My View From The Country

Will Cattle Ever Be Sexy To Corn Farmers Again?

We need to burnish the romanticism of raising cattle again to former part-time ranchers turned full-time corn farmers.

Everyone’s talking about the demographic changes occurring in our industry. You know what I mean – the loss of mid- to small-size cattlemen as the economies of scale seem to dictate that an operator either has to get big or become relegated to hobby status.

It seems like I talk almost daily to some corn farmer who tells me he used to run 30-100 cows and maybe fed out 500 head/year, but sold out of the cattle business. What’s more, the only planned involvement they have with the cattle industry is to continue to sell about half their grain crop to cattlemen. Nonetheless, they enjoy telling a story or two about the days when they had cattle.

Is it possible to attract these folks back to the cattle business? It’s difficult to imagine how this would happen in the short term, but perhaps eventually some grain farmers might look for additional income, which would buff up cattle’s attractiveness to them. Or perhaps the younger, more energetic, generation of crop farmers may look at cattle as a way to balance out their labor requirements during the late fall and winter months.

Still, I can’t help but think that the main difference today from yesteryear is that raising cattle is no longer “sexy.” It wasn’t that long ago that in order to be part of the “in” crowd and to be fully respected and recognized, most farmers wanted to have a few cows. That allure seems to have faded away.

I understand that modern agriculture allows us to feed a hungry world, providing the safest, most wholesome and cost-effective food supply in the world. And I know that in order to feed a growing population and to protect the environment, that modern agriculture is the key.

Still, for the first time, I think I see the lure of the local food movement and the antipathy toward modern agriculture. It does tend to remove the romanticism around agriculture. Admittedly, the stocker, feeder, packing and wholesale segments have long been considered “real life” business units. But the cow-calf segment never has been, at least not entirely, if for no other reason than it’s never been able to sustain such scrutiny.

I believe what all the experts tell us about taking a more business approach to cattle production, but I also understand that when the romanticism dies, the cow-calf segment and the industry in general will be significantly smaller. It will perhaps be more profitable, but significantly smaller.  

Discuss this Blog Entry 11

Tim (not verified)
on Jul 6, 2012

I don't think it takes romantizing or sexiness to get cattle back on the land. Until it takes diversification to cover one's risk, why work more. Crop insurance has farmers covered, one not need to diversify into livestock. The "modern agriculture" you speak of is embedded in making sure the farmers' welfare is protected regardless of how much risk they take. No industry will remain healthy in the long-run when risk is removed from the individual actions, especially when it most value lies in soil. Its like giving one of my kids a basket to collect the eggs and tell them to run as fast as they can on the way back.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 6, 2012

I look at this a good thing. During the last fifty years, "conventional wisdom" has been preaching diversification. The fact is the mindset and necessary knowledge to grow corn or raise cattle are two different things. I had an old rancher tell me that fifty years ago, and the older I get, the more wisdom I see in that statement.

This trend of farmers NOT running cattle is opening the door for young people wanting to be in the cattle business IF the farmers are willing to lease out crop stubble to those wanting to run cattle.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 6, 2012

I really doubt if the corn farmer ever wants any cattle,most people don't want to work that hard,cattle are a lot of work.Around our place it's a job that takes up all of your time and a lot of hard work 365 days a year.

Curt Werner (not verified)
on Jul 6, 2012

A few years ago I listened to the manager of the huge NE based REX Ranch (owned by the Church of LDS) give a presentation on how that ranch was operated. He used terms like ''Holistic'' to describe their goals and decision making process.
Fewer and fewer corn farmers are interested in owning cows because it is a totally different mindset. Plus it goes against the welfare mentality.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 6, 2012

It is tough to be sexy when your broke. I am exactly one of those guys who had 100 cows and fed 250 each year. Would make hay all summer, feed all my corn and buy the neighbors corn. Sold the cows and felt guilty that I spent some time with the kids vs. baling hay. Decided to buy stockers this spring against my better judgement so I would have catttle for my lot this fall (granted I'm losing about $50/head presently). I should have used my better judgement because next week new crop corn will be $7 here. Cattle are in my blood but I'm about bled out!!!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 6, 2012

The demographics and perhaps even the geographics of our industry is changing almost as face as technology changes slap us in the face every day. Recently, I met three young men with a passion for cattle and I and my partners are going to do everything we can to help them get started on the right foot and learn about our industry. One young man is 23 years old and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. In his off time in that far-away place he read about cattle back home in Pennsylvania.

Joe Webel (not verified)
on Jul 6, 2012

Once the fences are gone, so are the cattle- for good. Grain farming has moved into somewhat of a full-time gig, with most owning their own trucks, so they haul their own corn in the summer and winter with the labor they have. They also like to have some R & R, heading to the lake or on nice vacations, while us cattlemen can't be away from the farm for more than a day or two lest the cows need attention!

David Brown (not verified)
on Jul 6, 2012

Its to bad the prestige of cattle production went the way of to much work. You have cattle in the lot worth lots of money and farmers want to take the winter off. My son loves the cattle, we are moving forward with them. The cattle barron might return.

Gene Schriefer (not verified)
on Jul 7, 2012

Interesting lament on losing the small/mid sized producer to grain production. You're not supporting yourself on 30-100 cows. You could have a couple thousand acres of crops to generate most of your family income, and still have cows. The farm is not dependent on the cattle income. So how is this different from a person with full time off farm job that runs 30-100 that gets label as a "hobbiest".

It's a remarkable double standard.

D. A. (not verified)
on Jul 13, 2012

Our farm makes enough to fully support one person with 100 cows. How? By adding the function of the middlemen to our list of jobs. And by feeding grass--not hay and corn. Granted, it is a lot of work and requires a multitude of skills that most farmers and ranchers have not equipped themselves to do--like marketing to and working directly with the people they feed. The growing demand for grassfed beef comes from consumers who have an ever-increasing knowledge and awareness of the value of the unique nutritional advantage that the meat of grass-fed ruminants supplies to support human health. Most cattlemen haven't a clue about the nutritional difference between corn-fed and grass-finished beef: CLA, beta carotene, vitamin E, and Omega 3 fatty acids are vastly higher in grassfed, and the difference shows up in people who have more control over their appetites, a better resistance to cancer, and much better heart health. Corn demand will decrease as the word gets out. It may take a new generation for the majority of cattlemen to outgrow the notion that starch-produced fat is better than the fat produced from green grass, but it will happen. In the meantime, this year, it appears that our cattle, under strict management-intensive grazing, will be supporting our ever-shrinking crop acres during this drought.

Ken (not verified)
on Jul 11, 2012

Too many variables have changed with time to make the idea of being a "cowboy" sexy a tough row to hoe. Land prices, fuel, feed, labor to name but a few. Many of the farms in my area have grown quite large resulting in them concentrating more upon farming and less upon cattle. Along with that is a generational change and the next generation not wanting to have to care for cattle all winter after caring for crops all summer.
Cattle being sexy again is more than an attitude, it's demographics, economics, and perceptions.

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contribur Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.

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Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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