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VM 568P Animal Handling and Orientation - Beef Cattle

Introduction to the Beef Cattle Industry and the Veterinarian's Role

Version 4.9     Updated July 16, 2014



The purpose of this page is to provide first year veterinary students with with on-line notes and links to supplemental information on the beef cattle industry and on opportunities in beef cattle veterinary medicine.

Note: For a basic bovine glossary, please see the Bovine Vocabulary List  (behind CVM password firewall)

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to contact me.

[Return to Contents List]

Basic Beef Cow Biology:

Trait Industry Optimum Target


Birth weight - calves from heifers   70 lbs.
Birth weight - calves from cows   85 lbs.
Age at puberty   14 months
Weight at puberty - Heifers   700 lbs.
Weight at puberty - Bulls   1,100 lbs.
Gestation   285 days
Age at first calving   24 months
Postpartum interval to breeding   75 days
Calving interval   365 days
Calving season   65 days
% Calf crop weaned    85 %
Cow longevity   12 years

Growth & Nutrition

Mature bull weight ave. range   1,800 - 2,200 lbs.
Mature cow weight - ave.   1,300 lbs.
Dry matter intake, late gestation   1.8-2.3% of body weight
Water intake - nonlacting @ 85oF ~ 1 gal / 100 lbs body wt.
Water intake - growing or lactating @ 85oF ~ 2 gal / 100 lbs body wt.
Weaning weight, steer at 7 months   525 lbs.
Feedlot gain   3.0 lbs. per day
Feedlot feed efficiency (steers)   6 lbs. of feed / lb of gain
Feedlot Days on feed   90 days

Modified from table 3.5, page 88, in Field, TG & RE Taylor (2003). Beef Production and Management Decisions, 4th ed. ISBN 0-13-088879-6, Prentice-Hall.- (now 5th ed. Amazon)
HD 9433.U4 T39 2002 Health Sciences Reserve

Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle (Okl E-974 pdf)

Beef Cattle Breeds - 250 world-wide, 60 major breeds in U.S.

Breed Selection - Complex decision as income is a function of calf weaning weight, calf crop percentage and market price

Weaning Weight


Calf Crop Percentage


Market Price

Growth Rate Maternal Ability Season
Milk Production Bull & Dam Fertility Demand
Environmental Adaptation Dystocia Management Ability
  Health Carcass Characteristics


Modified from "Selecting a Beef Breed" at  http://pubs.caes.uga.edu/caespubs/pubcd/C859.htm (dead 4/10)
"Breed Selection for Beef Cattle" at http://www.dpi.qld.gov.au/beef/2222.html (dead 4/10)

Breed identification is important because:

  • Genetic diseases are commonly breed-specific
  • Many diseases have breed predispositions
  • Breed characteristics impact performance in different environments
  • Some drugs that Bos tarus tolerate are toxic to Bos indicus at the same dosage

Bos tarus

English breeds - main

Continental breeds - main

Bos indicus - "ear", heat and parasite tolerance

Crossbreds (composite, synthetic) - 70% of operations (NAHMS 97))


[Return to Contents List]

Beef Cow Production Cycle and Associated Problem Points:

Following is a typical annual cow production cycle for spring-calving northern intermountain beef herds.

  • Calving: The solid black line next to the "calving period" box is when the mature cows begin to calve. The first dashed black line is when the first-calf heifers, two years of age, begin to calve. The heifers are often managed to calve earlier approximately a month earlier than the mature cow herd to allow them more time to obtain a positive energy balance (gaining body weight) before the breeding period begins.

  • Breeding: TThe solid black line next to "breeding period" is when the rebreeding of all cows that have had a calf begins. The dashed black line before it is when the breeding of the replacement heifers begins, which is timed to give the earlier calving noted above. The breeding period is limited to shorten the calving period, which produces a more uniform calf crop and reduces the length of time that cattle must be intensively observed for calving difficulty (dystocia).

  • Weaning: The solid black line in the fall is when weaning (separation of calf from it dam) occurs. Moves of the herd between winter feeding areas, spring grazing and summer grazing often occur with the onset of calving, onset of breeding and weaning. Calves are often processed (e.g., ownership branded, vaccinated for the first time, dehorned, implanted) at the time of the move to summer grazing and again around weaning.

  • Major disease periods: The red labels are the selected major disease problems that occur during that phase of the production cycle.

CowProductionCycle.gif (16944 bytes)

Percent of Annual Deaths






         Calf Scours



         Calf Pneumonia



Modified from USDA NAHMS Beef Cow-calf Health and Health Management Practices - pdf

Potential Infections Disease Challenges to the Beef Herd:

  • Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR)
  • Bovine Virus Diarrhea (BVD)
  • Parainfluenza Virus - 3 (PI-3)
  • Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus (BRSV)
  • Haemophilus somnus
  • Mannheimia haemolytica (Pasteurella haemolytica)
  • Muscle Clostridial Diseases
  • Leptospirosis
  • Anaplasmosis
  • Campylobacteriosis (Vibriosis)
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Brucellosis
  • E. coli K-99 Scours
  • Cryptosporidia
  • Rotavirus
  • Coronavirus
  • Coccidia
  • Intestinal Worms (Ostertagia)
  • Lung Worms
  • Grubs (Hypoderma bovis)
  • Liver Flukes
  • Redwater (Clostridium haemolyticum)
  • Lice

Modified From: Keep Herd Health Simple and Make it Fit the Beef Cattle Operation (E. J. Richey, U Florida, pdf)

Brief notes on the major health problems of the beef production cycle:

Dystocia (difficult birth)

  • Most common in heifers because they have not reached full frame size.
  • Prevented by proper bull selection (low birth weight EPD) and heifer nutrition and management.

