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Evaluating records first step in developing a ranch plan

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Understanding the financial position of the ranching operation is crucial to staying in the game. Developing a balance sheet and income and cash flow statements are all important tools producers can use to evaluate their operations.

“As much as I hate bookwork, it is important to tackle jobs like this when we are at our best, not after we have spent the day hard at work and are tired,” says Aaron Berger, Nebraska Extension educator.

Evaluating the operation

Once the rancher has finished evaluating the operation, he should seek out a fresh perspective from an accountant, banker, Extension agent or a trusted friend who is successful in the business.

“Sometimes, we are too close to see what opportunities are there,” Berger explains. “I would recommend seeking an opinion from an outside source and ask them what they see.”

He adds, “It does require us to open things up and probably travel outside our comfort zone, but it might be well worth it.”

The most important step in evaluating the operation is breaking it down into enterprises.

For example, one ranch may have owned and rented land, a cow/calf operation, hay, oil and hunting.

“We must ask ourselves where value is being created,” Berger says. “We also need to be honest with ourselves and evaluate whether the cows can pay fair market value for the grass we have or if we would be money ahead to sell the cows and rent the grass to someone else.”

He continues, “Evaluate each enterprise this same way.”

Berger acknowledges it is hard for some producers to ever consider selling their cattle. If that isn’t an option, maybe there are things that could be changed to make them more profitable.

“If we raise replacement heifers and develop them into bred heifers, after we evaluate the costs to do that, we may find it is more profitable to move to a terminal sire program or buy replacements,” he explains.

Grass alternatives

Berger tells producers grass rental rates in Nebraska average $55 to $65 a month per pair.

“That is equivalent to $92 a ton of air-dried forage, assuming the cow weighs 1,200 pounds,” he says.

“I never thought I would say this, but it is almost to the point where we can drylot a cow cheaper than grazing it, based on $100 a ton for distiller’s grain and $80 a ton for alfalfa hay,” he states. “For some producers, they can drylot or take a cow to cornstalks cheaper than they can rent grass.”

During tough times, there are also management improvements producers can make to improve efficiency. Building fence and adding water sources will improve the productivity of the grass and provide more grazing for cattle.

Producers shouldn’t be afraid to utilize electric fence, Berger continues.

“I would recommend finding someone who does a good job putting up and taking down electric fence and learn from them,” he comments.


With many options available for maintaining a cow, Berger tells producers to match the cow and the available production system to the resources that are available.

“Most herds calve in the spring in Nebraska,” Berger says. “That could be an opportunity to partner with someone in the Sandhills who has young cows falling out of their spring calving herd and start a fall calving herd. Look at the options. Crop residue is a tremendous resource in Nebraska.”

Non-pregnant cows

Cow depreciation is the second biggest cost in an operation, Berger explains.

“There are situations where it can actually be bigger than feed,” he says.

Berger shared an example of a producer who purchased a bred heifer a few years back when the bred cattle market was at an all-time high.

“He bought this bred heifer for $3,200. Now she is open. If he culls her, she is worth $800,” he says. “What options does he have?”

“Cows appreciate and depreciate,” Berger continues. “What can I do to eliminate cow depreciation?”

The key is to reduce initial costs and increase salvage value and the number of productive years.

One option is to buy bred heifers, calve them for a few years and sell them as three- or four-year-olds when they peak in value.

Berger says producers who want to breed heifers need to keep them on an increasing plane of nutrition through breeding and use CIDRs to get late calving cows pregnant sooner.

“I am a strong believer in a long breeding season and a short calving season,” he says. “We can’t afford to have open cows, so figure out how to avoid it.”

Evaluate the bull

If a producer pays $10,000 for a breeding bull, keeps him five years and breeds 30 cows each year, he may sire 150 calves.

Not considering feed and other expenses, breeding expense amounts to nearly $70 a calf.

“We also need to determine the annual cost of keeping him, particularly feed,” Berger says. “It may be worth it to partner with someone who has a different calving season than we do and have this bull breed someone else’s cows, too.”

He comments, “Partnering could significantly reduce those breeding expenses.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to


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