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Starting a Cattle Operation From Scratch

When Travis Hosteng, Ben Hein, and Eric Franje decided they wanted to build a herd, the three producers were faced with endless decisions. Everything from where to buy animals, to how many to purchase, to what to feed them had to be considered. As they start their herds, Successful Farming magazine had a chance to quiz them on what they’ve learned along the way.

Meet the Cattlemen

Travis Hosteng works full time as a structural engineer and lives north of Huxley, Iowa, on 45 acres with his wife, Sherry, and their three children. Having grown up on a farm in Sac County, Hosteng wanted his children to experience the hard work and respect that comes with raising animals. The Hostengs started their beef herd in 2017, and it currently consists of a 4-H steer and two heifers. They hope to expand to 15 to 25 cow/calf pairs in the next several years.

Like Hosteng, Ben Hein grew up on a crop and livestock farm. He graduated Iowa State University in 2012 with a degree in animal science and began working for Cargill Live Pork (now owned by JBS). Hein was able to transfer to a territory near his home farm in Monticello, Iowa, and in 2016, he and his wife, Whitney, began their own beef cattle herd with two heifers. Since then, they have purchased another six heifers and would like to eventually reach around 50 head.

Eric Franje was raised on a farm with hogs, cattle, soybeans, and corn. During his time at Muscatine Community College and Northwest Missouri State, he gained a passion for the beef industry and raising cattle. After graduation, Franje returned home to New Sharon, Iowa, and began his herd by renting a house that had 30 acres of pasture. He now has 53 cows and 150 acres of pasture. 

SF: Often times, cattle are selected purely on preference. This could be based on color, breed, or structure. What are some things to consider when choosing cattle?

Hosteng: Producers need to know all of their operation’s controlling inputs, as well as the outputs they expect. Breed, calving ease, age, available feedstuffs, available working facility, location, and finances should all be considered.

Hein: The first thing to look at is what is marketable and what meets your individual goals. This can vary by region because of the terrain and available feedstuffs throughout the year.

Franje: If you have pastures with mostly fescue, find cattle that come from areas with a lot of fescue. If your pasture is rough and doesn’t have a lot of forage, buy hearty cows that can stay in condition without much effort.

SF: Where should beginners go to purchase cattle to start their herds?

Hosteng: Sources for starting your herd are pretty much limitless. Local producers, neighbors, friends, online auctions, and local auctions are all good options.

Hein: The only thing to be careful of is buying through a sale barn. The volume of cattle that goes through makes it ground zero for health issues. If you go this route, talk to your vet and make a vaccination program. I would also find an “expert” to run ideas and cattle sources by.

Franje: The auction is a nice place to see what qualities you do and do not like in cattle and also to talk to other producers. My preference would be to find a producer and purchase directly so you can purchase from the same genetics consistently.

SF: Many beginning producers do not have the funds needed to start a herd on hand. How should they go about getting a loan?

Hosteng: Do your homework when trying to secure funding. Talk to other producers, family, agricultural lending agencies, and obviously your banker.

Hein: Before going to your banker, it is important to be prepared. Have your cash flow in hand, along with any expense or income you can think of, and make sure it is going to be profitable.

Franje: Be detailed in your finances and come up with a business plan that will work.

SF: Because beginning producers are still learning the ropes of raising beef cattle, it is often better for them to start small. What are some variables that go into choosing the amount of cattle to buy?

Hosteng: Land availability, type of land, type of forage, and management style are the biggest factors in deciding stocking density. One of the best sources for this information is the Iowa Beef Center. Dan Loy, the center’s director, and Joe Sellers, who focuses on cow-calf and feedlot management and grazing management, came to my farm to discuss ideas and to look at forage. I also enrolled in teachings they have on beef-related topics.

Hein: I got started by a family friend asking me to feed his cattle in my open lot. I bought half of his next group. If you have the land, find someone who is looking for a pasture to rent. You can help do the work and learn as you go with someone watching and helping.

Franje: Buy some bred cows that are 3 or 4 years old. They are still young, but they have already had a calf or two. The important thing is to buy quality cows with great disposition, good feet, and udders.

SF: Because there are so many expenses that go hand-in-hand with raising cattle, how do you determine what is right for your herd without breaking the bank?”

Hosteng: Be prepared for those producers who say there is only one way to do something or one product to buy. While that may be all that works for them, your situation may or may not be completely different. It pays to talk to seasoned cattle producers in and out of your area, local agencies, as well as vendors and attendees at trade shows. But take all advice with a grain of salt.

Hein: An Excel worksheet needs to be your best friend for cash flows and making comparisons. The size of your herd and your time may dictate the route you take.

Franje: Don’t break the bank trying to improve everything at once. Come up with long-term goals so that every decision is made with those goals in mind and you won’t be spending money aimlessly.

SF: When it comes to feeding the herd, how can beginners keep their inputs low?

Hosteng: Most of the time, it is better to buy your hay vs. growing and baling your own. Owning the pasture is great if you already have it, but renting is a good option, as well.

Hein: I would recommend renting pasture and buying hay right away instead of buying your own hay equipment. For the cost of owning equipment, you can buy a lot at hay auctions.

Franje: Land payments usually exceed rent payments almost anywhere.

SF: For the producers wanting to begin a cow/calf operation, breeding could take place at any time of year. How should a producer decide when and how to breed?

Hosteng: If producers have row crops, they shouldn’t be calving during harvest or planting season. Children’s activities and sports schedules also play a role in when they should breed and calve.

Hein: You have to look at what you have for facilities. We have a cement lot with a small barn that we can use for calving in March when it is starting to warm up but not during fieldwork. If you don’t have cement, there is a lot of mud to deal with that time of year. Breeding through artificial insemination cuts down on the length of calving season and is cheaper than feeding a bull year-round.

Franje: Think through all of the scenarios and plan your breeding program accordingly. Talk to people who breed differently and find which method works for you. You can always keep working toward a better method or mix it up.

SF: Once the herd is started and producers have the hang of it, what are some ways they can expand?

Hein: When it comes time to grow the herd or facilities, work toward eliminating operating loans and then use the money saved on interest to expand. Our biggest holdup on expanding has been the lack of affordable pasture.

Franje: Once you have some of the cows paid for, the debt load will lift and that allows for more profitability. Retaining heifers is a nice way to expand while keeping genetics you are happy with.

SF: Beginning producers are bound to have questions on the ever-changing livestock industry. Where can they have their questions answered?

Hosteng: Be shameless in your efforts to be successful. County cattlemen associations, state cattlemen associations, universities, neighbors, and barns are all good resources. Most of the time, the people you ask will go out of their way to answer your questions or to find someone who will.

Hein: Find some experts you can work with. This could be a large producer, feed salesperson, or a vet. We talk to our feed salesman every week to see what is working and what isn’t working with other producers.

Franje: Networking is the biggest tool in your box. Get involved with local organizations and find a mentor to help with financials. It's also important to have a great relationship with your veterinarian. 

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