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Q&A: How Many Cattle Does it Take?

Q: We've got about 240 acres, just wondering how many head of cattle you'd need to make a go of it full time? --Marc in Illinois

A: You'll need a lot more land if you want to live the life of a cattle baron. And the truth is, there aren't too many cattle barons out there. I've been on some well-managed, good-sized ranches in places like Montana and I can assure you that they don't live lavishly. But I know they wouldn't trade their way of life and business for anything else, either.

In your state of Illinois, cattle production is more commonly one enterprise that's part of a larger farming business, which includes growing corn and soybeans. According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Dale Lattz, data from the Illinois Farm Business Farm Management Assocation show that the five-year average return per cow after deducting feed costs is $92. Take out your other direct costs of $30, and you've got a return of $62. This is not pure profit, of course, since it excludes labor and management costs, vet expenses, and depreciation on any machinery or buildings you might need. But it gives you a rough idea of what's possible.

Dale tells me that the typical stocking rate in Illinois is one cow for every two acres. So, assuming that you can stock your entire 240 acres with cows (which probably won't be the case) then you could run 120 cows. Multiply that by $62 and you could pocket $7,440 per year. That's $31 an acre. You could get about the same for renting out your land. According to USDA, the average pasture rent in Illinois in recent years has been $31-$33 an acre.

There are ways to increase income by boosting the stocking rate with management intensive grazing, by producing registered cattle for breeding, raising organic or natural beef, finishing your cattle, and selling them directly to consumers. None of those things are easy to do or quick to get into.

Dale Lattz recommends looking at the Iowa State University livestock budget. "Their budget figures would be similar for Illinois, with some differences in feed costs. They list labor requirements at 8 hours per beef cow for calves sold and 10 hours per cow for calves fed out. If you figures 2200 hours in a year, at 8 hours per cow one person could handle 275 cows," Lattz says.

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