Calculating cow costs over the winter: Why and how to simplify the process

Published in Progressive Cattle in December 2023
Make this the year you put pen to paper. Or should we say, finger to iPad.
Education 5 Stories 5 Calculating cow costs over the winter: Why and how to simplify the process

This article was first published in Progressive Cattle in December 2023. Read more here.

Keeping and feeding cows through the winter is likely one of the largest reoccurring investments you’ll make in your cow/calf operation. A lot goes into the final calculation, but the return value from tracking winter cow costs is well worth it. 

Here are a few reasons many cow/calf producers track winter cow costs:

Putting a price on home-raised calves. It’s hard to know what your calves are worth off grass, especially for producers who feed out those calves themselves. 

Custom-feeding cows. Feed is expensive. If you’re feeding cattle a TMR, it’s important to capture exactly what those cows are eating so you don’t under or overcharge.

Controlling cow costs. You can’t control cow costs if you don’t know how much you’re spending to keep them around. Feeding cows through the winter is the biggest opportunity for most cow/calf operations to find cost efficiencies. 

Once you start tracking wintering costs, it’s important to track the right inputs as precisely as possible.

What inputs to track

Winter feed inputs are usually the majority of cow costs overall. Make sure to account for the forages you grow yourself, not just purchased feeds. It’s also important to account for non-feed operating costs, also referred to as yardage. Those can include labor, veterinary costs, depreciation, machinery repairs and more. 

Collecting this information can be overwhelming, and pen and paper calculations often prevent producers from following through. However, there are options to help simplify the process.

Invest in a platform that does the work for you

Software platforms like Performance Beef are great tools to more precisely measure and track feed costs, keeping all your data in one place.

For Chelsey Erdmann, cow/calf producer in North Dakota (find her on Instagram @ohthats_chelsey), having a platform that automates tracking feed inventories has been a weight off her shoulders. 

“The iPad records the weights we load and how much we feed in each pen. Then the best part — we have a cost figured every single day as soon as we’re done with chores. We immediately know the difference in feeding during a storm versus feeding during a warm spell,” she says.

Automation is often the difference between wanting to track winter cow costs and actually doing it.

Derek Pohl, Nebraska cow/calf producer, remembers running custom cows on cornstalks before using Performance Beef. 

“It was a mess. Having to add up costs if you had a cow die, remembering what day it was, tracking yardage and then writing down feed it was horrible. I know we were undercharging,” he says.

Once he transitioned to the software, he set it up to charge $1/day for yardage. He tracked feeding costs as he fed every other day and included any mineral as added costs. Derek could even see how long cows were on each field and the cost per day once he pulled them off. 

In Ashton Prangley’s case, she runs cattle on shares with a neighbor. The South Dakota cow/calf producer is a Performance Beef customer. “It’s nice to have a certain ration for my neighbor’s cows along with our own cows and be able to see individual prices for feedstuffs when we settle up at the end of the year,” she says.

Put the numbers to work

Once you calculate winter cow costs, there’s ample opportunity to fine tune and reduce your costs. For example, Erdmann is always looking for feed ingredients she can swap to gain more value or decrease cost. 

Knowing cow costs helps determine the true cost of a calf off grass, too, so producers know what price they need to get for those calves to make money. 

On the feed side of things, it’s helpful to see how much your cows actually eat. Producers who raise their own forages can better manage how much to plant and what to sell or keep for themselves.

Your cow herd should work hard for you, just as you work hard to care for your cows. Keeping track of accurate winter cow costs gives you perspective to make sure that’s happening.