20 Questions To Ask Before Buying A Beef Cow

Buying beef cattle is a significant investment. There are many different kinds of cattle, each with its own distinctive benefits. If you can bring a cattle expert with you, fantastic! If not, it is vital that you ask a lot of questions so you have a firm grasp of what you’re getting.

The following list of questions covers everything from the productivity of the breed to the meat quality and quantity you can expect, cattle health, finishing, and management practices.

Questions To Ask Before Buying Beef Cows For Your Farm

Having a list like this comes in handy when doing research to ensure you get the best bang for your buck!

1. What Breed(s) Are The Cattle?

There are several types of beef cattle that are known as high-performers. Some industry favorites will cost a lot more because they provide exceptional meat and optimal return on investment.

Purebred Angus, Hereford, Simmental, Holstein, Gelbvieh, Limousin, Brahman, and Charolais can be costly, but it may be worthwhile to consider crossbred cattle that are bred from two or more popular breeds. Crossbred cattle are known for hybrid vigor and often lead longer and more productive lives than purebreds.

If you’re already in the market for a hybrid, consider the different qualities that hybrids can offer. A few of the most popular hybrids are Brangus and Beefmaster, both of which are highly profitable animals that are known for their large body size and excellent conformation.

It’s also important to understand that not every individual will have the traits that you’re looking for. If you’re building a cattle herd from the ground up, choosing animals from the right place is paramount.

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2. How Fertile Are The Cows?

Reproductive performance is highly important in the beef industry. It is good to know what the calf crop has been like in past years, and whether the cows have been bred by bulls or by artificial insemination.

If you’re purchasing bulls you will want to know how many cows they are capable of covering in a breeding season and how long the breeding season is.

If you’re purchasing young heifers, ensure they haven’t been around a bull because you want to avoid the possibility that she’s pregnant. Young heifers may have medical complications if they are bred too early.

Different breeds of cattle are known for being fertile so it may be worthwhile to have fertility in mind when selecting animals for your cow herd.

3. What Is The Gestation Period For The Cows?

Knowing the estrus cycles and gestational period for the cows you’re buying is important when planning for calving season.

Cows that have shorter gestations may be preferred because this will yield calves quicker for beef production.

4. What Is Their Milk Production?

Understanding the milk production of the cows is important because you want to be sure they have enough milk to nurse calves, but not too much that they will need a helping hand.

Over the past few decades, beef cattle have been bred for higher milk production, which can be beneficial in dual-purpose animals, but not so great when these cows aren’t milked which can lead to mastitis and udder problems.

5. Has There Been Any Disease Prevalent In the Herd?

Animal health is paramount when purchasing cattle. Knowing what diseases have affected the herd and the percentage of the cattle that fell to those diseases is crucial when making a purchase decision.

Healthy, high-quality animals mean profit and longevity, and disease-prone animals lead to high cull rates, which isn’t beneficial or cost-effective.

Ask to see records of testing done, particularly somatic cell counts (otherwise known as SCCs). Reputable farmers should be keeping good test records, and if they aren’t willing to talk about it, that’s a cue to walk away.

6. At What Age Are These Cattle Typically Slaughtered?

This question is a simple question of profitability. If you have steers that are ready for slaughter at 12-14 months, that is a lot more cost-effective than steers that need to wait until they are 18 to 20 months.

Feeding a steer for extra months to get them to an acceptable weight will cost you in the long run if the extra weight and quality achieved don’t make up for it.

7. What Is the Average Carcass Weight?

Having a general idea of the carcass weight and knowing the yield and waste amounts allows you to calculate how much saleable product you will have.

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Carcass weight and yields can vary a lot between different breeds, so having this information is crucial when making purchase decisions.

8. What Rating Has The USDA Given For Beef From This Herd?

Knowing the USDA ratings for beef from the herd is another tool that will help you figure out potential gains. Higher ratings mean more money paid per pound and who doesn’t want that?

Cattle that are providing Choice or Prime ratings are preferred.

9. Are These Beef Cattle Finished On Grain Or Grass?

You will want to know if the cattle are typically grass-finished or grain-fed in feedlots. The carcass weight and USDA ratings will be affected by the finishing of cattle.

For instance, if you plan on grass finishing your cattle but the information you’ve been given is for grain-finishing, you cannot expect to get the same yields or ratings because grass-fed cattle are smaller and leaner than grain-fed.