Infectious Calf Scours

  • Occurs most often in the first weeks of life
  • Most often due to holoendemic infectious agents (E. coli K-99, Cryptosporidia, Rotavirus, Coronavirus, Coccidia)

Holoendemic - "everywhere" "continuing presence"

These are examples of infectious agents that are present on most operations and to which most cattle must become immune but cause clinical disease on relatively few herds.

The key question: Why are some herds affected while others not? Management!

Sexually-transmitted diseases

Campylobacteriosis (Vibriosis)

Good vaccine available but used by only about 20% of producers.


Counter example to the holoendemic agents - if it is present in the herd it causes clinical disease (abortion) in a significant number of cows.

Example of a serious infectious agent for which we do not have a good vaccine or treatment.

  • Eradication and prevention are our only tools.
  • Prevention - biosecurity, careful cow and bull breeding management and monitoring.

Pneumonia (Bovine Respiratory Disease - BRD)

Typically occurs in calves after weaning or after entry into the feedlot

BRD  is 75% of feedlot health problems

Viral (IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSV) to bacterial (Mannheimia haemolytica) cascade

Initial vaccination against the above at branding and booster shots around weaning, a program used by about 25% of cow-calf producers, may reduce the problem.

QuietWean - Example of technology being developed to reduce weaning stress.

Example of a disease process where most of the end-stage pathology is caused by a member of the normal commensal bacterial flora and is associated with many management-related factors. Understanding these management factors is very important in solving and preventing these problems.

Best Practices:

  • Beef Care Practices, 2007 (UC Davis ANR Publication 8257 pdf)
  • A guide to best practice husbandry in beef cattle - Branding, castrating and dehorning (MLA pdf)

General Background Production Information:

For further information on the prevalence of typical management practices and of cumulative annual incidence of many diseases, see Beef Cow-Calf Surveys of the  USDA NAHMS National Animal Health Monitoring Reports.

For further perspective on controlling these disease problems, see Basic Concepts for Cow-Calf Herd Health Programs.

To identify the current literature on a specific problem, see Cornell Consultant.

[Return to Contents List]

Structure and Trends of the Beef Cattle Industry:

The purpose of the following section is for you to become aware of the major components of the beef industry, the trends affecting it and to consider their impact upon the profession.

Beef Industry Structure:

The following diagram is the structure of the beef industry with the approximate number of entities at each level and their broad objectives. Keep in mind the following: 

  • The most important component in this structure is the consumer!
  • Everyone in the beef industry and allied industries (e.g., veterinarians, feed mills, pharmaceutical and biological companies) must remember that they are producing a product for the consumer, most often a human foodstuff, and that this consumer has other choices to satisfy their needs.
  • For an excellent description of the beef industry, see Beef Magazine's 2013 series "Connecting the Dots: Beef's Story from Gate to Plate - pdf

IndustryStructure.gif (11075 bytes)

Key Facts:

  • Consumers spend 6% of their disposable income on food
  • 19% of consumer food expenditure is the farm value
  • Retailer after-tax net profit averages 1.46%
  • The 10 largest retailers have 58% of food sales and 57% of supermarket sales
    1. 32% - Walmart - 4,721 stores, $311billion sales
    2.   8% - Kroger - 3,624 stores, $81billion sales
    3.   8% - Costco - 540 stores, $78 billion sales
    4.   4% - Safeway - 1,712 stores, $41 billion sales
    5.   4% - SuperValu - 2,349 stores, $38 billion sales
  • 7-11 is 13th with 6,526 stores
  • Whole Foods Market is 19th with 301 stores and Trader Joe's is 21st with 365 stores
  • In 2004 42% of retail beef had a brand label
  • The proportion of beef sold through food service is approaching the proportion retailed
  • Each store sells the product from 250-400 head/year at 400lb/carcass
  • The 5 largest packers process 85% of the fed cattle
  • The 25 largest feeding organizations produce 40% of the fed cattle
  • 8% of cow-calf operations own 51% of the beef cows
  • 1 of every 12 head is Holstein, 1 of every 8 head is a dairy breed, 50% of dairy beef is sold as whole muscle cuts

Key Facts and Figures, Food Marketing Institute Supermarket facts and others

Top 10 Calved Beef Cow States (2007) Beef Cows - USDA Census of Agriculture

State Rank

 Beef Cow Inventory 

% U.S.

    1) Texas 5,260,000 16%
    2) Missouri 2,089,000 6%
    3) Oklahoma 2,064,000 6%
    4) Nebraska 1,890,000 6%
    5) South Dakota   1,649,000 5%
    6)  Montana 1,522,000 5%
    7) Kansas 1,516,000 5%
    8) Tennessee 1,179,000 4%
    9) Kentucky 1,166,000 4%
  10) Iowa   904,000 3%

Top Ten States




32,834,800 (15%)



Economic Importance of Montana's Cattle Industry (J Lawrence, D Otto, Iowa State)                    Pareto 80/20 Principle

Herd Size Demographics (from 2007 Census of Agriculture,  State Level Data)

Different sized herds have different needs for veterinary services, the smaller herds typically requiring more basic animal husbandry services and the larger herds more specialized services.

