Whether you have 100 cows or numbers akin to the King Ranch in Texas or the Deseret operation in Florida, there’s a lot of responsibility in running cattle. “And there are at least seven things every rancher should know if profit potential is your main goal,” says Rick Machen, Texas AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist.

Machen is among livestock gurus who’ve seen their guides for ranch profitability turned upside down this year by the searing heat and drought that’s made the Southwest a disaster area. Lots of rain this fall and winter are needed to pull pastures back up to normal, and to make wheat pasture a viable forage source over winter, he says.

Nonetheless, producers in all climates can’t forget their responsibilities as caretakers of the land in their ranching enterprise, especially in a time when beef production presents better opportunities than in past years, Machen says.

“It’s important that producers abide by seven basic guidelines if they aim to make the most out of their operation,” he says. His super-seven things to know may seem elementary to many, but they’re often overlooked.

1. Environmental stewardship

“This is job one,” he says. “Ranch owners or managers must first be stewards of the resources entrusted to them. Natural resource stewardship is a responsibility, not an elective.”

That’s especially true if your ranch has seen the dreadful drought, in which water and forage have been compromised. “Stockmen must manage the quantity of water infiltrating aquifers in Texas and across the Plains,” Machen says, adding that runoff into rivers and other waterways shouldn’t include valuable topsoil.

2. Have a preventive herd health plan.

There’s no substitute for a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship. A plan to prepare cattle against risk and exposure to illness will pay off in final production numbers.

“At a bare minimum, cattlemen should vaccinate calves against the clostridial complex,” Machen says. “It’s the producer’s responsibility to castrate bull calves before four months of age. You also need to ensure your cattle are identified with ear tags, ear marks or branding.

“Every producer should look at being part of a Beef Quality Assurance program; a solid herd health plan is a major part of such programs,” he says.

3. Good reproductive performance pays.

With margins extremely tight, high calving and weaning rates are vital to hold down production costs. For every percentage point the weaning rate goes down, production costs go up.

“Reproductive performance is the single most important factor in profitability,” Machen says. “Depending on your annual production costs per cow, the calf breakeven price increases as the weaning rate decreases.”

As an example, if the annual production cost for a cow is $400, a 100% weaning rate puts the breakeven price for a 500-lb. calf at about 80¢/lb. It increases to 84¢ if the weaning rate falls to 95%.

“If your percent calf crop weaned drops to 80%, the breakeven price for that calf becomes $1/lb.,” Machen says, adding that producers are severely punished profit-wise when calving and weaning problems push the weaning rate to 60-65%. If it costs $250/year to properly maintain a cow, the calf breakeven price jumps from 50¢/lb. to over 80¢ if the weaning rate drops from 100% to 60%, he says.