal species in their impact on grazed communities and …these can be related to differences in dental and digestive anatomy, but also, and probably more importantly, to differences in body size. Differences between breeds within species appear to be relatively minor and again largely related to body size” (Rook, et al, 2004, emphasis mine). The six most important factors in animal selection would be to select animals from herds that exhibit these general qualities:

1. dual-purpose breed types (milk and meat producing)
2. medium frame
3. end weight 900 to 1100 lb
4. age at slaughter 16 to 24 mos.
5. early maturing
6. low maintenance requirements

English breeds usually fit best with grass operations because they often display the characteristics mentioned above. English cattle typically combine maternal traits like milking ability with growing and marbling ability. Breeds in this category include Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, and heritage breeds such as Devon, Galloway, and Dexter. Heritage cattle are known for their foraging ability. A good overview on rare and heritage cattle breeds is the online article “A Field Guide to Heritage Cattle” in the July/August 2007 issue of Grit Magazine ( It includes characteristics and photos of 18 heritage breeds. More detailed information on heritage breeds can also be found at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website at

In the humid south, many producers use Brahman cross cattle because of their adaptation to hot, humid climates. Using cows with no more that ¼ Brahman genetics bred to English bulls such as Hereford or Angus can result in terminal cross calves of no more that 1/8 Brahman breeding, which most feeders find to be an acceptable amount of Brahman breeding so as to not decrease the finishing characteristics of the English component in their breeding.

Grazing Behavior and Selection of Appropriate Animals.

The grazing process is a very complex mechanism developed by grazing species over very long periods of time, and constantly influenced by climatic and vegetational characteristics or particular landscapes. According to Launchbaugh, et al (1999) “herbivores inherit their ability to learn” how to graze forages. Grazing herbivores have evolved the ability to select forages high in soluble carbohydrates and will change their diets when they have had enough of any nutrient or secondary plant chemical (such as toxins). This makes a great case for pasture plant species diversity. The more diverse a pasture is in plant types and species, the more opportunities the animal has to select appropriate foods. What is more, producers can use selective breeding to build a herd that exhibits maximal grazing efficiency. The ATTRA publication Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers covers in detail this concept of grazing behavior as well as maximizing pasture intake to assure nutritional needs are met by grazing livestock.

Cow-Calf Management Considerations

Managing a small cow-calf operation is a very complex endeavor, and a rancher must think about many aspects of the production cycle and plan accordingly to maximize productivity and achieve environmental sustainability. The following management topics are common to just about all cow-calf operators, big or small:

• Animal selection
• Breeding, calving, and weaning
• Raising or acquiring replacement heifers and bulls
• Over-wintering cattle
• Nutrition and supplemental feeding
• Animal health including a vaccination plan and parasite management plan
• Range and pasture management
• Marketing and business planning

For detailed reading on each topic (and more) I recommend a review of the Cow-Calf Management Guide and Cattle Producer’s Library by the University of Idaho. This library is very comprehensive and you can view it online at or order a print or CD copy from the University of Idaho at 208-885-6345.

References and Resources

Launchbaugh, K.L., J.W. Walker and C.A. Taylor. 1999. Foraging Behavior: Experience or Inheritance? Presented in “Grazing Behavior of Livestock and Wildlife.” Idaho Forest, Wildlife, & Range Experiment Station Bulletin #70, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID.

Nemec, Jennifer and Oscar H. Will III. 2007. A Field Guide to Heritage Cattle, in Grit, July/August 2007.

Rook, A.J., B. Dumont, J. Isselstein, K. Osoro, M. F. Wallis DeVries, G. Parente, and J. Mills. 2004. Matching type of livestock to desired biodiversity outcomes in pastures – a review. Biological Conservation, Volume 119, Issue 2.

Publications from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

Cattle Production: Considerations for Pasture-Based Beef and Dairy Producers

Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers

Natural Livestock Feasibility Study

Building a Montana Organic Livestock Industry

Pasture, Rangeland, and Grazing Management

Paddock Design, Fencing, and Water Systems for Controlled Grazing

Selected Beef Cattle Resources

Ruechel, Julius. 2006. Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
210 MASS MoCA Way
North Adams, MA 01247
This book is a comprehensive work covering all aspects of pasture-based beef production from a practical standpoint. Well-written and full of anecdotes on the reality of beef cattle farming and ranching, it is a must-have for anyone considering raising and selling sustainably raised beef.

Cow-Calf Management Guide and Cattle Producer’s Library (CD, print, and online), developed by the Western Beef Resource Committee, produced by the Animal and Veterinary Science Department. College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. University of Idaho, Moscow, ID 83844-2330 or 208-885-6345,
This management guide is arranged to deal with the biological cycle of the cow and those things that are critical to each stage of that biological cycle. It is arranged also to suggest some management guidance at the times when certain “action’ is taking place on the ranch.

