If you’re looking at starting your own herd, the best thing you can do is to read, visit other farms and ask questions—a lot of questions.
Cody McBride has answered a lot of those questions. He works at ATB Financial helping beef producers and their herds with sound business advice.
His first piece of advice? Don’t rush. Agriculture does not reward cutting corners. It’s a lifelong venture and patience is key to successfully growing any type of herd.
"Be conservative and employ cautious growth,” McBride says. “You take enough risks raising the animals and getting them to market, so you don’t need to add financial risk to the mix. Slow and steady wins the race in this industry."
Expect gradual growth
You need to be prepared for the time, cost and financial planning that goes into starting a herd. Remember—the cost of the animal isn’t just the purchase price. It also includes the cost of upkeep and the cost of your time.
In the beginning, the total cost of each animal will be higher when you start your herd because you’ll also need to purchase land and equipment (shelters, fencing, food bunkers) for your operation. Over time, as you acquire capital and build equity, the cost per animal will go down, which is how you’ll start to make money!
The biggest mistake you can make when growing your herd is buying more animals than you can support. It can take several years to build up the proper foundation of land, equipment and animals to sustain your operation. Think about your long-term growth five, 10 or even 15 years down the road, and about how the sale of your first few animals can help fund that growth.
Look to your agriculture community for support
So how can you get through the early difficult years? Off-farm income can be very useful, but your biggest source of support might be your community. If your family owns a farm, relying on their infrastructure is a less risky, less expensive way to get started. But don’t worry if your family doesn’t own a farm—farmers are a generous lot. All you need to do is ask!
McBride advises speaking with as many experienced people as you can before taking the plunge and starting your own herd. Most of the time, good advice is free—and it can also be priceless.
Here are seven connections you should look to for advice, expertise and learning when it comes to starting your own herd:
- Family—If you come from a farm family, they can give you assistance by providing advice, gifting you your first animal, or even letting you keep your animals on the family farm.
- Neighbours and fellow ranchers—Ranchers have many years of experience and are usually very happy to provide advice and insights to the next generation.
- Veterinarians—Your veterinarian can give you medical and health-related advice about your animals, including how to spot illnesses.
- Feed salesperson—The person you buy your feed from usually knows a lot about animal nutrition. Ask them questions about rations and nutritional needs to better feed your animals
- Feedlot owners—Feedlot owners can give insights into what they look for in an animal prior to purchase. This could help you raise more valuable animals.
- Financial advisor—This person gives you valuable advice on financial decisions as well as cash flow forecasting and management.
- 4-H Club—Participating in 4-H with a project will give young ranchers the foundational knowledge they need for success.
Alberta farming is hard work
One young herd owner and 4-H member who understands the time commitment of raising animals is 15-year-old Sophia Hoogland of Bentley, Alberta. With a methodical approach, Hoogland has worked very hard to bond with her 57 animals, and make wise decisions as far as marketing, record management and the overall health of her animals.
When Sophia began raising her sheep as her 4-H project, she spent lots of time with the animals to build trust with them.
"Within the first two weeks of getting them, we were out there about every half an hour to two hours, just working with our lamb halter, sitting there and watching them eat so that they warm up to us."
Now, after five years, Hoogland is already a veteran and has detailed records of her sheep. She knows the value of being organized and prepared. Raising sheep, just like any other type of animal, takes attention to detail, hard work and physical effort.
It’s all worth it
While starting your herd is hard work, it is also very rewarding. Just ask Hoogland’s mom, Sherry-Ann. She has seen tremendous growth not only in her daughter, but in all her children through 4-H and caring for animals.
“They have great work ethic,“ she says. “They know where their food comes from and they know the work that goes into it so they don’t waste it.”
This is a high-stakes decision. But it’s not one you have to make alone.