2007 Agriculture Census - Montana - Table 16 Number of Calving Cows

Beef Herd Size

No. Beef Herds

% of All Herds

No. Beef Cows

% of All Cows

1 - 9





10 - 19





20 - 49





50 - 99





100 - 199





200 - 499





500 - 999





1,000 - 2,499










Avg. Herd Size




2007 Agriculture Census - US - Table 16 Number of Calving Cows

Beef Herd Size

No. Beef Herds

% of All Herds

No. Beef Cows

% of All Cows

1 - 9





10 - 19





20 - 49





50 - 99





100 - 199





200 - 499





500 - 999





1,000 - 2,499










Avg. Herd Size




Types of Cow-calf Operations:

Primary Income (14% of producers) -  The cow-calf enterprise is the main means of family support. Input costs are of considerable concern and the major goal for long-term survival is to remain in the bottom 1/2 of producers with regard to cost of production. The major problem is that because most are selling a commodity, they are a "price taker".

Supplemental Income (69% of producers)- These producers cause the cattle price cycle because they elect to expand their herds when the prices look good but sell off when the prices are low. Examples are farmers who have ground that can't be used for cropping.

Non-economic (17% of producers) - Producers have cattle for non-economic reasons, such as keeping the suburban property grazed, experience for the children and so on. Input costs are not as much of a concern. Producers can use more expensive technology (AI, ET) to improve satisfaction without regard to return. Veterinary-administered basic husbandry, such as vaccinations, breeding and processing (castrating, dehorning), is an opportunity that has not been fully developed by the profession.

Producer Source of Income

Used vet in 1996

Herd Size
 (Calved Cows)

Primary Income 

Supplemental Income 







50 - 99





100 - 300





> 300






Evidence of Difference between Primary and Secondary Enterprise Management:

Managers of cow-calf operations that are primary enterprises adopt better management practices at a higher frequency than do managers of cow-calf operations that are secondary enterprises. This also likely includes the selection and use of veterinary services.

Income and Management data from page 3 of USDA NAHMS Beef '97 Part I: Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices (pdf)

Beef Industry Economics:

A 1978 Montana study found that for an average of $6,000 (1978 dollars) of spendable family income (money that could be spent on the family - new car, college tuition, groceries) per year over a 25 year period, a commercial cow-calf ranch had to have at least 300 calving cows. The $6,000 1978 dollars are equivalent to $21,497 2013 dollars. The cow herd size required  to provide this amount of family income now is likely larger, given the divergence between beef prices and both producer costs and consumer prices.

A 2006 study by the University of Minnesota Center for Farm Financial Management (publications) found that for a farm family size of 3.4 persons the average annual family expense was$64,046 ($74,211 2013 dollars) and, based on five year average returns, a beef herd size of from 815 to 1,357 cows, depending on the area of the state, was required to generate that amount of family income. (GA Hachfeld, 2009 "What does it take to earn a living on the farm?" pdfUS BLS CPI Inflation Calculator

Conclusion: Because many ranches are low return businesses with tight margins, the veterinary services you deliver must be as cost effective as possible for those producers whose cattle provide a major portion of their family income.

For general information on the economics of farms, see: USDA ERS  EIB 12 -  Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: 2005 Family Farm Report, 2006

Example Enterprise Budgets - showing costs and returns:

For additional information on U.S. cow-calf operations and production costs see:

For government regulation of marketing chain and processes, see:

For on-line data and tools for evaluating the above and that were the source of the data for the charts below, see:

texts and papers:

  • Koontz SR (ed.) (2003). Economics of the Red Meat and Dairy Industries. Vet Clinics of NA: Food Animal Pract 19(2) - WSU Access
    • Feuz DM and WJ Unberger (2003). Beef cow-calf production. Vet Clinics of NA: Food Animal Pract 19(2):339-363.
    • Mintert J (2003). Beef feedlot industry. Vet Clinics of NA: Food Animal Pract 19(2):387-395.
    • Peel DS (2003). Beef cattle growing and backgrounding programs. Vet Clinics of NA: Food Animal Pract 19(2):365-385.
  • Pasour EC, RR Rucker (2005). Plowshares & Pork Barrels: The political economy of agriculture - book website - Amazon

Consumer Demand and Price Indexes:

What does the future hold for the beef industry and what impact will that have on the segment of the veterinary profession serving the industry?

TotalMeatConsumption.gif (14055 bytes)

Per capita beef consumption is declining while total per capita meat consumption is rising, particularly for poultry. More than anything else, this trend appears to be related to the relative increasing price of beef compared to the declining price of poultry. Much of the price decline in poultry is due to markedly increased genetic and production efficiency over the recent decades. Compared to the consumer price index, the price of feeders has remained low and the disparity is increasing (see below). Thus, the costs to support a ranch family are increasing relative to the value of their conventional product, the feeder calf. The costs of the ranch inputs are also increasing as evidenced by the rise in the agriculture equipment index. New technology that lowers costs is constantly evolving and being adopted, both in the domestic and foreign beef industry and the competing industries providing human protein foodstuffs. These factors result in continual pressure for conventional operations to become lower cost producers and to increase in size to capture economies of scale. 

