Small beef farms in Minnesota continue to dominate the state’s cattle industry, according to a recent survey conducted by the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and Extension.
The report, “Movement and Management in Minnesota’s Beef Industry: Results of a Survey of Minnesota Cow-calf and Feedlot Producers,” analyzed the state’s beef industry to determine how beef cattle are raised, retained on farm sites, moved within the system and marketed. Data gathered in fall 2020 and spring 2021will help the university develop relevant research and educational programming.
“We need to focus on how to encourage practices that benefit both the cow-calf and feedlot operations, with the end goal of making Minnesota beef production more economically sustainable for producers while improving environmental sustainability as much as possible,” says Joe Armstrong, Extension educator, veterinarian and one of the survey authors.
Sponsored by the Minnesota Beef Council, the survey yielded responses from 377 Minnesota cattle producers in 78 of the state’s 87 counties.
Among the survey respondents, 62% described their primary cattle operation as cow-calf production. Of those, 77% reported less than 100 cows. While the majority of owner-operators represent small farms, the majority of cattle in the state are on larger operations. Survey respondents showed the heaviest concentrations of beef are in Itasca, Pipestone, Pine, Isanti, Goodhue, Nobles and Murray counties.
The survey showed that reproductive and calf management of cow-calf farmers varies greatly when compared to other farmers in the Upper Midwest-Plains region. The middle 50 % and the top 10% of producers are comparable in production to North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Nebraska. However, the production of the bottom 10% of producers is disproportionately low compared to other states in the region. As an example, it was noted that many producers excel at getting cows pregnant, but they struggle to keep calves alive until weaning. Accordingly, prioritizing management basics and animal health care may be more helpful to improve the state’s beef industry than focusing on cutting-edge technology and practices, Armstrong says.
The survey also showed that only 20% of cow-calf producers surveyed said cattle were their primary source of income, which surprised Armstrong and others. That could explain the low production level, given that most small operations are dependent on off-farm income. They have less time available for chores and opportunities to hone beef management skills.
The challenge for the university will be to provide support and programs to meet drastically different farm needs. Educational programs, while providing foundational knowledge for some, could also be considered review for others. The survey notes that applied research should continue to be the basis for programming and education for all, and that research could still include advanced-technique and cutting-edge technology tailored to the need of the state’s beef industry.
The following are some of the survey’s responses.
Minnesota cow-calf survey respondent operation size:
- Thirty-two percent of cow-calf operations had a herd size of 50 to 99 cows.
- Forty-four percent of Minnesota’s beef cows are in herds of 49 or less; 56% are in herds of 50 or more.
- The average size of cow-calf herd was 84 pairs, with a range of 3 to 1,670.
Minnesota cow-calf production systems:
- Thirty-one percent of cow-calf producers physically retain all their calves through finishing; 41% physically retain some of their calves through finishing; and 28% physically retain none of their calves through finishing.
- Fifty-three percent of cow-calf producers reported starting a calving season between January and May; 74% of cow-calf producers reported having one calving season, 17% reported two calving seasons; and 7% reported having no defined calving season.
- Sixty-three percent of cow-calf producers reported preconditioning their calves in some way; 65% of cow-calf producers reported backgrounding their calves; 13% reported sometimes backgrounding their calves; and 16% reported not backgrounding at all.
- Eighty-four percent of cow-calf producers reported using pasture in their operation; and 16% of surveyed cow-calf producers reported not using pasture in their system.
Minnesota cow-calf marketing and movement:
- Eighty-three percent of cow-calf producers reported marketing their cattle as conventional; 16% reported using a niche-marketing strategy. Reported niche markets are grass fed, 28%; natural, 62%; antibiotic-free, 36%; hormone free, 49%; and local, 49%.
- Sixty percent of cow-calf producers reported using an auction market to market their calves.
- Seventy-two percent of cow-calf producers reported using an auction market to market their cull cows.
Minnesota cow-calf management trends:
- Fifty-two percent reported fence-line weaning, followed by 28% reporting no-contact weaning.
- Sixty-five percent of cow-calf producers reported backgrounding their calves; 13% reported sometimes backgrounding calves; and 16% reported not backgrounding at all.
Minnesota seedstock, show-stock marketing and movement:
- Seedstock producers and show-stock producers reported that their cattle are most often marketed through private treaties, at 69% and 63%, respectively.
- Seedstock producers and show-stock producers reported that their commercial cattle are most often marketed through an auction market, at 51% and 45%, respectively.
Minnesota feedlot operation size:
- The most common feedlot operation size was 1 to 19 head marketed per year (43% of feedlot operations). Even though it is most common, the 1-to-19-head size category represents less than 1% of the total feedlot cattle represented in the survey.
- Ninety-two percent of feedlot cattle are in feedlot operations marketing 200 head or more per year. The average feedlot size was 600 finished cattle marketed per year, with a range from 1 to 6,500.
Minnesota feedlot production systems:
- The most common feedlot structure was a partial roof building with an open lot of concrete flooring (55% of feedlots participating in the survey).
- Eighty-six percent of feedlot operators reported marketing their cattle as conventional, and 12% reported using a niche marketing strategy. Reported niche markets are grass-fed (8%), natural (62%), antibiotic-free (31%), hormone-free (38%) and local (69%).
- The reported locations to which finished cattle are sent by feedlots are the packer (50% of cattle), the auction market (31%), and direct to the consumer (19%).
Joining Armstrong on the survey project were Luciano Caixeta, DVM, Ph.D.; Tim Goldsmith, DVM; Noelle Noyes, DVM, Ph.D.; and Sabina Ponicki, Melissa Runck and Jared Young.
Read the full report at Movement and Management in Minnesota's Beef Industry.