Youth livestock projects offered through 4-H or Future Farmers of America (FFA) offer experiences and life lessons that follow participants throughout their lives and enable them to make positive contributions to society. It is essential to understand that a beef project can be an expensive livestock project due to animal purchase, health care, feeding, equipment, and nutrition. Participants will gain various soft skills, including responsibility, public speaking, social interaction, time management, and recording keeping. A beef livestock project could take a commitment of at least one year. Successful project completion will require an extensive support network, including Extension Agents, 4-H and FFA advisors, veterinarians, reputable producers, and others. This publication will help 4-H and FFA participants, parents, and advisors plan a successful youth livestock beef project. The breeding animal focus is breeding heifers raised specially for breeding and producing a calf each year from the initial purchase to record keeping.
A participant must decide if they are interested in a breeding animal project or a market animal project to get started. A breeding heifer can be a two-year show commitment and has the potential to be a breeding project lasting eight to ten years. A market animal is produced to sell for its meat. Depending on the age and size steer acquired, a market project can be completed between eight to ten months.
A show calf’s purchase price can range in market prices ($800 currently, depending on age and weight) and increase from there. It is critical to research breeds and reputable cattle breeders both to source your animal and help you develop the ability to select animals of sufficient quality and performance to meet your project goals in and out of the show ring. Breed association websites are excellent resources for locating breeders.1 Examples include the American Angus Association website, angus.org, and the American Maine-Anjou Association website, maine-anjou.org. No matter which breed you choose to show, keep several factors in mind when evaluating show prospects. The key selection criteria are based on the animal’s phenotype and genotype. Structure, muscle, and balance are three areas that are very important to consider when selecting your project animal. Oklahoma State University has a comprehensive list of registries and breed associations on their website that also provides characteristics of the beef cattle breeds.
Table 1. Classes and breeds of beef cattle.
|British||Angus, Red Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn|
|Continental||Charolais, Gelbvieh, Maine Anjou, Simmental, Limousin|
|American||Brahman, Brangus, Santa Gertrudis, Beefmaster|
|Composite||SimAngus (Simmental/Angus), Balancer (Gelbvieh/Angus), Maintainer (% Maine-Anjou)|
While you can show any bovine steer or heifer, assuming it meets age requirements and conforms to other local regulations, most youths choose to exhibit a show calf. A show calf has generally been bred and selected to succeed in the show ring. Show calves are phenotypically appealing; while genetic merit and background are essential, it typically is not the most critical factor when making selection decisions. You can spend as much as your wallet will allow for a calf from well-known club breeders or spend less by purchasing from other breeders. The amount spent on a calf has little to do with the benefits enjoyed from the hard work and investment made in a project animal; it often equates to the calf’s relative placing in a show.
Before purchasing your animal, research laws and local regulations that may affect how or where you keep livestock. Investment and building, or remodeling, of facilities and housing, is an important consideration. You will need a safe place to house your animal with adequate space, shelter, ventilation, and water. A reasonable estimate of your project animal’s space requirements is 1.5 to 2 acres of pasture for grazing and exercise. A covered shed or barn will significantly improve your ability to manage your animal. Housing should be kept well-drained and sanitary to reduce the fly population and improve animal well-being. Straw and wood shavings work well for bedding and should be cleaned daily.
Beef animals need to be halter broken, which is the process that trains the animal to lead and stand tied. Halter breaking should be done as young as practical. As you start the training process, it is essential to access some form of animal handling facility (e.g., alley, headgate, or squeeze chute). This is a secure place where the animal can be safely handled to perform necessary health management. Once halter broken, these facilities may not be required. When halter training, your animal has a small enough pen that the animal cannot get away from you. Halter breaking can be stressful.2 If an animal becomes very excited and stressed, it may require twenty to thirty minutes for its heart rate to return to normal. Moving slowly and quietly around the animal during the halter training process is essential. Maintain a safe distance at all times. Cattle primarily use kicking as their defense mechanism; they can kick backward, forward, and to the side. Be aware of the flight zone and understand the animal’s balance point (figure 1).
