Custom grazing is an arrangement in which one person provides the pasture, water and grazing management expertise for another person's livestock. Custom grazing is commonly done with stocker cattle, but can also involve cows with calves at side.
Start small and ensure success with fewer animals and lower stocking rates. It is better to get a smaller return with limited grazing than to over-graze and send cattle home early or in less-than-acceptable condition.
Because it is crucial to have a continuous supply of good-quality forage, a custom grazer should know the stocking rates for his/her land. An experienced custom grazer will know the land's actual production capacity, allowing him/her to fine-tune the system to ensure successful grazing.
A grazing system management plan will be needed to ensure that optimal forage quality and quantity can be maintained throughout the grazing season.
Classes of cattle to graze
With cow-calf pairs, forage quality is typically not as critical as with grasser/stocker cattle. The grazing fee is usually based on a daily rate ($/day). When calculating a daily rate, consider the weight of the cows and the size of their calves. The larger the animals, the more grass they will consume. In some situations, it may be necessary to charge an additional fee for large calves ($/season).
Grazing grasser/stocker cattle can be a challenge. Quality of forage is important because fees for this class of animal are usually based on weight gain (¢/lb. of gain). In some situations, however, a contract based on a flat per diem fee for grazing may be more practical. The custom grazer should work with the owner to ensure that the animals are vaccinated, healthy, and have not just been weaned. This will reduce stress on the animals and make the transition to their new environment much smoother.
Condition, type and quality will affect the average daily gain of stocker cattle. Generally, steers will gain better than heifers. Younger cattle will gain faster than older cattle, and cattle with less condition will gain at a faster rate once on pasture than cattle that are fleshy.
It is easier to manage livestock that come from one source or a few sources than from many different sources. When cattle arrive from many different herds, they tend to assemble into familiar groups and become difficult to herd. There is also a risk of added stress as the animals co-mingle with varying levels of immunity. It is also easier to build a relationship with fewer livestock owners than with many.
Extra care should be taken when dealing with groups of calves recently purchased from sale barns. They may have been exposed to additional stressors and pathogens, and may not perform as well as animals coming from a single or direct source.
Grazing yearling heifers can present many of the same challenges as grazing grasser/stocker cattle; however, rapid weight gain isn't as critical for replacement heifers. The contract is usually based upon a flat fee per day of grazing ($/day). If breeding the heifers is part of the arrangement, the owner will usually supply the bull.
Determining how to charge
Custom grazing cow/calf pairs and replacement heifers is usually charged on a daily rate. For inexperienced custom grazers of grasser/stocker cattle, it may be beneficial to charge on a daily rate until they gain experience. Charging a fixed per-day-per-animal rate is less risky for custom grazers, especially if they do not know the quality of cattle they are grazing. Mature bulls eat more than cows; therefore, a fee of 1.5 times the cow/calf grazing rate is suggested.
Payment per pound of weight gain
Once a custom grazer becomes familiar with grazing grasser/stocker cattle, he or she may decide to take on more risk and charge by the pound of weight gain. Payments based on weight gain during the contract period are usually preferred by stocker cattle owners. The grazer should have access to a legal scale so cattle can be weighed in and weighed out. It is important to minimize animal shrinkage losses during working and transporting livestock when being paid on a weight basis. An agreed upon pencil shrink may be applied to such final weight.
Shrink is the amount of weight an animal loses during sorting, transportation, standing, weighing or any change of environment that causes a degree of stress. It is the difference between the gross body weight before handling and the net sale weight. The majority of shrinkage occurs within the first few hours of handling, sorting, loading and standing. Shrink represents a loss in value.
Combination of the two methods
Some custom grazers may choose to use a daily rate in combination with a payment based upon weight gain. For this system to work, the custom grazer may request a minimum daily charge per animal, plus an additional fee based upon weight gain over a predetermined threshold. Charging a minimal value per day guarantees the custom grazer a portion of his total return, while the per-pound payment provides an incentive to maximize weight gain on each animal grazed.