Veterinarians can become involved in IRM (integrated resource management) and SPA (standardized performance analysis) programs that have developed to guide producers in making these changes. Dr. Jack Walker, Weiser, ID, was one of the primary innovators in this area. Ranchers are also developing alliances to increase profits through product differentiation and from underlying consistency and quality improvements. These changes will involve veterinarians in quality assurance programs and in preparation of cattle for the transition from ranch to feedlot. Ranchers are also using their resources to develop other enterprises, such as wild game for sportsmen, that may involve veterinarians.

  • FINBIN: Farm Financial Database
  • NCBA Standard Performance Analysis (SPA)
  • Texas  IRM-SPA (Integrated Resource Management - Standardized Performance Analysis)
  • Standardized Performance Analysis of Beef Cattle Operations (Vet Clinics of NA: Food Anim Pract 11(2), July 1995)

FeederPricePlots.gif (13519 bytes)

Note that for the purpose of generating this plot, the CPI index and the agriculture equipment price index were made equivalent to the average price of feeder calves in 1956.

The Result: Farm consolidation occurs as long-run profit margins tighten. Cow numbers are slowly declining but ranch numbers are declining more rapidly, meaning that the size of remaining herds is increasing. This has consequences on the demand for beef cow-calf veterinarians, on the types of services they deliver as operation size increases, on the skills they need to deliver them and on how they deliver these services.

Beef Cattle Price Cycles:

Beef output prices, whether calves from ranches or fed cattle from feedlots, repeatedly cycle over a period of approximately seven years or so. This cycling is due to the economic relationships between supply, demand and the length of time required for heifer calves to produce their own calves. During times of high feeder calf prices, ranches tend to keep more heifer calves as replacements so herds tend to expand. People with the resources for some cattle but as a secondary enterprise tend to get back into the industry when feeder calf prices are high but liquidate when they are low. The result is an oversupply of calves and feeder calf price declines dramatically until the number of calving cows is reduced sufficiently that feeder calf supply drops and prices rise. Cattle prices are also perturbed by other factors. Adverse weather, such droughts in grazing areas leading to herd reductions, and anything affecting the production of crops used as feeds in feedlots affects cattle prices regionally and nationally. Energy cost changes also impact cattle prices throughout the system because of the generally energy intense nature of US crop agriculture producing animal feedstuffs. The move toward biofuel production will increase competition for land and water for crop production as well as for crops such as corn that can be used in biofuel production.

The following graphs are modified from NCBA Beef Cattle Statistics.

Estimate Average Cow Calf Returns


High return producers are profitable most years; low return producers are unprofitable most years.

Sources of current market information:

Beef Feedlot Closeouts - Beeflinks - Midwest Breakevens

As a consequence of the wide range of these price shifts, during the lowest prices only the most efficient producers with the lowest breakevens will be making money and most producers will be loosing money. Only during price peaks will the most inefficient producers or those with high breakevens due to other factors, such as high debt load, be making money. As a consequence, for long term survival producers of a commodity product must have a breakeven cost that is at or below the average for the industry. 

Harlan Hughes, retired North Dakota State Ag Economics Professor:
  • Beef Market Advisor (blog)
  • Beef Special Cow-Calf Issues 2004 2006
  • An Informed Veterinarian Can Help Clients Profit from the Cattle Cycle (presentation to 2000 AABP Mtg - proceedings)
    • Part I: Cattle Cycles (pdf - bad link?)
    • Part II: Helping Your Clients Make the Cattle Cycle Work for Them (pdf - bad link?)

Impact of 10% change in key factors on Cow-calf breakeven prices and returns (Field and Taylor, 2003, from Cattle-Fax)

Factor Change (%) Decrease in Breakeven ($/cwt) Increase in Return ($/cow)
% Weaned Calf Crop +10% $7.87 $39.82
Weaning Weight +10% $6.62 $33.47
Total Feed Cost -10% $4.27 $21.58
Cull Cow Weight +10% $1.00 $ 5.08
Interest Cost -10% $0.18 $0.93

All Combined

  $19.94 $100.88

Efficiency can be gained by expansion but undertaking the debt associated with expansion is not without risk. Cash flow problems brought on by short term effects such as dramatic price drops for outputs, dramatic prices increases for inputs or large interest rate increases may lead to bankruptcy. On the other hand, producers using conventional practices selling into a commodity market that elect not to expand while the general trend in the industry is for expansion will eventually exit the industry because expansion is no longer economically feasible. Assets of such farms and ranches are often sold to neighbors upon the operator's retirement.

Efficiency due to scale (size) forms a curve that is the boundary for the optimal combination of production inputs (e.g., managerial skills, specialized labor, machinery, facilities, land) for that size of production unit in that industry. One of the reasons producers expand is to capture those economies of scale. An example of an industrial long run cost curve is the following plot modified (green lines and text are mine) from Jones R (2000). Costs, Distribution of Costs, and Factors Influencing Profitability in Cow-Calf Production, Kansas State University – pdf) .

What do producers value? The trade press and the producer organizations are two sources of such information. An example is a survey of producers conducted by the Angus Association several years ago.

Priorities First: Identifying management priorities in the commercial cow-calf business (Tom Field, 2006, pdf)

According to agricultural economist Dr. Michael Boehlje, all sectors of animal agriculture are facing five challenges:

  1. Increasing international competition
  2. Increasing industrialization
  3. More product differentiation and branding
  4. More consistent and precise production
  5. Further integration of supply chains

The poultry and swine industries are the farthest down this road.

