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.

4. Are cows getting enough to eat?

Something as simple as observing the length of grass in a pasture can help determine if cows have enough forage for grazing.

“Look at the grass,” Machen says. “If a cow’s hooves are consistently visible from 25 ft. or more away, or if the forage is less than 4 in. tall, cattle likely aren’t able to harvest all they want to eat. If cattle are grazing well into the middle of the day, especially during hot summer days, they may be short on grazing.”

Drought conditions likely made that assessment meaningless for warm-season forages this summer in the Southwest. But for areas with sufficient rainfall to maintain winter forage, including winter wheat or ryegrass, the 25-ft. or 4-in. rules should help determine if supplemental forage is needed.

“Good forage is needed to maintain a good body condition score (BCS),” Machen adds. “Cows should carry at least a BCS of 5 at calving, and a first-calf heifer needs to be a 6. Make sure they have plenty of clean water in cold weather, as well as when it’s hot.”

That’s because water deprivation in cold weather can result in very rapid erosion of cattle condition. Meanwhile, clean water troughs promote water consumption, especially among young cattle. They’re also an indication of good stewardship, he adds.

5. Get your money’s worth out of hay.

The need to provide hay expands in a drought. But in many areas, where sufficient rainfall typically supports significant warm-season forage production and provides some cool-season pasture, the need to put out hay may reflect excessive forage demand, Machen says. That’s another strike against holding production costs down.

Hay quality, whether for coastal Bermuda or alfalfa, is directly related to animal performance, he says, so hay users should learn all they can about the forage before it’s fed.

“Typically, hay baled to sell may have lower bale weight and less nutrient content than hay harvested by the person who will ultimately feed it,” Machen says, adding that “the quality of coastal drops significantly after 28 days of growth.”

Hay buyers should always know bale weight. Additional valuable information includes potential waste, plant maturity at harvest and level of fertilization. Buyers should also ask about excessive weed content and whether hay was rained on after it was cut, raked and baled.

Protein supplements can replace nutrients deficient in hay or grazing, especially in harsh winter climates or drought, but they can be costly. In droughts like this year’s, producers without sufficient pasture or hay sources may need to put cows in small, well-watered pastures with feeding facilities to supply a 10%-12% protein, balanced diet, Machen says. Moving cattle to better pasture, which may have to be leased in other parts of the country, may also be an option.

6. Economy of scale and smaller producers.

A ranch with 100 cows would need virtually a 100% weaning rate to assemble even one load of calves, or the equivalent of about 48,000 lbs. Weigh that against dozens of loads from larger ranches and the bargaining power shrinks.

“It’s more difficult for smaller producers to forward contract or use direct or video marketing,” Machen says. “Direct marketing through video or Internet sales may still be an option, but loads may have to be mixed sex.”

He notes that cooperative pooling of similar age, kind, quality and weight cattle has been promoted by Extension and other cattle marketing specialists. “Several auction markets nationwide offer commingled feeder-calf marketing opportunities wherein producers of any size can participate in ‘load lot’ marketing.”

Machen contends that because of the differences between small and large operations, smaller producers need to concentrate on holding down production costs. “If your competitors can consistently and profitably produce beef for less than your breakeven, they win, you lose,” he says.

7. You never know enough.

Producers should take every opportunity to attend cattle production and/or marketing seminars offered by their regional Extension office or cattle associations.

“Information is readily available on animal health practices and regulations, stewardship, urban sprawl, production and marketing and other areas that impact ranchers,” Machen says.

Plus, producers need to be a part of something larger than themselves, he adds. “They should support ag organizations that represent their interests in their state and national capitals. They need to observe what other successful producers do and compare notes with them. And they should take every opportunity to tell their story of quality assurance and environmental stewardship with others, especially young people.”