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NAHMS report profiles small producers - Latest News - Editorial, Grain & Cattle Markets, Current Stories


NAHMS report profiles small producers

John Maday, Managing Editor   

A new report from the National Animal Health Monitoring System, a division of USDA/APHIS, provides insight on practices used, or not used, on smaller cow-calf operations. The NAHMS study reveals some potential opportunities for educators and veterinarians to boost adoption rates of animal-health practices among smaller producers.

The report, titled Small-scale U.S. Cow-calf Operations, is the second in a series of reports resulting from USDA’s Small-scale Operations Initiative, which was implemented to investigate factors that set small-scale livestock operations apart from larger operations in the United States. The first report focused on small-scale goat production.

For this report, the agency defined small-scale cow-calf operations as those with fewer than 100 beef cows as of July 1, 2007. That category accounts for a large portion of the U.S. beef cattle business. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, 607,708 reported owning between one and 49 cows.

Highlights of the report include:

  • The majority of small-scale cow-calf operations relied at least partially on off-farm income to support the household.  When considering all the hours worked on and off farm, producers on operations with fewer than 50 beef cows devoted an average of 28.9 percent of their total work time to the cow-calf operation, and operations with 50 to 99 beef cows devoted an average of 47.3 percent of their work time to the operation.  


  • Use of some marketing practices for calves differed between small-scale cow-calf operations and larger operations. Operations with fewer than 100 cows were less likely to use specific production practices to target breed-influenced programs and age-and-source verification programs than operations with 100 or more beef cows. Small-scale operations were also less likely to utilize forward pricing of calves than larger cow-calf operations. Just 2.3 percent of operations with 1 to 49 beef cows and 3.1 percent with 50 to 99 beef cows marketed calves using forward pricing.


  • Utilization of reproductive technologies, such as estrus synchronization, palpation for pregnancy, ultrasound, and semen evaluation, generally increased with herd size. The two most common reproductive technologies used across all cow-calf operations were semen evaluation and palpation for pregnancy. Palpation for pregnancy was used by about 1 of 10 operations with 1 to 49 beef cows (10.8 percent) and about 1 of 4 operations with 50 to 99 beef cows (25.8 percent). For operations that did not use a particular reproductive technology, the most common reason cited was labor/time.


  • About 6 of 10 operations with 1 to 49 beef cows (59.4 percent) vaccinated any cattle or calves in 2007 compared with about 9 of 10 of operations with 50 to 99 beef cows (86.6 percent). A lower percentage of operations with 1 to 49 beef cows vaccinated calves against respiratory disease from birth to sale compared with operations with 50 or more beef cows.

The authors offer several potential reasons why fewer small cow-calf operators use management and health practices, such as vaccination or pregnancy testing compared with larger operators. They note that almost 17 percent of operations with one to 49 beef cows have reasons other than income for operating the cow-calf operation. These include enjoyment of the rural lifestyle, for pleasure, as a learning experience for children, or as a way to use or maintain land. Most of these producers have off-farm employment, and time constraints could prevent them from more extensive management. These producers also might lack access to information sources and other resources such as regular contact with a veterinarian.

Read the full report from NAHMS.