As a very rough estimate, anecdotal evidence suggests that around 70 dairy cattle or 150 beef cattle is enough to earn a full-time living from farming, although many farmers have several income streams and are not solely reliant on cows.
The number of cows required to make a living as a farmer varies so much depending on where in the world the farm is located, what type of cattle they are raising, labor and other costs, and the price of beef and milk, which can fluctuate year to year.
In this article we’re going to dig into the data on both dairy and beef farming to work out how many cows it really takes to earn a full-time living as a farmer.
How Many Cows Does a Farmer Need to Own to Earn a Full-Time Living?
The number of cattle a farmer needs to make a full time living varies so much that it’s not possible to give a concrete answer, but we can come up with a rough estimate by looking at anecdotal evidence and the data we have on average farm size.
Let’s take a look at the data and come up with an estimate for beef and dairy cattle:
1. How Many Beef Cattle Does it Take to Earn a Living?
Beef is the single largest constituent of the agricultural industry in the USA, with a total gross annual revenue of over 66 billion dollars.
According to a 2020 report by the US Department of Agriculture, the average size of a beef herd overall was 43 cows, however they also noted that beef herds of size 50 cows or fewer were more likely to be used for supplementary income.
From this data, we can conclude that as a rough estimate, farmers need to have at least 50 beef cattle to be able to earn a full-time income solely from beef production.
2. How Many Dairy Cows Does it Take to Earn a Living?
Dairy herds tend to be more profitable than beef herds, however the initial outlay is more expensive for dairy farming due to the expensive milking machines required, and the longer and more complicated supply chains. Though upfront costs are high, it’s important for the farmer to make milking as comfortable as possible for their cows to maximize yield and keep his cows happy.
Studies show that even in countries like Ireland which is known the world over for its high quality beef exports, dairy farmers earn 7 times more than beef farmers.
In an interview with Agriland magazine, farmer Locran McCabe explains that farmers with as little as 100 acres of land, and between 60-70 dairy cows can make a decent living from it, and that huge 400 cow herds are not necessary.
Similarly in the United States, in a report by the University of Iowa in to the economics of dairy farming, it was shown that a two-person farming team were well on their way to becoming millionaires with only an 80 cow dairy herd.
What Type of Beef Cattle is Most Profitable for Farmers?
The most profitable beef cattle for farmers are Black Angus and Aberdeen Angus cattle. These cows are highly prized for their beef and are the most commonly farmed breed for meat in both the UK and the USA.
How do Farmers Earn a Living From Cows?
Farmers earn a living from cows in two main ways:
- Milking the cows and selling the milk or creating dairy products
- Raising the cows for beef and veal meat
Related: How much does it cost to butcher a cow?
1. Dairy Farming Vs Beef Farming – Which Is More Profitable?
Dairy farming is more profitable than beef farming overall, although dairy farms have higher expenses and upfront costs associated with milk storage, expensive milking and pasteurization equipment and a more complicated supply chain.
In addition, dairy cows must have their horns removed which is an added veterinary expense, compared to many beef breeds like the Aberdeen Angus, which are naturally hornless.
This means that the average dairy cow makes less profit each year than the average beef cow, however dairy herds are often larger and don’t require as much space as beef cattle.
On a per-cow basis, beef farming can be more profitable annually, however it’s important to realize that once a farmer sells a beef cow he then has to raise a completely new cow from scratch to sell again.
All the while, the dairy farmer is collecting his daily milk from his dairy herd, AND selling off the calves for veal or expanding his own dairy herd.
Beef farming is much more low-maintenance than dairy farming, with some cattle able to spend weeks on their own foraging in the pastures.
How Many Cows do you Need to Make Money?
Although there is a clear trend in both beef and dairy farming towards larger and larger herds, some farmers are bucking the trend and earning money with tiny herds of only a few cattle.
These so-called “micro dairies” are popping up all over the US, selling locally sourced artisanal dairy products.
One example is Vermont farmer Bob Whyte, whose micro dairy only contains four cows.
Of course, a micro dairy has a naturally lower earnings ceiling than a mega milk farm, and some creativity is required to earn a full-time living from such a small herd.
Bob Whyte from the previous example supplements his income by helping other micro dairies to find pasteurizing equipment.
How Farmers Earn Money From The Government
One often underlooked income source for farmers are tax breaks, subsidies and grants.
Every country in the world has a political desire to be self-sufficient when it comes to food. If a country can not feed themselves they are extremely vulnerable to disruptions in global trade and geopolitical disagreements.
For this reason, farmers in many western countries are heavily subsidized, which helps combat fluctuating prices and unpredictable yields to protect the food supply.
In the United States, subsidies, grants, and tax savings account for 39% of all agricultural income.
In conclusion, it’s not really possible to give a definitive answer to how many cows a farmer needs to make a living, but we can come up with some estimates based on average farm size data and anecdotal evidence from current farmers.
As a rough guide, farmers can expect to make a full-time income from a dairy herd of about 60-80 cows, and a beef herd of at least 150 cows.
Although it takes more dairy cows to earn a living, dairy farms are typically larger than beef farms and benefit more from economies of scale. The average dairy farmer earns over 7 times more than the average beef farmer.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.