Whats the future of farmer feeders

By: James I. Sprague

Farmer cattle feeders have been a long time source of high quality finished cattle. The proportion of cattle fed by this segment of the beef industry has steadily declined compared to the number fed by medium and large commercial feedyards.The ethanol industry has somewhat slowed this trend by supplying the high quality feedstuffs left over from alcohol production. Now with high grain prices, we may lose more farmer-feeders.

Farmer’s reason to feed cattle

The first and most important is, “I can get more value from our crops by ‘walking it off’ by either growing or finishing cattle.”  Over the years of development of the cattle feeding industry farmers have been able to sell their grain and forage profitably through cattle feeding. Of course along with this they were also paying for their own labor, management and also family labor. In addition, the management skills of farmer/feeders and proper husbandry for the cattle were sources of their profits.

The second reason, if a farmer also is a “stock grower” or farmers who retain calves from their cow herd may decide to finish their cattle if the price after a growing phase is not right. Certainly “warmed up” cattle as 700 to 900 lb yearlings will use the roughage from the farm. The question remaining, is there enough value to sell feed from the farm or to attempt to capture a higher price by finishing the cattle? With current market conditions these factors need to be carefully evaluated.

Other important reasons

Certainly there are other reasons to feed that are still important. Of the economic considerations, much of the grain and roughage needed to finish the cattle are already on location. This is particularly true of silages, hay crops, and corn stalks. If the cattle are not fed at the farm then these feeds need to be sold and trucked to another location. And freight costs are not cheap.  Farmers that harvest the corn as silage and high moisture grain have an economic freight advantage of the value of these commodities compared to a larger feedyards. Farmer-feeders with high moisture corn can compete favorably with commercial yards with flaked grain.

Benefits of farming & feeding

Certainly one  benefit of a feeding operation is sharing resources and machinery between the faming and feeding operations. And the manure is “really nice” to have to add back to the farm. Not only the fertilizer value, but returning organic matter back to the soil.

Husbandry at feedlots

Many of the farmer/feeder operators have developed superior animal husbandry skills and care practices. They no longer take a “backseat” to the skills of commercial feedyards. They work closely with their feed and animal health suppliers, veterinarians and independent nutritionists.

Weather is a factor

Farmers are going to plant every acre to high value crops for the 2011 crop year. One “old timer” said in jest, “we could feed the world if we would plow up and plant the road ditches.” Certainly that is an exaggeration, but we already know as much land as possible will be planted to grain. Weather and the rainfall for the crop will be critical.

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