Don Close, Rabobank Food and Agribusiness Research and Advisory Group senior analyst, conducted research during the second half of 2014. He released the report, “Outside In: Confined Cow-Calf Production as a Viable Model for Rebuilding the U.S. Cow Herd Numbers,” in January.

Close decided to take a closer look at raising cow-calf pairs in confinement because he thought this practice was going on more than most were giving it credit for.

“I was drawn to it because if our industry is going to recover and grow, we’ve got to expand these cow numbers. That is our weak link right there,” Close says.

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. cow herd numbers have gone from more than 45 million head in 1975 to about 30 million head as of Jan. 1.

In Close’s report, he found that confined production systems present an alternative that replaces high-capital requirements with intensified management and labor. The report shows two systems – confined calf production in excess feedyard space and in confinement buildings – are competitive to conventional production models.


Council Bluffs, Iowa, producer Jeff Morse put up a hoop barn four years ago. He is the fourth generation on his family’s farm, and his sons make the fifth generation. In his farming career, his family has been in and out of the cow-calf business.

About 15 years ago, he decided to switch from cow-calf to feedlot because he was sick of fixing fences constantly. They also run 1,200 acres of crops.

“In all honesty, to support three families on just grain, it’s going to be very tough, so I said we need to diversify and expand a little bit because land prices are just outrageous,” Morse says. “You just can’t farm that much grain out of the ground, so we started looking at the cattle.”

At the time he was going to build the hoop barn, Morse was raising bred heifers. After a talk with the sale barn auctioneer, he decided to hang on to those bred heifers and put them in the hoop barn instead of his original plan to put feeder cattle in there.

“By the time we got the calves weaned and processed, the first time through there, I looked at my son and said, ‘There’s only one thing wrong with this.’ He looked at me like, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘It’s 3 miles from my place, and it’s only half as big as it should be, and it’s not at my place,’” Morse says. “We went ahead and built another one, so we’re into the cow-calf market now.”

Morse had thought about raising cow-calf pairs on grass but decided that was cost-prohibitive.

“It was a way for me to diversify the farm for me for a lot less than 80 acres would cost, and I couldn’t put half as many cows on 80 acres for three months out of the year, and I’d still have to feed them the rest of the year,” Morse says.

Brent Bryant with Hoop Beef Systems and Grand Meadow Feeders of Washta, Iowa, says they have been building hoop barns from Kentucky to North Dakota this summer where producers are going to put cow-calf pairs.

At Grand Meadow Feeders, they started putting cow-calf pairs in a hoop barn two years ago. They wanted to help their customers find a way to expand their herds.

“We looked at the market and the demand for feeder cattle over the next five years. We looked at the fact that the U.S. cow herd is chronically short on cow numbers, and we looked at the challenge of expanding the cow herd on grass,” Bryant says.

“We’d been working with our customers, who have been running cows and calves under roof for the last nine years really successfully, and we thought there was an opportunity to expand the cow-calf side of the business and learn more so, when our customers ask for options, we would be able to provide them.”

Close thinks people in the ag banking industry think a confined cow-calf operation could make a good fit. Looking at the cost per unit at 8 to 13 acres per cow and land selling at a base price of $3,000 per acre, in a confined operation, Close says, a producer could build a new barn for $1,400 per unit.

“You’re talking a very economical low barrier to entry, and then you’re talking the cost of the cows. I think it’s very attractive to a lender,” Close says.

Close thinks the best areas for implementing a confined cow-calf operation is in the classic feedyard regions that have really depreciated facilities and the Corn Belt, that has the resources of cheap feed and byproducts.

Raising cow-calf pairs in a confined system brings with it challenges and a learning curve. Producers will need to change how they feed these animals with a concentrated ration and limit feeding.

Morse sees the benefits of raising cows and calves in a hoop barn.

“They’ve got a life sentence of shade and out of the wind, and feed is in the bunk every day. They kind of live the life of Riley. They don’t have to go out and scour the field to try and find their feed. It gets brought to them,” Morse says.

Morse and Bryant both A.I. the heifers and cows in the hoop barn, then go in with clean-up bulls. Once Morse weans the calves, they stay in the barn in a pen between the cows.

“There’s enough room for them that I put the calves in one pen and then the cows in the other two so they’re nose to nose. They’re a lot less stressed that way,” Morse says.

Bryant says there is a learning curve the first year to raising cow-calf pairs in confinement. He likes that in a hoop barn producers can calve during any kind of weather and remain dry.

“The ability to go into a building that’s well lit, and it’s dry and the cows are comfortable, makes you glad you showed up for work that day,” Bryant said.  end mark

Wendy Sweeter is a freelance writer based in South Dakota.

PHOTO: Cows and calves are raised in the hoop barns year-round at Grand Meadow Feeders near Washta, Iowa. Weaned calves are put in a pen between two cow pens so they are weaned like fenceline weaning. Photo courtesy of Grand Meadow Feeders.