A secure place to tie your animal for washing, clipping, and grooming will be necessary during halter training. If this area is on a concrete slab, you will need to have rubber mats to reduce the possibility of you or the animal slipping. This area will be a place where you can safely handle and care for your animal each day.
Feeding and Nutrition
The most important consideration for all project animals is the availability of fresh, clean water. Water is essential to the health and well-being of the animal. Cattle are ruminants because they have four distinct stomach compartments (reticulum, rumen, omasum, and abomasum).3 Forages are especially important for ruminant animals like cows, and most of their diet should consist of roughage because it is a significant source of fiber.4 Dry matter intake, the portion of their feed that does not include moisture, can range from 1.8% to 2.7% of their body weight, depending on the type and quality of feed. Show cattle generally need supplementation. Feed costs can vary anywhere from $10 to $25 per fifty-pound bag. You should seek advice from a beef expert to identify good quality feed, as a cheap feed may not yield the performance desired or allow the animal to reach its genetic potential. It is essential with a market animal project to know your starting weight, planned finish weight, and time between the two points. You can then estimate your total feed consumption and costs. For breeding heifer projects, overfeeding can be just as damaging as underfeeding.5 The Land-Grant Press publication, “Body Condition Scoring in Beef Cattle, Is it Important?” can help you evaluate your project animal’s BCS (body condition scoring). If you are not feeding a complete ration (one with all required vitamins and minerals), be sure to provide a free-choice mineral feed that is always available.
Feeding your market animal can be broken into two phases: the growing and finishing stages. Feed given during the growing period is usually lower in total digestible nutrients to allow the animal to grow and not fatten. Feed given during the finishing period is higher in energy and will promote finishing (fattening) by increasing the average daily weight gain. A market animal will generally need between 2.5% to 3.0% of its body weight in feed. Feeding your animal can be the most expensive cost in a beef project; it is important to plan your budget and know what to expect. For example, purchasing a 600-pound steer and raising it to market weight will require approximately 4,500 pounds of feed. These assumptions are based on a good quality feed from a reputable source and the availability of quality forage/hay, with a feed conversion of 7.5 pounds of grain to one pound of gain.6 In this scenario, the purchase of fifty-pound bags of feed at $15 per bag will cost about $1,350. Buying grain in bulk is usually a cheaper alternative but requires the infrastructure to handle bulk feed.
Body condition score (BCS) is an easy-to-use tool that describes a beef cow’s relative fat cover.5 Keep in mind that a poor BCS or changes in BCS can help you determine (1) the nutritional quality of grazed forages and supplemental feedstuffs; (2) potential health concerns concerning infection, parasite load, lameness, or subacute/chronic problems that do not present obvious symptoms; and (3) other environmentally-induced stressors such as heat or fescue toxicosis.1
Diets for all classes of beef cattle should meet the National Research Council (NRC) beef cattle growth and development requirements,7 and any advice from beef experts should be in line with NRC requirements. If you need guidance on the NRC requirements, talk to your local Livestock and Forages Extension Agent. Contact information for county offices is available on the Clemson Cooperative Extension website. Your FFA advisor is also a trusted source for information.
Ensure the animal you purchase is healthy. Calf health management for show prospects should begin at birth. It is vital to work with a veterinarian to ensure the best health practices. Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) is a nationally coordinated program, and their website, www.bqa.org, provides valuable resources to help you ensure the health and quality of the product. A client/patient relationship with your veterinarian is essential. Contact your veterinarian before starting the project to develop a herd/animal health management program appropriate for your area.
You should have a health “toolbox” in case of an emergency. Stocking your health toolbox will allow you to be prepared in an emergency if a veterinarian is not available for an immediate consultation. The recommended items below are not a comprehensive list, as you may need additional items specific to your animal’s needs.
- Halter and rope
- Disposable gloves
- Syringe and needles (different animal health products may require a variety of sizes of both)
- Vaccination tools
- Bolus gun
- Drench gun
- Vet wrap or bandaging
- Bloat aid
Keep a list of phone numbers for people you can contact for advice and assistance or in the case of an emergency including your veterinarian, a local Livestock and Forages Extension Agent, and members of your support network.
