The question is common. The answer depends on each operation and how efficient and profitable the operation is or the manager wants it to be. In most cases, operations could be more efficient.

Large feedlots saw early on that they couldn't be experts in all areas of feedlot management. They realized they themselves couldn't effectively do all the work that needed doing.

In large feedlots today, consultants in animal health, nutrition and marketing are routinely used on a continual basis. At other times, they may seek consultation on an as-needed basis for such tasks as cattle handling, employee relations and waste management.

Generally, cow/calf managers are less apt to hire consultants as they have less cattle numbers than feedlots. Moreover, most consultants do not want to work with small to medium operations because it's time-consuming and they do not make as much money as they would on a larger operation.

Cow/calf managers also are less likely to be able to afford the added cost. A ranch analysis may run from $500 to $2,000, depending on the type of operation and type of feed. Consultants usually charge $40 to $60/hour with the follow-up. Some don't charge for their service as long as the customers buy their supplement or mineral, but — believe me — they are still paying for the service.

Instead of hiring a consultant, cow/calf managers often rely on beef Extension agents, veterinarians, salesmen/nutritionists, animal health representatives, a livestock publication like BEEF or the local coffee shop.

All these can be good sources of information up to a point, but some may not be as independent as a manager might like. In addition, no one person is knowledgeable in all areas concerned in farming and ranching.

Many professional consultants, however, have a degree of knowledge in one area that overlaps other areas — i.e., animal health/nutrition, crop production/nutrition, range management/nutrition. All these areas overlap in one form or another, and each are an integral part of the livestock operation.

My field is nutrition, but I am also involved in crop production and harvesting, range management, animal health, cattle handling, genetics and marketing. I routinely use consultants from other areas to assist me in servicing my clients.

Consultants tend to service a large area. Thus, they're exposed to more problems and situations than an individual producer. Not many producers can make all the mistakes that are possible with cattle, although I know a few who are certainly trying.

Consultants have studied or are trained in their particular area. They try to stay on top of new developments through meetings, seminars, classes and publications.

With everything else they have to do, producers can't be experts in all areas of livestock and crop production. Still, they must be knowledgeable in all areas to have a successful and profitable operation. That's the role of an outside consultant.

At the same time, a consultant's advice must be cost-effective. It must provide a return to the producer either in dollars or in increased efficiency and reduced costs.

For small- to medium-sized cow/calf producers, I approach consulting work this way:

  • I typically do a one-time comprehensive ranch analysis to see what we have to work with and what has been done in the past.

  • We then develop a long-term plan and update it yearly to provide a plan for the current year.

This method gives both the producer and the consultant a basis for making long-term decisions and for yearly changes in the operation. In my area of the Northwest, this method has proven economical for the producer, both in price and results.

The producer now has a basis to make long-term plans with only minor changes at certain times of the year. Most can't afford a full-time consultant, but when they have a problem or concern, they have a place to go for assistance.

David Wieland is a Shepherd, MT-based nutrition consultant. Specializing in cow/calf, feedlot and horses, he also publishes a subscription newsletter. Contact him at 406/373-5512 or