Determining what to charge
It is not enough to simply charge "the going rate." A grazer should determine his or her individual costs as part of setting up a custom grazing operation. The example provided in Table 1 allows a grazer to determine the "break even" or profit point.
The key to determining a "break-even" value is determining carrying capacity and balancing it with costs. Simply add up the costs per acre and assign the value to the carrying capacity.
Cost calculations should include establishment costs amortized over the life of the stand, property taxes, fence construction and maintenance, water development and maintenance, fertility, weed control and labour. The cost of things such as salt, minerals, and veterinary supplies are usually charged back to the cattle owner. A custom grazer may also include a return on investment for deeded land as well as a return on the fencing and water development.
Assign the production costs to the carrying capacity expected on the pasture. Standard industry practice is to measure carrying capacity in Animal Unit Months or AUMs. One AUM is essentially the amount of feed required to maintain one 1,000 lb. cow (i.e. one Animal Unit or AU) for one month.
The expected yield can be very difficult to establish, especially on new pasture. Stocking rates can also be determined by examining the yield history of the pasture, assuming that the past stocking rates are known and that those rates were sustainable. Keep in mind, however, that the pasture's grazing yield can be 50 to 60 per cent less than its hay yield, due to the animals trampling and defecating on the crop.
Once the carrying capacity is determined, assign these yields to the pasture costs. Divide the cost per acre by the carrying capacity. Remember that a cow will eat and excrete her own weight in forage in a month. For example, a 1,300 lb. cow is valued at 1.3 AU, requiring 1.3 AUM for feed. Consider that a large calf may also need to be assigned an AUM value.
To this amount, add a daily labour charge per cow to arrive at a final daily grazing fee per cow. A sample calculation for custom-grazing cow/calf pairs is provided below.
Table 1: Determining a "break even" value for custom grazing
Land (including water and fence)
Value of land per acre multiplied by the desired rate of return on investment
$300/ac. x 5 % =
|Other expenses (excluding labour)
Forage establishment cost/expected years of production - $50.00/10 years
|Total cost per acre
B. Determination of your pasture's carrying capacity.
This section determines the number of days that a particular weight of cow with or without calf can graze on one acre without a detrimental effect on the forage.
|Initial Stocking Rate Recommendations for Seeded Pastures suggests an initial stocking rate of 1.7 AUMs/ac. for a two-year-old meadow brome stand in good condition in the Dark Brown soil zone.
=1.7 aum/ac. divided by the weight of the cow on pasture
=1.7 aum/1,400 lb. cow = 1.2 month of grazing for that cow/calf pair
= 1.2 months of grazing x 30 days/month = the grazing days per acre on a two-year-old stand of meadow brome in the Dark Brown soil zone for a 1,400 lb. cow with or without calf.
|36 days (B)
C. Grazing fee per day based on your cost of production.
This section determines a daily grazing rate per individual animal based on your costs.
|A/B ( $24.00/36 days)
D. Your labour fee.
This section determines your labour charge based on the number of cattle you are grazing.
Hourly labour rate x hrs./day ÷ no. of cattle
$15.00/hr. x one hr./day ÷ 100 cow/calf pairs
E. Total fee per cow/calf or grasser per head per day
C + D =
Facilities and Equipment
Custom grazing requires facilities suitable for handling livestock that both minimize stress on the animal and ensure worker safety. Cattle-handling facilities do not have to be expensive, or new. What is important is that they are well-designed, can withstand repeated use by large animals, and provide protection for both animals and workers.
Fences are a major investment, and one that can make or break an operation. Time spent designing an efficient fence layout will eliminate problems in the future and facilitate easy movement of animals. Cross fencing can also be beneficial for grazing management and forage utilization. Refer to the fact sheet Fencing Costs.
There must be an ample supply of good quality water at all times. Pumping water to troughs instead of allowing cattle to drink directly from streams, sloughs or dugouts will improve herd health and weight gain, and protect the riparian environment. Water testing should be done to determine if water quality is suitable for livestock, as needed.