Florida Cow-Calf Management, Getting Started

Texas A&M Beef Cattle Publications

Oklahoma State University, Department of Animal Science Beef Cattle Publications

Montana State University Beef Cattle Extension Program

Iowa State University, Iowa Beef Center

Selected Pasture, Forage, and Rangeland Resources

Pasture & Range Information, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation

Grazing Systems Planning Guide, University of Minnesota Extension

Pastures for profit: A guide to rotational grazing, University of Wisconsin Extension

Grazing Management: an Ecological Perspective by Rodney K Heitschmidt and Jerry W Stuth

University of Maine Livestock Team Online Grazing Course

Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, and Ecosystem Management

Livestock Behaviour, Design of Facilities and Humane Slaughter, Temple Grandin, PhD

Texas A&M Forage Publications

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Permalink What are some resources for planning a greenhouse business?

New York

Answer: Thank you for contacting ATTRA for information on sources for business plans for greenhouse production. Here is a list of resources on planning a greenhouse business, including links to sample business plans.

Greenhouse business planning, budgets and economics:
Greenhouse Interactive Crop Budget, from Rutgers University New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station,

Budget for greenhouse tomatoes, from Mississippi State University Extension,

Economics of Organic Greenhouse Vegetable Production, from ATTRA’s Organic Greenhouse Vegetable Production: Horticulture Systems Guide,

Greenhouse Design, Management and Economics, from ATTRA’s Greenhouse & Hydroponic Vegetable Production Resources on the Internet,

Starting a greenhouse business, from Alabama A&M and Auburn universities,

Starting a greenhouse business, from Mississippi State University Extension,

Business plan templates:
Greenhouse Vegetable Example - Preparing a Business Plan: A Guide for Agricultural Producers, from British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Lands,

Business planning guide and templates, from New England Small Farm Institute,

ATTRA’s Agricultural Business Planning Templates and Resources,

General farm business planning:

ATTRA’s Market Gardening: A Start-Up Guide,

Writing an Agricultural Business Plan, by Vern Grubinger,

Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses, from Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture,

Business planning resources, from Beginning Farmers: An Online Resource for Farmers, Researchers and Policymakers,

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Permalink What are some resources for designing and connecting rain barrel systems?


Answer: Thank you for your inquiry to ATTRA the Sustainable Agriculture Information service regarding rainbarrel water catchment and overflow illustrations.

The following link is a great resource for strategies for developing alternative flow options other then your roof. This might be helpful as you plan catchment along your fence.

The image below shows 8 rainbarrels connected an overflow system. They are not set up for a gravity system, but apparently this system is effective for this gardener.

The online resource, Rainbarrel Resources, suggests when using multiple barrels to position the next barrel slightly lower than the first to take advantage of the Earth's gravity to aid your rain-harvesting. Depending on the design of the rain barrel, the overflow connections can either be near the top or on the bottom of a rain barrel. The rain barrel that initially in-takes the water from the downspout must have all other ports closed besides the overflow connector. Their picture has the barrels connected via the top of each barrel.

Also the following guide to designing a rainbarrel system illustrates and describes some different systems for connecting multiple barrels on page 17. Note the illustration with multiple barrels using gravity.

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Permalink What information can you give me on factors that affect the flavor of my tomatoes?


Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service regarding factors that affect tomato flavor.

A recent article from the University of Wisconsin e-Extension web site says that high levels of soil phosphorus have been shown to increase sugar concentrations of fruits and vegetables while decreasing acidity. “High levels of soil potassium often have a positive effect on the quality of vegetables. Increased soil potassium concentrations have been shown to increase the vitamin C and titratable acidity concentrations of vegetables and improve vegetable color. Potassium also decreases blotchy ripening of tomato (Silva, 2008).” In contrast, too much nitrogen may lower fruit sugar content and acidity in tomatoes. I have enclosed an article that describes the different nutrient factors that affect tomato flavor.

Varietal influence:
As you are aware the varieties of tomatoes also influence their flavor. Certain varieties are more suited for the longer-term storage that is essential for marketing to larger wholesale outlets. Other varieties may optimize taste, essential for the post harvest quality of vegetables going to farmers markets or CSA’s.

When planning which vegetable varieties to grow on your farm, it is important to consider which harvest windows are needed. Vegetables harvested at the incorrect stage of maturity will have a significant decrease in postharvest quality. Quality characteristics such as texture, fiber and consistency are greatly affected by stage of maturity at harvest. This is the case with many store-bought tomatoes. They are harvested at the

Open-pollinated (or heirloom) tomatoes generally offer the richest flavors, plus you can save their seeds to plant in future seasons. Hybrid tomato breeding focuses on the needs of commercial producers who favor tomatoes that resist diseases and ship well, often allowing flavor to take a back seat.

