Is Cattle Farming Profitable?

It’s a question that beginners ask all the time: Is cattle farming profitable?

The answer? Yes and no.

That cattle farming can be profitable is attested by the number of farmers and ranchers all across the United States who have made a comfortable, pleasurable living from their operation. However, as anyone in agriculture can tell you, cattle farming can be dismally unprofitable, too.

So what sets the successes apart from the failures? Those who have made it commonly point to the following factors:

  1. A redefined concept of failure. First, you must understand what failure is. Failure occurs the moment you give up, no sooner. As long as you keep going, you have not failed.
  2. A clear sense of direction. You’ve heard the old axiom, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” Those who make it in nearly any enterprise know at least roughly what they are aiming at.
  3. A love for the job. Those who are able to continue through difficulties and avoid failure (i.e., quitting) are usually those who have a passion for their pursuit. Successful cattlemen love cattle, grass, wildlife, and the land itself. As much as they enjoy talking cattle, they would usually rather be outdoors than anywhere else. They care enough about their cattle to head outside in a snowstorm, and they may even find a walk in the rain to observe how the water flows across the pasture stimulating. It is this type of passion that, given time, produces mastery.
  4. Positivity. Many successful people in many walks of life emphasize how important this is. They actively work to combat the negative thoughts that enter their minds and replace them with positive ones. Hand in hand with this is being careful with the company you keep. The agricultural world is full of grumblers, and their negativity can be contagious. Surround yourself with people who radiate the kind of positivity that you want in your life.
  5. Willingness to do something different. Anyone can adhere to the extension literature and the advice of the local salesmen. Success in any business, however, typically requires differentiation. Identify your unique advantages and make the most of them. None of this is to say that there is no place for learning from others. (Actually, this is a very good way to learn a new trade.) However, first ask yourself if your prospective role model is really achieving the type of success that you seek.
  6. Ability to learn from mistakes. You will make mistakes. That is how you learn. The key is to turn your mistakes into a learning experience, something that you ultimately profit from rather than lose by. Observation and thought are key.
  7. Ability to distinguish between diligence and futility. Hard work is a must to make anything succeed. However, not all hard work is created equal. It is important to recognize which activities pay and which fall into the category of busywork. When most of your time is devoted to busywork, you are not being diligent, just unproductive.
  8. A low-input approach. With the rising cost of inputs, this is a must. And it is attainable, as cattle can actually harvest most of their own food under most circumstances. However, this fact may be obscured in the cattle industry, as salesmen and scientists alike offer numerous inputs and methods of maximizing gain. The less money you can spend on feed, hay, veterinary expenses, machinery, and concrete, the more likely you are to succeed.
  9. Knowledge of natural systems. The secret to surviving the onslaught of sales pitches is knowledge—an understanding of how natural systems work and how to work with them to keep costs low. Learn all you can about your native forages, along with factors such as seasonal calving and grazing management. Understand cattle behavior, and how they naturally prefer to meet their own nutritional requirements. And remember, it all starts with the soil. These days, a great deal of knowledge can be acquired for free, and it is an investment that will provide a great return.
  10. Willingness to meet needs. A good direct marketer meets the need of the consumer for healthy, tasty beef. A good seedstock producer meets the need of the rancher for sound bulls and cows that will reproduce themselves again and again. A good grazier will meet the need of the landlord for someone to care for the land in his or her absence. If you meet needs, you will probably find that people are willing to work with you again and again.

As you can see, the common denominators to cattle farming involve mindset. When those factors are in place, cattlemen everywhere have made good profits in many different parts of the industry, from custom grazing to stockers to cow-calf to direct-marketed beef, with other enterprises or without.

So start with the right approach. This will make the biggest difference as you learn the ins and outs of your chosen enterprise.


Aubrey, Sarah Beth. Starting & Running Your Own Small Farm Business. North Adams, Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 2007.

Gallatin, Scott. “If I Was Just Starting Out Today, I Would….” The Stockman Grass Farmer, August 2010.

Holmes, Cody. Ranching Full-Time on 3 Hours a Day: Real-World Validation of Holistic Systems for Stockmen. Austin, Texas: Acres U.S.A., 2011.

Judy, Greg. No Risk Ranching: Custom Grazing on Leased Land. Ridgeland, Mississippi: Green Park Press, 2002.

Nation, Allan. Farm Fresh: Direct Marketing Meats & Milk. Ridgeland, Mississippi: Green Park Press, 2002.