For further discussion on these trends see:

Product Differentiation and Improvement:

Ways to distinguish a product in what is otherwise a commodity market are to establish a name brand or to establish a market niche based on some characteristic important to the consumer, such as high quality or being "organic". Then, rather than taking the commodity price for the undifferentiated product (being a "price taker"), the producer is able to command a higher than commodity price. This process is gaining momentum as different forms of vertical integration, such as alliances, expand within the industry. Veterinarians often have roles these efforts, such as developing production health programs that don't involve antibiotics or certifying that the animals meet certain standards, such as having had a particular sequence of vaccinations. At least one veterinarian's entire practice is performing ultrasounds for beef product improvement, sire selection and optimal marketing.

Applications of ultrasound technology to product improvement:

Examples of product differentiation:

Not all attempts at niche marketing are successful:

Food differentiation:


General Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) Program:


Product quality and consistency is affected by genetics, feeding, husbandry practices such as vaccinations and veterinary treatments. Most antibiotics result in tissue residues for varying periods of time depending factors such as dose, frequency and route (e.g., oral, IM, IV, SQ). Injectable vaccines and antibiotics cause permanent scarring and fibrosis around the injection site. The adjuvants (immunologic stimulants) in vaccines that are required to stimulate protective immunity often cause strong tissue reactions. The carriers required to keep antibiotics stable and in solution often have pH's that are very irritating. The process of injection sometimes introduces infectious agents that result in abscess formation.  

To compete with the high product quality and consistency of the pork and poultry industries, efforts are underway in the beef industry to improve product quality and consistency. Beef quality assurance is becoming a bigger issue and the veterinarian's role in it will expand with the coming of permanent, unique nation-wide individual animal identification.  This system will enable food service companies and packers to trace animals back to the farm of origin for the purpose of obtaining compensation from previous owners of the animal for those quality defects that are hidden until after slaughter. Note the involvement of the Nebraska Vet Medical Association in the Nebraska quality assurance program. 



Because of BSE ("Mad Cow Disease"), most countries are requiring that imported beef products must be from cattle less than 30 months of age. The USDA Audit, Review and Compliance Branch of the Agricultural Marketing Service is responsible for certifying that US beef exports meet the standards established by each importing country.

QSA - USDA Quality System Assessment Program

Animal ID

To shorten the time required to trace animals exposed to foreign animal diseases, either accidentally or deliberately introduced, federal and state governmental agencies and livestock producer groups are developing plans for premise and individual identification of all livestock.

  • NAIS - National Animal Identification System
  • USAIP - United States Animal Identification Plan - documents

Cattle Care, Welfare and Well-being Standards:

In response to pressure from animal welfare and animal rights activists, large retail chains such as Burger King, McDonalds and grocery stores have begun requiring that the livestock from which the food products originated be housed, managed and processed under their prescribed care, welfare and well-being standards. These standards are evolving and will likely be required by an increasing proportion of food companies. As these standards require regular audits of participating premises , often by a third party, veterinarians have a role in certifying that producers meet a given standard as well as in assisting producers in implementing them.

General Standards:

  • Beef Care Practices, 2007 (UC Davis ANR Publication 8257 pdf)
  • NCBA Beef Quality Assurance
    • The Cattle Industry's Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle - pdf

For specific standards and process details, see "Food Labeling" on this website.


Resource Utilization Alternatives:

Besides a continuing trend toward fewer but larger operations, another effect of the decreasing margins in commercial cow-calf production is the development of alternative uses for the major resource of most ranches, the land. Many of these are directed toward tourism and recreation and most of these alternative present new opportunities for veterinarians. For example, some have developed game ranching enterprises, where sportsmen are allowed access for a fee. These include fishing and hunting opportunities, sometimes for exotic game. Some are raising other species as livestock, such as buffalo for meat or elk for velvet. Some are catering to those interested in western traditions by developing guest ranching or re-enactments of historic events through trail rides or wagon trains. 

Farm and Ranch Recreation Handbook (for producers considering this option)


Loss of farmland to urbanization and "ranchettes"

  • Farming on the Edge Report: What's happening to our farmland?
  • Coalitions between environmentalists and ranchers for wild land preservation

Alternative production systems:

Dietary Trends, Food Safety Issues and Changing perceptions of Food

  • Functional foods and nutraceuticals

The CLA Network (research on naturally CLA-enriched beef and dairy products)

  • Food Safety Issues
  • "Local" Foods
  • Organic and natural foods
    • Economic Issues with Natural and Organic Beef, 1999 (K State MF-2432, pdf)
    • Organic Livestock Workbook: A Guide to Sustainable and Allowed Practices, 2004 (ATTRA-NCAT, pdf)
    • Organic Crops Workbook: A Guide to Sustainable and Allowed Practices, 2003 (ATTRA-NCAT, pdf)

Human Diet Research Findings:

Globalization of Agricultural Production and Food Consumption

Several global trends will provide both opportunities and threats to the US beef cow-calf industry. Exporting livestock origin products are a major means for  lesser developed countries to generate foreign exchange. Such countries are establishing large western-style production units to produce product almost exclusively for global export. As China and India advance economically, the proportion of their population that are members of the consumer class is increasing. Because of a strong correlation between higher social economic status and increased consumption of animal-origin protein and their very large populations, this trend will lead to increasing global demand of those animal-origin foodstuffs that are outside of dietary restrictions. International organizations are working to establish and harmonize production and inspection processes standards and codes that will remove artificial trade barriers between producing and consuming countries.