10. Ask Whether The Supplier Has A Cow-Calf Operation Or Feedlot Production

Cow-Calf operations produce yearlings that may or may not go into feedlot production. If you purchase from cow-calf producers you will likely have more information about the genetics and upbringing of that cattle versus a feedlot producer who receives animals from somewhere else.

Of course, there are beef producers that blend both together. The important thing is to get know where your cattle come from.

11. What Management Practice Is In Place?

Knowing the type of management practice is vital to understanding the type of environment the cattle are used to. There are three main types of management:

  1. Intensive farming is mostly a factory setting where animals are raised for meat production purposes,
  2. Extensive farming allows for a lot of open pasture for cattle to graze and have a more natural lifestyle.
  3. Mixed production combines the two styles of management practice and cattle may be moved from the field into a factory setting.

Cows don’t like change and they prefer routine, so if your management style matches the system that is already in place, it may make the adjustment easier on the cattle.

12. What Is Their Conformation Like?

Conformation means what the body looks like, both the skeletal structure and musculature. Cattle you buy should have good conformation for the type of cattle that it is, with few undesirable traits.

The body condition of the cattle matters as well because you want to purchase healthy animals in prime condition because those animals and their offspring will be worth more.

Before purchasing cattle, ensure you know what proper conformation looks like by studying pictures, or better yet, bring a cattle expert with you so you ensure you are paying a fair price.

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13. What Is The Temperament Like?

This may be easily observable if you tour the farm where you’re purchasing the cattle from.

Do not purchase cattle that seem wild, mean, or behave strangely. While beef cows are more nervous than dairy cows, they shouldn’t be frightened and bolt immediately if approached normally.

The disposition of the animals tells a lot about their genetic background and how humans have treated them. It is important that you choose animals that won’t harm one another or people, and have been properly cared for.

A docile temperament also makes for much easier handling.

14. Who Is The Veterinarian Who Treats The Herd?

The owner of the operation should be able to easily provide this information. If they don’t, that’s a huge red flag and you should proceed with due caution.

Once you have the veterinarian’s information, you can do some research to see what type of healthcare the herd has been receiving.

15. Ask The Age of Any Cattle You’re Buying.

This is so important. It can be difficult for people new to the cattle industry to understand how old cattle is by sight.

Age will affect how soon a young heifer is ready for breeding, or how soon a steer may be sent for processing. It will tell you how many productive years a bull or cow has left depending on the breed.

In purchasing cattle, age is a vital piece of information that will greatly affect the price.

16. What Vaccines Have Been Provided to the Cattle?

Knowing the vaccination schedule of the cattle you’re buying will enable you to continue on the same schedule without spending extra, unnecessary money on vaccines they don’t need while ensuring they get the immunizations they do need.

It is possible to vaccinate them again for everything – it won’t hurt them, but it may hurt your pocketbook.

17. How Long Has the Farm Been Operating?

Knowing how long someone has been in business will help you understand their level of expertise. Have they been in business for 20 years and have a great reputation? If so, they likely know what they are doing and putting out a decent product.

If they have been in operation less than 2 years, or you can’t find any information about them online, it may be worth shopping around.

18. What Is The Weaning Weight of Calves?

Examining the weight of a calf at the 200-day mark as an overall percentage of the cow’s total weight will give you the weaning weight percent.

This measurement allows you to calculate the performance of a cow and how good she is at raising calves to a certain weight.

A desirable target is usually 50% of the cow’s weight, though an average desirable weaning weight can vary from 40% to 60% and can vary based on the size of the cow.

19. What Supplements Have Been Provided to the Herd?

Knowing what supplements or concentrates have been used is good information to have so you can keep providing that to the cattle. Sometimes forage isn’t enough to get cattle to the optimal weight and they may need additions such as soybean or cottonseed meal.

20. What Feed Have the Cattle Been Eating?

Knowing the type of feed that the cattle have been eating is important because if you plan on switching their diet to something else, you will need to make the adjustment gradually.

A sudden change in cattle feeding can cause gastric distress in your new herd, and upset the balance of gut bacteria that is essential for good health.

Switch their feed over the course of at least a week, gradually removing their old feed and implementing more of the feed you will be providing. This will help the cattle adjust without causing harm.

Christina Pichler

A longtime resident of Southern California, Christina spent her childhood summers on a farm, raising and caring for cows owned by her grandparents, which prompted a lifelong love of cows, and other farm animals. Christina is passionate about writing, having written hundreds of articles for well-known websites, and uses her English degree in service of her love for animal welfare, most recently taking on a writing position at Cow Care Taker in 2022.

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