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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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