Controversial issues facing segments of the beef industry:

Significant controversy exists both between industry segments and outside of the industry over issues such as ending the beef checkoff, unfair market power concentration, foreign subsidies, private fee-based use of public state BLM and Forest Service lands, environmental impacts of grazing and of concentrated feeding operations and so on. How these issues play out will have major impacts on the viability of industry segments in geographic regions where major shifts in public policy occur.


Consensus building:

Building consensus between the many stakeholders, often with opposing viewpoints, in livestock agriculture health issues is a major function of the United States Animal Health Association. Some 30 committees, formed around species or major issues,  meet at an annual meeting where resolutions are hammered out and forwarded to the agency or group responsible for the issue. Membership includes representatives of industry and professional organizations, representatives of consumer and interest groups and regulatory officials from state and federal agencies as well as academic researchers with expertise on the particular topic. The recent annual proceedings with committee reports are on-line.

USAHA Main page

Renewable / Non-renewable Resource Issues for Long-term Sustainable Agriculture

  • Economic Globalization
  • Emerging Infectious Agents, Parasites
  • Global Climate Variability, Change
  • Genetic Diversity - Invasive Species, GMO's, Extinction
  • Increasing Petroleum Scarcity
  • Regional Human Population Expansion
  • Regional Soil Exhaustion, Salinization
  • Regional Water Depletion, Scarcity
  • For a draft site of links, see Sustainable Agriculture Information Links & Resources

    The Views and Visions of Others:

    [Return to Contents List]

    Production Medicine Approach vs. Traditional Approach:

    Private practice opportunities are many and varied, ranging from the traditional "James Herriott" model of providing traditional veterinary services to the model of providing consulting services. The first model is the typical mixed practice centered around a clinic in a community. The later model is typified by the feedlot consulting veterinarian who regularly travels a circuit of feedlots located in several different states. The former model has been labeled the "fire-engine" approach and is usually focused on the individual animal. The later model has been labeled the "production medicine" approach and is focused on the performance of the entire group of animals. The focus of the production model is on health and prevention of potential loss while the traditional model is focused more on disease, particularly that caused by infectious agents, and treatment, which is reduction of impending loss. In the first model, each episode of service is supplied upon client request while in the later model, service is on a regular calendar schedule. In the first model, the veterinarian applies the intervention, such as the treatment of a sick animal, while in the later model the client applies the intervention, such as a management change to prevent the occurrence of a condition in a group of animals. Most all agricultural animal practitioners provide a mix of these two approaches and most all livestock enterprises consume a mix, market economics driving producers toward the production approach and "wrecks" triggering the traditional approach. Overall, the balance is shifting toward the production medicine approach, a shift that is occurring for several reasons.

    Labor Specialization

    One reason for this shift is increasing specialization of farm labor and the effect of increasing herd size on their experience with a given condition. The larger labor pool associated with large herd sizes enables management to have individuals specialize in particular tasks or areas, such as treatment of sick cattle. Because of the larger herd size, conditions that appear uncommon in a small herd are now common. For example, if the risk of a particular event is 1 per 300 cow-years, it appears in a 30-cow herd on average every 10 years (30 cow years per year or 300 cow years) but it appears on average 10 times per year in a 3,000-cow herd. With this frequency of occurrence, the personnel specializing in that area can begin recognizing it sooner and can become familiar with treatment procedures. Under this model, the veterinarian's role shifts from doing the diagnoses and applying the treatment to training and monitoring employees doing the diagnosing and treating and serving as an interface between the employees and management. This has been the approach in large feedlots for many years and is becoming more common in large dairies.

    For more information on the production medicine approach, see Introduction to Herd Production Medicine.

    A more complete listing of the differences between the traditional approach and the production approach is here.

    The Disease "Iceberg" and Information from Groups:

    Several reasons for the shift toward whole herd production medicine approach are related to the "iceberg concept" of disease distribution in a herd. The spectrum of effect on individual animals in a group ranges from being healthy and unaffected to clinically affected and dead. For every clinically affected case, there are typically 5 to 20 subclinically affected individuals. For most diseases, several risk factors are needed to cause the disease and these are often different between herds and over time in a given herd. Many of the infectious agents that cause problems in livestock operate more as opportunists rather than as primary pathogens. When a herd is large enough, what has happened to the affected animals can be compared to the unaffected to determine what those risk factors are for that problem. Then the management practices increasing those risk factors can be changed, reducing the risk of that problem in the future. To find these, veterinarians analyze the data collected by the specialized "production accounting" herd record systems as well as other on-farm information sources.

    For more information on how group information is used to solve herd problems, see Guide for Herd Problem Investigations.

    Another reason is that animals respond better if the problem is detected in the group early in the course of their disease compared to those in which the disease has developed to the clinical form for it to be detected in them individually. In larger groups, the appearance of clinical cases is a red flag that something is seriously wrong in that group of animals. Then treatment measures can be taken for those affected but undetectable animals and preventive measures can be taken to decrease the risk of the problem occurring in the unaffected animals. This is particularly important because although the loss per clinically affected individual is greater than the loss per subclinically affected individual, the total loss due to the subclinically affected individuals is much greater than the total loss due to the clinically affected individuals. This is because typically there are so many more subclinically affected than clinically affected individuals (the "iceberg concept" below) when a problem occurs. The economics of livestock animal health and disease makes the old saying that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" true.

