Beginner's Guide to Buying Cattle
Updated: Nov 7
Cattle are a diverse breed of mammals that have been bred for many purposes; meat, dairy, and also just for fun. This guide will walk you through what you might want to consider before you purchase your livestock for starting a cattle ranch, adding cattle to your existing operation or just looking for a few tips to help you in your next livestock purchase. A few things we will cover here are; the different types of cattle, beef cattle breeds, cow types, cost factors, evaluating animal health, as well as estimating costs and returns.
We hope this will give you the insight you need, when getting started with or improving your cattle herd.
Photo by Etienne Girardet
Key Considerations when buying cattle
There are a few key things to consider when getting started with your first cattle purchase. These factors will determine the types of cattle you might consider purchasing, the land and operation requirements, costs as well as the return on investment. Using cattle software or livestock management software can help you better track, manage and understand your cattle expenses and break even points.
1. What are your Goals for your Cattle Operation?
The first thing to consider is what are your goals? Are you raising cattle for beef, for dairy, for show, for stock sales, to support pasture regeneration or just for fun? There are many considerations for each of those goals.
Different breeds of cattle have different requirements for care and management, some have different temperaments and characteristics. This boils down to some breeds being better than others for different operations; meat production, milk production, and how they graze the land. Before heading to a cattle auction be sure to do your research and talk to local ranchers and/or breeders to get their opinions and ask all your questions.
2. Selecting the Right Cattle Breed
Once you’ve figured out the goals for your cattle operation, the next step is to determine the right breeds of cows for your operation. There are many factors to consider when selecting a cattle breed. Specifically you’ll need to consider the following:
Production goals (Is that breed known for that characteristic.)
Purchase cost and operating budget
Breeds for your climate
Land & grazing area requirements
Feed, animal temperament & other operation costs
Access to breed stock (via auction or other means)
The key thing to remember is to have a plan, do your research and make informed decisions. We can't know all your production goals and details, but we can share with you some information and breed considerations based on some common production goals.
When selecting cattle breeds for beef you might want to consider a beef cattle breed that has a proven production history. Some of the most common beef cattle breeds (in the US) are:
While a dairy might choose the breeds of cows that have well know milk production rates, such as:
There are a ton of other breeds of cows that are suited for beef or dairy operations (or both), so be sure to do your research (Check out this list of cattle breeds from OSU). If you paid close attention might have noticed that Holstein shows up as both a dairy and cattle breeds for beef. Holsteins are a solid dual purpose breed that is a good choice for small operations or homesteaders who are looking for both milk and beef production. On the dairy side, you may be able to find miniature Jerseys that are smaller (so require less land) but still offer dependable milk production.
What types of cows should you buy?
Depending on your production goals you may decide to buy a weaned calf or steer to use a feeder cattle, an intact or bred heifer to grow your herd or a bull to expand your genetics. Each cow type has its purpose and the costs vary accordingly. Here are some basic cattle types to get you started.
A cow is a full grown female animal that is at least a year old and has given birth to a calf.
Calves are baby cows. They are fairly docile and can be used for milk production, meat and breeding.
A bull is a mature intact (not castrated) male who is capable of breeding. Breeding is typically a bulls primary function in a cattle operation. They can be aggressive and are capable of causing injury to any animals and humans that they perceive as a threat. Many people choose to use artificial insemination (AI) for breeding instead of keeping and managing a bull.
A heifer is a young female cow, who has not birthed her 1st calf. They can be bred, used for milk production or sold for meat. A heifer is not typically bred until she is at least 14 months old. It is also common to purchase a bred heifer which will provide a new calf in the spring, is ‘certified’ as a viable breeder and can then be bred again after a rest period.
A steer is a male animal who has been castrated. Typically they are more docile to handle than bulls and are most often used for meat production as feeder stock.
Where to buy cattle?
Once you’ve decided on the breed, age, gender, and number of animals you want to add to your operation it's time to get your trailer hitched and ready to load your new cattle. You’ll likely find various local sources in your area to acquire your livestock.