That being said, there are plenty of hybrid tomatoes that combine good flavor with disease resistance. Reference below is an article from Mother Earth News that describes their survey of growers that rated their “best tasting” heirloom and hybrid tomato varieties. This list may help with your seed order next season.

Another factor to consider pre-harvest, is the amount of water your tomatoes are getting. Adequate soil moisture during this period is essential for the maintenance of postharvest quality. Water stress during the growing season can affect the size of the fruit, and lead to soft or dehydrated fruit that is more prone during storage.

Silva, E. 2008. Influence of preharvest factors on postharvest quality. In Wholesale success: a farmer's guide to selling, postharvest handling, and packing produce (Midwest edition).

Mikkelsen, R.L. 2005. Tomato Flavor and Plant Nutrition: a Brief Review. Better Crops. Volume 89; No. 2.

Pleasant, Barbara. 2008. America’s Favorite Tomatoes. Mother Earth News. Feb./ March 2008. Downloaded August 2010.

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Permalink What are some resources for starting an animal fiber business?


Answer: Thank you for contacting ATTRA for information about starting a fiber business.

Like you, I am very interested in natural fibers. I am glad there are businesses (and I see that Maine has several) who process and sell yarn and other items made from materials such as wool, cashmere, mohair, and alpaca and other animal fibers. One question that I have for you, though, is “How will you reach your customers?” You will want to think about that as you continue your research.

First of all, I’d like to recommend several books to you. The first may be at your local library: Turning Wool into a Cottage Industry, by Paula Simmons. Published in 1991 by Storey Press, this is well-written and informative. It was written before the internet was widely used, and she talks about marketing techniques that might be especially useful to you.

Ellie Winslow has a self-published book that is can be very helpful in thinking through a marketing plan. I’ve listed the book information below.

For business planning, an excellent resource is Building a Sustainable Business. It would take a lot of time to complete the workbook, but it is not expensive and the thinking and planning done now will save many dollars in the future.

The following are two general resources for exploring business ideas. Both Starting an Ag-Business? A Pre–Planning Guide and PRIMER for Selecting New Enterprises for Your Farm are outstanding, and they are different. I would read both and get the benefit of their different approaches.

A more targeted resource for your idea is the Stonehedge Fiber Milling Equipment Company, in Michigan. Refer to a few pages from their website, including “Business Planning” and “Average Monthly Expenses and Income.” The proprietors offer consulting services and are available by phone; they welcome guests to tour their mill, and can arrange mini-apprenticeships so you can try out the mill-working experience and see what is involved in the operating of the business. I strongly recommend that you do this, if not at Stonehedge, then at a local mill. The Stonehedge pages from their website also list their pricing for services and include other interesting details about their business.

It is good to check out other examples of similar businesses. I’ve referenced webpages for several Maine businesses, for your information. Phone numbers are included.

Local Extension, the Maine Sheep Breeders Association, and Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener Common Ground Fair, and Fiber Maine-ia are good resources as well. Use these contacts to network and to try to get a sense of whether there is room for another fiber business in your state.

Finally, you might want to subscribe to Wild Fibers magazine, based in Rockland, Maine. This is a beautiful and interesting publication, and reading the advertisements will help you get a sense for the market and competition. You can call the office at 207-594-9455. You may want to purchase a single issue first to see if you will want a full year subscription.


Simmons, Paula. 1991. Turning Wool into a Cottage Industry. Storey Communications, Inc. Pownal, Vermont. 188 p.

Winslow, Ellie. 2007. Marketing Farm Products: And How to Thrive Beyond the Sidewalk. Beyond the Sidewalk Printing. 170 p.

MISA. 2003. Building a Sustainable Business: a Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses. SARE Publications. 280 p.


Richards, Steve. 2004. Starting an Ag-Business? A Pre-Planning Guide. Cornell University. EB 2004-08. 26 p.

Woods, Tim, and Steve Isaacs. 2000. PRIMER for Selecting New Enterprises for Your Farm. University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. No. 00-13. 24 p.

Stonehedge Fiber Milling Equipment, Inc. and

Maine Fiber Mills: Starcroft, Hope Spinnery, New Aim.

Maine Fiber Farms Area, MOFGA Common Ground Country Fair, and fiber CSA info.

Fiber Maine-ia.
Maine Fiberarts.

Anon. no date. Handling and marketing wool. University of Maine. Bulletin #2070. 6 p.

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