    HerdIceberg.gif (24568 bytes)


    iceberg.gif (14266 bytes)

    For more information on the distribution of subclinical vs. clinical disease, see Epidemiology Concepts for Disease in Animal Groups.

    Specific information on the "Iceberg Concept" is here.

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    How to "Get There from Here": Becoming a beef cattle veterinarian (my opinion, anyway)

    Although growing up in or having work experience in the beef industry is sometimes an advantage, you absolutely don't have to have done so to be a very successful beef cattle cow-calf or feedlot veterinarian. In fact, if you have grown up in the industry you may be blinded by your preconceived notions more often than your previous knowledge is an advantage. The parents of highly successful, award-winning practitioners have included college professors and school teachers remote from agriculture, undergraduate majors have included English Literature at an Ivy League school and previous work experience has included teaching high school science. On the other hand, very few will be really successful beef cattle veterinarians if they do not work to improve their skills and knowledge beyond those that they started vet school with and those that they obtained from the core (required) veterinary curriculum.

    Read  Introduction to Herd Production Medicine

    Know the production medicine information in the following texts:

    The herd production management and medicine books that I recommend are:

    Chenoweth, PJ, MW Sanderson (2005). Beef Practice: Cow-calf Production Medicine, Blackwell Publ. Amazon

    Radostits, OM (2002). Herd Health: Food Animal Production Medicine 3rd ed. WB Saunders. Amazon
    (This book is on reserve in the Health Sciences Library - SF745 .R33 2001 ).

    The two chapters relevant to this part of this class are:

    1. Health and Production in Beef Cattle Breeding Herds (Chenoweth and Sanderson, pp. 509-580).
    2. Health and Production Management in Beef Feedlots (Smith, Stokka, Radostits, Griffin, pp. 581-633).

    While in veterinary school:

    • Identify and become confident with particular veterinary knowledge and skills:

      papers on skills and competencies:

      • Diagnosis and treatment of food animal educational diseases (JAVMA 193:1066-1068, 1988)
      • Practitioner-Defined Competencies Required of New Veterinary Graduates in Food Animal Practice (JVME 31(4):347-365, Winter 2004 pdf)
      • Individual animal medicine and animal production skills expected of entry-level veterinarians in bovine practice (JAVMA 221(7):959-68, 2002)
      • Surgery, anesthesia, and restraint skills expected of entry-level veterinarians in bovine practice (JAVMA 221(7):969-974, 2002 pdf)

      Veterinary school lists:

    • Know the upper division applied animal science / farm management materials

    If you didn't have the "capstone" courses in applied farm-level agricultural economics and farm management, obtain and read the textbooks for these. When these courses appear in the time schedule, watch the campus bookstore for good used copies. The important herd-wide decisions in which the veterinarian is involved almost always involve economics and risk. The veterinarian that does not understand the economic implications of decision alternatives is of much less use to managers making these decisions than one who does. Veterinarians are becoming involved in establishing procedures and in the hiring, training and monitoring of employees responsible for those procedures. To do this, veterinarians need to understand the principles of labor management including training, monitoring and motivation. Finally, the veterinarian's allied industry "competition" usually has this background and level of academic training.

    The beef production text that I recommend if you are interested in serving beef cow-calf clients is:

    Field, Thomas G., Robert E. Taylor. (2006). Beef Production and Management Decisions, 5th ed. Prentice-Hall, Amazon
    (A previous edition is on reserve in the Health Sciences Library - HD9433.U4 T39 2003)

    (Identifying Management Priorities in the Commercial Cow-Calf Business, 2007 (Tom Field, pdf))

    An excellent on-line beef management text is the Arizona Rancher’s Management Guide 

    Other important upper division or capstone textbooks:

    As ranching is essentially converting captured sunlight in the form of forages to beef, understanding the forage component of this process is important.

    Barnes, RF, ed. (2003). Forages: An Introduction to Grassland Agriculture, Vol 1. and Forages: The Science of Grassland Agriculture, Vol 2,  6th ed., Iowa State Univ Press. Amazon 1 Amazon 2

    As the underpinning of the cow-calf industry structure is applied agricultural economics, understanding management principles and economic decision making at the ranch level is very important. Look for texts with titles such as "Farm Management", "Modern Agriculture Management", "Farm Business Management" used for upper-division courses that cover such topics as fixed vs. variable costs, net present value, income and cash flow statements, balance sheets, partial budgeting, benefit-cost analysis and enterprise analysis. An example is:

    Castle, EM, MH Becker, AG Nelson (1998). Farm Business Management: The decision-making process, 3rd ed. Prentice Hall.

    • Learn production accounting systems and analysis of data from them 

    Learn to use the cow-calf and feedlot production accounting systems (e.g., beef - CHAPS, CowCalf5) and learn to do "barnyard epidemiology" on the data from them efficiently. Learn to use readily available tools such as Microsoft Excel and EpiInfo to establish cohorts, to calculate risk of occurrence and relative risk between exposures, and to create summary tables and plots. For additional information in this area, see WWWeb Epidemiology & Evidence-based Medicine Sources for Veterinarians and Guide for Herd Problem Investigations.