Don’t make the mistake of buying a “bargain” cow that you find on Craigslist. Remember, that you get what you pay for, so if someone is selling cattle at well below market prices, there’s probably a reason. Most likely, there is some problem with the cow and you’ll end up paying the difference at the vet. Your best bet is to find a reliable source that is charging a fair price and acquire your cattle from them.
You can find cattle for sale from a local farm or dairy, you can also find many on Craigslist or from a registered cattle breeder. Breeders offer detailed lineage information for certain traits for a specific breed so start there if you know what you're looking for.
When buying from a farmer, be sure to visit the farm. If the farm is well taken care of and clean, there’s a good chance that the farmer takes good care of their animals. If stalls are overflowing with muck, there are flies or trash everywhere you might want to look elsewhere.
The other common source to find cattle is at a cattle auction. There are hundreds of cattle auctions all over the world. You can potentially find some in your area here, searching in your area or checking with a local rancher, 4H or FFA member. Check out our post before heading to your first cattle auction.
What makes a good cow?
Before you buy, it’s important to learn how to spot a ‘good cow’.
Image From: Wikimedia
The animal should have bright, attentive eyes, and seem fairly content. Like any animal around new people, the cow may be nervous (especially younger heifers), but it shouldn’t be so nervous that it’s bolting away, charging, trying to hurt themselves or break free of their pen.
Tip: You can use a cow's body condition score to help you gauge the health of the animal.
Be sure to understand the age of the cow. If it’s a heifer, ask if she’s been around a bull, especially if she is under a year old as she will likely have difficulties calving that young.
Check out these specific details to evaluate the health of the cow:
You can tell a lot about the health of a cow from its eyes. They should be bright and alert, with no discharge at the corners. This might indicate pinkeye.
Should be upright and move to any sound or flick rapidly to get rid of flies.
Should be smooth and regular at rest. Panting is normal on warm days but the animal should not be coughing constantly.
Should be clean, with no discharge, and the muzzle should be moist.
There should not be any drool or dripping saliva. If you notice slow or incomplete chewing there could be a problem with their teeth.
Healthy animals should have smooth shiny coats (it might be fuller and thicker in winter) but should be without bald spots.
Assuming you're not buying a bull or steer, the cow should have an udder. The udder should have 4 quarters and not look swollen and there should be no sign of pain when touched. The teats should show no sign of injury. If lactating, there should be no sign of blood in the milk, as this points to an udder infection. If buying a dairy cow, make sure that the cow has teats that will work with your milking setup.
The animal should be alert and aware of its surroundings and stands squarely on all four feet. It should hold its head high and confidently. The animal should look like its gender - male animals should look masculine; females should look feminine. If buying a steer, they should have both testicles removed. A healthy animal should have a straight back that is not swayed. If selecting for a beef operation, cows and steers should have well developed muscles and look 'beefy'.
Animals should not seem overly stressed, mean or wild. They should not run off if you walk among them. Animal disposition is especially important for dairy animals as you'll likely be handling them every day. The animal should appear calm. If the cow is regularly looking at or licking its flanks or kicking its underside this may indicate pain in that area.
The animal should walk easily with steady footing, where all four feet bear its weight. Watch out for irregular movements as these suggest pain in its feet or legs. When lying down a healthy animal should be able to get up quickly.
The animal should eat and drink normally and have a full belly, if food is available. A lack of appetite is a clear warning sign of a potential health problem.
To get a real sense of what healthy animals should look like, you should look at lots of them. Check out pictures of show cows for different breeds of cows, click through cattle breed association websites or talk to a local rancher and ask them to show you their best cows.
Understand your budget and operating costs
When you’re buying cattle, you’re making a significant investment and that investment doesn’t stop when you leave the auction with a trailer full of steer. You need to consider many factors to fully understand your expenses and where your break-even point is. To get started, think about and list all of the expenses that go into acquiring, raising, processing and marketing your beef or milk.
Some common factors to consider are:
What are your 1 time costs for purchasing the animal(s)? More on that below .
What are the costs to keep this animal?
How much hay or grain feed will you need to provide when the animal is not on pasture?
Vet expenses can be unpredictable and vary depending on if we’re talking about a pregnant cow or a steer. You should assume a range of $60-100+/year for the vet costs for each head of cattle that you're managing. You can find more details on estimated average cattle veterinarian costs here.