It is crucial to monitor your animals routinely to be familiar with their normal behavior. Also, record any abnormal behavior. Recording changes in your animal’s normal behaviors will be helpful for the veterinarian diagnosing and treating your animal if problems arise. It requires consistent observation to understand what is considered normal and abnormal for your project animal.
Many types of equipment are used to care for and show cattle. When planning purchases, start with the basics and talk with other youth showing cattle. Individual pieces of more expensive equipment may not be a good investment. For example, local cattle producers, stockyards, and extension services may grant access to a scale to record an animal’s weight. Equipment can be purchased from local agriculture stores, online retailers, and suppliers at larger shows. Visiting cattle shows and speaking with your local 4-H Extension Agent or FFA advisor can help you make wise investments. Below is a list of suggested equipment.
- Trailer (or access to one)
- Durable shipping halter for transporting
- Show halter
- Show stick
- Feed pans
- Water buckets
- Grooming products
- Water hose
- Manure fork and wheelbarrow
- Fly control
- Fans (recommended for managing cattle over the summer and fall in the southeastern state)
There are specific grooming products and procedures recommended by various 4-H programs to help you compile a complete grooming bag including soap, shampoo, brushes, combs, blow dryer, clippers, scissors, adhesives and remover, show foams, and hair coat enhancements.8.9
Record keeping is a big part of any 4-H or FFA youth livestock project. The goal of record keeping is to learn organizational skills, set goals, and assess the accomplishment of those goals. Record keeping will provide education for an essential life skill. You will need to record data on feeding, weight, health, finances, and other areas for a beef project. Record keeping will allow you to document your project from start to finish. For youth formally enrolled in 4-H or FFA, record books or project books and supervised agricultural experience records are often required as part of your project enrollments. Keeping accurate records frequently tends to lead to good outcomes.
Participation in a beef project will help youth gain life skills and knowledge and build friendships that will last a lifetime. Contact your local Cooperative Extension county office to request guidance on how to get involved in a youth livestock project. Contact information for county offices is available on the Clemson Cooperative Extension website. Other beneficial sources include your advisors for 4-H or FFA and agricultural education teachers you may know.
- Texas 4-H. Texas 4-H beef project: exploring market show steers and breeding heifers. College Station (TX): Texas A&M Agrilife Extension; [accessed 2021 Feb 18]. https://texas4-h.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/Explore_Beef.pdf.
- Cattle handling and working facilities. Columbus (OH): The Ohio State University Extension; [accessed 2021 Feb 18] 2020. Bulletin 906. https://agnr.osu.edu/sites/agnr/files/imce/pdfs/Beef/CattleFacilities.pdf.
- USDA, What is forage? Madison (WI): United States Department of Agriculture, Dairy Forage Research Center; 2012 [accessed 2022 Feb 25]. https://bit.ly/3HrK962.
- Parish JA, Rhinehart JD. Fiber in beef cattle diets. Mississippi State (MS); Mississippi State University Extension; 2022 [accessed 2022 Feb 25]. Publication 2489 (POD-06-17). http://extension.msstate.edu/publications/publications/fiber-beef-cattle-diets.
- Burns M. Body condition scoring in beef cattle, is it important? Clemson (SC): Land-Grant Press by Clemson Extension; [accessed 2021 Feb 18] 2020. https://lgpress.clemson.edu/publication/body-condition-scoring-in-beef-cattle-is-it-important/.
- Shike D. Beef cattle feed efficiency. Driftless Region Beef Conference; 2013 Jan 31-Feb 1; Grand River Center, Dubuque, IA. Iowa City (IA): Iowa State University; 2013. p. 3–4. https://www.iowabeefcenter.org/proceedings/DriftlessConference2013.pdf.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Nutrient requirements of beef cattle. 8th ed. Washington (DC): The National Academies Press; 2018. doi:10.17226/19014.
- Lienemann DA. Beef grooming, fitting and showmanship: a guide for beginning beef cattle exhibitors. Lincoln (NE): University of Nebraska, Nebraska Extension; 2001. https://bit.ly/3IrZjd0 .
- Wiliams T, Pease S. A guide for youth beef cattle exhibitors. Raleigh (NC): NC State University, NC State Extension; 2002. https://bit.ly/36CLev3.