A good-quality scale that can be certified for commerce is a wise investment, although a truck scale in a nearby community may be sufficient for weighing animals at time of arrival or departure. It is important for both the grazer and the owner to agree upon the scale that is being used. A scale can be used not only to routinely weigh a group of cattle but also to compare different groups of cattle on different forages, and to monitor which forages produce better gains at different times of the year.
The long-term success of custom grazing depends on both the owner and the grazer making money. A written contract should clearly define the responsibilities of each party, how they will handle any problems that arise and dictate payment terms. The respective responsibilities of the livestock owner and custom grazer are summarized below. It is impossible to cover all possible considerations, so it is recommended that both parties seek legal advice as to the specific terms and conditions that should apply to a specific contract.
Livestock owner's responsibilities
Prior to delivery, the owner should:
- Provide the custom grazer with a description of the type of animals being delivered as well as their number;
- Brand and tag the cattle;
- Vaccinate and treat them for parasites; and
- Make arrangements for and/or pay the costs associated with the breeding bulls (vaccinations, breeding soundness evaluations and transportation).
Should the livestock need to be placed under quarantine, the owner should bear all costs.
From time to time, cattle will die while in the care of the custom grazer. Both parties should decide an acceptable death loss and how death loss will be handled before the cattle are put on pasture. There is no specific formula for handling death loss. In some cases, the custom grazer may accept responsibility for any losses above a pre-determined mortality rate, while the owner would accept financial responsibility for any losses below that rate.
Custom grazer's responsibilities
The custom grazer is responsible for:
- Providing forage and water to the cattle and maintaining their health
- Providing salt and minerals which can be either billed back to the livestock owner or included in the grazing fee
- Keeping the pasture in a condition that is satisfactory and safe for the purposes of keeping cattle, including keeping fences in good repair
- Monitoring the animals, and treating sick or injured cattle and informing the owner
- Regular communication with the owner regarding the condition and performance of the cattle, and allow the owner the right to inspect the cattle during the grazing season
Cattle would be shipped on a date pre-determined by the owner and custom grazer. This will depend upon weather and pasture condition. If the custom grazer perceives pasture conditions to require early take-out, he or she may notify the owner within an agreed number of days prior to the custom grazer's proposed grazing termination and shipping date. The custom grazer may want to have some control over the condition of the cattle when they arrive on pasture, and exclude or refuse cattle that are sick or that will perform poorly on pasture.
It is important to specify the payment terms in the written contract. The custom grazer may ask to have an initial deposit in order to guarantee that cattle will be delivered to the pasture. The deposit can be held by the custom grazer and applied against the final invoice. Alternatively, or in addition to the deposit, the custom grazer may request a portion of the total price on a monthly basis (i.e. cents/day x 30 days) to provide steady income for the custom grazer and avoid putting a large cost burden on the owner at the end of the contract. The balance owing to the custom grazer will be determined at the end of the term or upon termination of the agreement, whichever comes first, and all outstanding charges are payable in full prior to the release of the cattle to the owner.
If cattle are not picked up at the end of the grazing season, the contract should stipulate any additional charge or penalty for this late pick-up.
Either party may terminate the agreement by giving written notice to the other party. The owner may immediately terminate this agreement in writing if, in the opinion of the owner: a) the grazer fails to provide satisfactory service; b) the grazer fails to comply with any term or condition of the agreement; or, c) the grazer becomes bankrupt or insolvent.
Any disagreement between the owner and grazer may be submitted to arbitration if a mutually satisfactory settlement cannot be reached. The arbitrator should be selected prior to the grazing season and identified in the contract.
Producers need to consider all their options when looking to custom graze cattle. It is important to consider both the class of cattle that will be grazed and the custom grazing rate. In order to generate a profit, a custom grazer needs to calculate his or her own production costs based upon expected forage yield.
Fence and water development are two important investments when custom grazing.
A functional livestock handling facility is also required to load or receive animals as well as to treat any that may be sick. Access to a scale is required when payment is based upon weight gain.
Prior to entering into a custom grazing agreement, it is essential to have a written contract that specifies the responsibilities of each party. The contract should also specify the payment terms.