    • Take elective blocks at other schools

    Take advantage of the elective blocks offered at other schools with strong applied programs in your species of interest. Consider scheduling some of these as part of your "vacation" time. To make sure they have a place for you, you will need to begin arranging these months in advance of when you would like to go. Many of these may allow you to take their blocks for free if you are paying tuition at another North American veterinary school and they have space.  The Great Plains Veterinary Education Center is the premier location for post-DVM continuing education in beef cattle (Beef Cattle Production Management Series) and has clinic rotations for fourth year students interested in beef cattle practice. Kansas State University is establishing a Beef Cattle Institute and offers a Feedlot Certification Program.

    • Learn Spanish

    Consider developing your conversational ability in Spanish as a significant and increasing component of the agricultural workforce directly involved in animal handling and care is Hispanic. Communication failures between management and employees are involved in many herd disease and production problems. As a consequence of these communication failures, employees often don't understand how management wants things done, management is unable to train employees adequately in standard operating protocols or to establish monitoring and feedback procedures to improve the process.

    Educators and extension personnel are beginning to recognize the impact of these communication problems, are developing resources, such as those on the U California Agricultural Labor Management website, and are working with producers to reduce these problems. For example, see the following:

    Obtain experience outside of the veterinary curriculum and veterinary school:

    • Join the relevant professional organizations as a student member. 

      Professional associations are a major way that practitioners keep up to date and share ideas. The proceedings of the national meetings, a major source of continuing education hours for practitioners, are a gold mine of information.

      Join the American Association of Bovine Practitioners as a student member (students $15 / year).

     The AABP is an international association of veterinarians organized to enhance the professional lives of its members through relevant continuing education that will improve the well-being of cattle and the economic success of their owners, increase awareness and promote leadership for issues critical to cattle industries, and improve opportunities for careers in bovine medicine. The AABP has a particularly strong seminar series associated with their annual meeting. 

    The AABP has a page of topics and links for students at http://www.aabp.org/; click on "Students".

    Join the Academy of Veterinary Consultants as a student member. 

     The AVC is an association of veterinarians involved in beef cattle medicine, herd health programs and consultation. The AVC mission is to provide continuing education, member support and leadership among various entities of the beef cattle industry. Membership in the AVMA is required.

    To join as student member, contact Dr. Dee Griffin 402-762-4500 and provide him information on your student status, career intentions and so on.

    • Identify progressive practitioners doing what you want to do at a high level and go see how they do it.

    Arrange to spend a few days with each one during your school vacations. In several days of riding, you can see how they interact with clients, what their practice philosophy is and you can seek their advice on how to prepare yourself for that type of practice. Rather than concentrating on one region or one practice, go to different areas to see different ways of doing things, both on the veterinarians' and the producers' sides. To find these people, ask around. For example, ask the technical service veterinarians who come to your school; they make it their business to know the practitioners in an area. Ask the veterinarians you ride with to identify other veterinarians doing what they do. Identify the area practitioners who have participated in a certificate program such as that offered by GPVEC. The business buzzword for all of this is "networking".

    • Seek out veterinarians successfully managing large, modern livestock operations. 

    These individuals have the unique perspective of both knowing what training you are obtaining as a veterinary student and knowing the actual day-to-day production aspects of the industry very well. If you can arrange it, spend time on their operation. Large intensive livestock operations such as feedlots are very complex operations with huge investments in facilities, equipment, feed and livestock and with employees having specialized tasks that have to be done repeatedly and consistently well.

    • Through veterinarians and other allied industry personnel, identify progressive operations and contact the manager to ask if you could spend some time on the operation to see how it works and shadowing key personnel as they carry out their jobs.
    • A special source of information are the "Practitioners of the Year" or their equivalent that are selected annually by the practitioner organizations such as AAVC and AABP. These individuals are usually quite active in and knowledgeable of the profession, are progressive and innovative, are highly respected and well known by their peers, and are intensely scrutinized by an award selection committee after their nomination.
    • Read the relevant industry trade journals (see below), either on-line or by subscription.

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    Information Websites (Selected):

    Blogs & Websites:

    Trade Journals:

    To become familiar with the beef industry, its trends, innovations and challenges, I strongly recommend that you regularly read the trade magazines targeted at the producer type (seedstock, commercial cow-calf, stocker, feedlot) that you expect will be your clients. Some of these trends may eclipse the demand for some traditional veterinary services while others may provide opportunities for entrepreneurial practitioners to develop new services, such as selection using ultrasound. You can read the following on-line or you can request subscriptions, which are free to qualified individuals.

    Comment and synopsis of media reports relating to food safety, environment, trade, consumer perspectives and other agricultural animal issues are provided by the BarfBlog and the Food Safety Network (Doug Powell, Kansas State, formerly at U Guelph). This synopsis is available as a daily digest both on the web and by e-mail subscription and is an excellent way to become aware of emerging food supply issues or to track current ones.

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    On-Line Materials:

    Many good materials are on-line and more being put on every day. The following are for those of you who want to pursue a certain aspect of beef veterinary medicine and the beef industry further. For example, for those of you wanting to know about disease problems in beef cattle (how much occurs and when they occur) see the reports in the Center for Animal Health Monitoring site below. For those of you wanting to see what parameters are important for genetic selection and how they are monitored, see the Beef Improvement Federation site below. For those of you interested in the economics driving the industry, there are many links below.

    My collection of links to resources for ag animal veterinarians is WWWeb Sources for Agricultural Animal Veterinarians.

    Selected examples:

      [Return to Contents List]

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