Potential cattle profits follow years of real stress

Without $113 per cow federal payments in 2020 producers lost $80 per cow, North Dakota Farm Business Management data shows.

A group of black cows and calves eat hay, with trees in the background.
North Dakota cattle producers have yielded too little profit on average per animal in recent years, data from a North Dakota farm management program say.
Brook Heitman / Grand Vale Creative LLC
We are part of The Trust Project.

BISMARCK, N.D. — Cattle farms and ranches in North Dakota have been limping along for several years on just scrape-by profits.

“It’s been a long haul and some very tough years,” said Kyle Olson, an instructor with the North Dakota Farm Management Education Program. Olson is based at Bismarck State College. Beef cattle is a centerpiece for most of his 70 enrollees. The producers use cash accounting for taxes but the program analyzes their books on an “accrual” basis, which includes current values of all inventories.

Olson looks back to 2015 when beef cattle enrollees saw healthy profits, expressed as the net return for bred heifers. That year, producers received $279 per head, while earnings averaged less than $59 per head since 2019.

The 2020 net profit was $33 per cow, and that’s after including $113 per head in accumulated federal payments to compensate for marketing impacts of trade retaliation, livestock forage programs related to drought and COVID-19 compensation. If not for those payments, producers would have lost $80 per head on average. The 2021 report is not yet available but will come out this spring.

Olson said that at an average of $100 of profit per cow, a herd of 100 cows yields only $10,000 in net profit. “It takes a pretty sizable herd to make that work for you,” he said.


Read more about how cattle profitability issues are impacting producers and the ag industry

Particularly “horrible” has been the price of cull cows that haven’t been bred. That's been at roughly 60 cents a pound, yielding about $780. A bred cow would bring $1,300 to $1,500 per cow.

Profitability varies significantly among individual producers, but Olson said the general picture is that per-head average profit should be from $175 to $200 per cow; the majority of producers aren’t making enough money.

Sometimes survival is as simple as catching a shower during a drought, or selling on the right day.

2022 and beyond

Feeder steers in the 500- to 600- pound range have seen increases in price. Heifers haven’t done as well. Producers who have cut back the herd have “cash in their pocket but won’t be making a whole lot of money,” he said. In order to get back into the game, they have to spend money to rebuild the herd, with uncertain pastures and high feed prices.

Finished cattle prices have come up about 30%, but the price of feed and inputs has increased 50%.

“All of a sudden there isn’t much margin,” he said. The trend is to take cattle to feed rather than the other way around, perhaps maintaining their weight with slow growth of 1.5 pounds of gain per day, for example, compared to up to 4 pounds when aggressively feeding to get to market.


Tim Petry, a North Dakota State University marketing economist for livestock, said the reduction in the cow herd in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota in 2019, 2020 and 2021 indicates shorter supplies and portends higher prices.

Looking ahead to next fall and for several years ahead, Petry sees potential better returns because of the cutback in the herd. Prices started to increase in October. Petry agreed that drought and other federal payments helped but didn’t make people whole

“The maximum they might have received in North Dakota in the driest areas was about $75 per cow,” he said.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
What to read next
Cathy Scheibe, at 82, of LaMoure, North Dakota, continues with Toy Farmer Magazine, more than 22 years after her husband and co-founder, Claire, died. She talks about how the company is changing and preparing for transitions, about how markets for toy tractors and construction equipment have been unusually strong due to the pandemic and supply chain issues for new toy commemorative projects.
The labor intensive nature of the work, the length of time it takes for an evergreen tree in North Dakota to grow to a saleable height, and the competition from “big box” stores are deterrents to raising Christmas trees, said Tom Claeys, North Dakota state forester.
This week on AgweekTV, as our Thankful for Ag series continues, we'll visit a farm that's helping find a cure for Huntington's Disease with some very special sheep. We'll meet a family who's thankful for "the little things." Commodity groups come together to promote sustainability. And a North Dakota tree farm is growing Christmas cheer.
Meat cutting courses at Ridgewater College and Central Lakes College are helping train the next generation of meat processing professionals, but more work is needed to build a more resilient system.