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The Cattle Connection

Backyard Beef: A guide to small-scale feeding

Beef calves exploring pasture

As the desire for locally grown, niche marketed beef grows, many people are considering feeding cattle for personal consumptions or local sale. Here are some things to consider before you get into finishing beef cattle:

  • Raising your own beef will not guarantee that it will be less expensive than the grocery store. Costs include purchasing the animal, feed, medicine, bedding, harvest or slaughter expenses, labor, and others. Homegrown beef has the potential to be profitable in a well-managed situation.
  • Do you have the facilities available to raise cattle, store feed, and transport them to the butcher?
  • What is your feeding strategy? What equipment will you need and will obtaining equipment prove to be profitable? Where will you be sourcing feed-stuffs?
  • Do you the equipment to produce and store forages?
  • What is your marketing plan? Grass-finished vs Grain-finished?

Let’s break down a couple of these things so you can decide what will work best on your operation.


            One of the most important initial considerations should be whether you have the facility or the financial capabilities to build/buy. Finishing cattle on pasture will be different than finishing cattle in an indoor confinement type setting. Pastured animals may take longer than one growing season to finish, thus harvested feeds would need to be fed during forage dormancy. Continuing to house cattle on pasture during forage dormancy may lead to mud, trampled pasture and reduction of the grass stand. Stocking rate while on pasture is also a factor that needs to be considered. Overstocked pastures can lead to influx of weeds, little forage regrowth, and insufficient available forages for the number of cattle. Appropriate stocking rates vary based on location and forage species. In Illinois, an approximate stocking rate is one cow per two acres.

Facility options for grain-finished operations are vaster than grass-finished. Producers could choose confinement housing, dry-lot housing, crop residue, or a grass-lot in a grain-finishing system. In confinement type operations, it is important to have a manure management plan, to keep waterers free of mud/manure, to have available working areas, and pens to keep sick/quarantined animals.


            Grain-fed or grass-fed? Despite the never-ending debate, there is room for both within the industry. However, the feeding strategy and ultimately the finished product will be different.

Grass-finished cattle have lower rates of gain, which are heavily dependent on forage quality and weather, with lighter finishing weights compared to grain-finished. Forage species will affect rates of gain, so seeding pastures to grass species more desirable for cattle performance is worthwhile. Stocking rates within a pasture will also affect rate of gain. Implementing a rotational grazing system would be beneficial to those pursuing a grass-fed market. Obviously, grass-finished cattle will require more grazing area and better grazing management. Into the winter months, high quality hay is needed to meet the requirement of the animal. Grass-finished cattle may also require concentrate feeds to reach finishing weights. In most situations, soybean hulls or haylage are recognized as an acceptable roughage and therefore obtain to regulations. If you are marketing your beef under certain label claims, it is important to investigate the requirements to abide by labels and certifications. Grass-finished cattle are generally leaner, which can be both a positive and a negative. Leaner meat will generally have less flavor but is often desired for less fat content, so marketing to a health-conscious consumer can allow for premium prices. Since these cattle will finish at a lighter weight with a different flavor profile, it is important to sell them at a premium to a more niche market to be profitable.

On the flip side, grain-finished cattle have greater rates of gain, higher finishing weights, better dressing percentages, and are generally regarded as more tender and juicier.

Managing a large-scale feeding operation will be different than a smaller system. Feedstuffs, feeding equipment, and management will differ. Consider these ideas for a more local-based market:

  • Consult with a nutritionist to develop a balanced ration of protein, mineral, and vitamins.
  • Transition between diets slowly, over several weeks. Switching diets too fast can cause bloat or can take calves off feed which will increase waist, decrease efficiency, and ultimately limit profit margins.
  • Roughages are important for rumen health. Don’t cut them out of the ration. Instead feed them selectively. In the final finishing phase, roughages should make up between 7-20% of the diet. The more roughage included, the less risk of acidosis. However, high roughage diets will result in longer finishing times. Roughages are included in the ration or offered in a free-choice setting, depending on the feeding strategy.
  • As calves grow, they require more feed. Bunk management and observation is necessary.

When building a ration, consider nutrient composition, available feedstuffs, cost, and storage requirements. Different rations will be more or less profitable depending on location and feed prices. Work with a nutritionist to adjust rations to best fit your environment and goals. For cattle exceeding 1000 lbs. with a rate of gain at 3 lbs. daily, here is a sample finishing diet:

  • 70-75% cracked corn
  • 7-10% dry distiller’s grain
  • 1-2% Commercial Supplement
  • 15-20% Hay

Cattle Selection

When selecting cattle for your operation, it is important to consider how well they will fit into your environment as well as where you are buying cattle from.

Here’s a quick breakdown of popular beef breeds in the Midwest:

  • Angus: known for carcass characteristics, feed efficiency, low maintenance
  • Hereford: fattening ability, docility
  • Simmental: larger framed, heavy muscled, lean
  • Charolais: larger framed, heavy muscled, lean.
  • Limousin: larger framed, lean, high dressing percentage
  • Beef on Dairy cross: large framed, very lean, light muscled, longer days on feed

The breed you select for your operation should directly correlate to your environment and the goals of your operation. In a grain-fed program, work to maximize carcass weight while maintaining quality. An Angus crossed with a continental breed (Charolais, Simmental, Limousin) would be a good choice in this situation for an Illinois producer. In a grass-fed operation, cattle with small to medium build with high carcass qualities will help to maximize efficiency.

Buying cattle:

            If you are running a breeding herd, retaining ownership of calves into your feedlot system is an option. For those who don’t have a breeding herd, or would rather purchase calves in, there are a few options.

  • Direct from producer: Buying calves directly from a producer will allow a clearer genetic background. This will also be beneficial from a health standpoint to better understand the vaccination protocol and health status of the calves.
  • From a sale barn: Calves from a sale barn can come at a discounted price, however it is harder to form an individual connection with the producer to be able to understand the genetic and health background of the cattle. Inconsistent health can be a challenge when sourcing cattle from a wide variety of producers.


            Marketing can be one of the greatest tools for beef producers to add value to their cattle. There are endless marketing options that will vary in effectiveness depending on your location and the extent to which they are marketed. This article is helpful when working to build a marketing strategy and to understanding how to be profitable. Niche Beef Production (

To Conclude:

Feedlot systems require planning and management. Build your knowledge, access your goals, make a plan, and work to execute that plan.

  • Understand your market.
  • Develop a facility/housing strategy.
  • Work with a nutritionist to formulate a diet.
  • Select cattle that are ideal in your environment.
  • Market your cattle strategically.