Whether you’re breeding using natural service or artificial insemination (AI) you’ll need to account for the associated costs.
If choosing Natural Service, you’ll either need to have a bull on hand and assume all the costs associated with that bull or pay for a visit from a bull.
On average the cost for a cow pregnancy using artificial insemination is $82 (including technician fees, equipment and semen).
Breed association fees (if a registered breed)
If you’re raising a registered herd you may want to keep your animal records updated with the breed association site. Typically you’ll pay an annual (or lifetime fee) to join the relevant association. You can also expect to pay about $15-50/animal that you register with the association.
Equipment, facility and maintenance costs
Equipment, facility and maintenance costs vary widely depending on your operation and the level of modernization you’ve implemented. Obviously it’s more complicated and costly to start and run a dairy than other cattle operations. Your cost will also vary based on whether you’re renting or own all the equipment.
A safe bet is to assume $100-150/animal for a typical beef operation.
Loss in stock due to culling or disease
Losses of cows and calves to disease, birthing complications, predators or due to culling is an unfortunate aspect of any cattle operation. As such you need to plan for, budget for an account for an expected loss rate of cattle due to various reasons.
A study conducted by the USDA through the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), looked at mortality data across various operations. In 2016 dairies averaged a total death percentage of 3.1% for cattle over 500 pounds with calf losses averaging 6.7%. Beef producers reported an average loss of only 1.8%, with calf losses averaging 5.5%.
Like so many other costs, labor varies dramatically based on your operation and location. More complex operations like dairies require a different skill set than cow/calf operations. Also depending on the number of head you can manage your cost / cow gets cheaper. For a typical beef producer labor costs per cow average about $200.
Land costs & real estate taxes
Do you own your land or are you leasing it? Either way you’ll need to factor in to your business plan your land and real estate tax costs. Just like a dairy facility and equipment costs, land is often considered cost of doing business (COGS), but when determining your margin and profit per animal it’s useful to know your overall costs and how to allocate those per head.
Example Cost Summary
Steer (600lb) Auction Cost
Hay Costs (90 days, remainder on pasture)
Grain Costs (1,350 lbs)
Cost of Land
Real Estate Taxes
These are obviously very rough ballpark estimates, but by knowing what the costs are we can now determine what we need to make in order to make a profit on this animal. That’s a topic for another day, but you can learn more about profitable cattle marketing from this report by the University of Georgia Extension Office or from the University of California Sample Cost for Beef report.
Keeping detailed cattle records and tracking your cattle expenses with a spreadsheet of farm accounting software can help more easily see where you're wasting money and what your return needs to be to see a profit.
How much does a cow cost to buy?
Let’s take a look at the variable cost to acquire a new cow. Cattle prices vary widely so it is hard to provide exact numbers for what you will pay. At the 2021 Cattle Industry Convention, Kevin Good, CattleFax's VP of Industry Relations and Analysis, shared an outlook for cattle prices in 2022. Mr. Good projected the following average prices for 2022:
Fed Steer price: $135/cwt.
800-pound Steer price: $165/cwt.
550-pound Steer price: $200/cwt.
Utility Cows price: $70/cwt.
Bred Cows price: $1,750/cwt
(cwt = hundredweight. One cwt is equal to 100 pounds by weight. So, an 800 pound steer might cost $1,320)
Average prices vary based on the weight at the time that the animal is sold and will vary in different areas, so you will likely pay more or less than these estimates.
As you can see there are a lot of factors that go into the costs of starting and operating a cattle operation. While it can seem overwhelming to consider all of these factors, just like any other business you need to develop a clear business plan, understand and estimate your fixed and variable costs, understand your target market and market prices and most importantly keep track of your operation’s income and expenses. Having a clear business plan and keeping detailed records will help you stay on top of the profitability for your business and avoid potential problems.
If you need help keeping track of your cattle herd's health, performance or yield records check out Farmbrite's all-in-one cattle record keeping and management software.
This article was written by our knowledgeable staff of farmers and ranchers at Farmbrite. Thanks for reading and Happy Farming/Ranching!