Don’t raise cattle for mass commercial production or sale, it’s not sustainable and not worth the water and food it’s going to cost you. Not to mention the problem you will face in methane-fueled, fecal waste management. If you do find yourself lucky enough to have these gentle giants in your life, allow them to live as naturally as possible with these suggested tips on how to raise cattle. While most cattle breeds in existence today were developed primarily for beef production, these hardy creatures can be a welcome addition on any farm. Of course, if one needs to be butchered (culled) one day for its meat; there could be far worse options.

Sustainability

It bares repetition that cattle will cost you dearly. The food and water needed to sustain cattle alone is an extremely high price to pay for beef or large mammalian friends. 2.5% of their body weight in food, and dozens of liters of water per day. This doesn’t include what it might cost you in land for pasture, or what it will cost you to produce feed should you take that route. Troubling? Those are just the averages for sustenance. The waste produced by cattle is terrifying; an adult cow can produce 65 lbs of manure per day.

The reasons for raising and keeping cattle around may vary. If you end up playing host to an individual cow that shows up one day, let it enjoy life. Consider that these creatures were bred for the purpose of yielding meat, and reproducing in order to yield even more meat. However they also have diverse personalities and temperaments, so maybe you want to keep a cow or two around for companionship. Maintaining a herd of cattle can provide a stream of new cattle that can be culled for meat and/or sold for profit. This is beef industry, and while we don’t condone it on an industrial scale for sustainability reasons, we understand that it may provide a means to live for an individual, family or even an entire settlement.

Breeding

Depending on your operation, you may wish to time your reproductive seasons with how nature works (calving in the spring), or work against it to time your herd to specific markets.

  • Have your calving season during a time that you can handle calving and manage calving cows and calves all at the same time when risking adverse weather conditions.
  • Calving management is crucial to ensure high calf survival after birth. During the calving season, cows and heifers should be monitored for any signs of dystocia or calving issues, and calves for any signs of cold stress, scours, injuries, pneumonia, or any other health issue. Calving on a pasture will minimize any scours, however calving in springtime may be a problem because of the risk of snow storms that may occur, depending on the region you are located in. Having adequate shelter, good bedding and plenty of feed is important during this busy time of year.
  • Know when a cow or heifer is ready to give birth. This is important in telling when and whether a female is going to be needing assistance or not.
  • Be prepared with the necessary equipment for dealing with dystocia or health or injury-related issues.
  • Separate heavily pregnant cows from cows that have already calved. It’s easier to separate the heavily pregnant cows into a new pasture than it is to do with mother cows and their calves. This is so that those cows that are ready to give birth won’t be stealing another cow’s calf. This occurs occasionally when hormones are raging during this busy time of the cow year.

Breeding season should follow a few months (80 to 90 days) after calving, and last 45 to 60 days long to ensure fertility in the herd. It should coincide with your calving schedule so that you are calving out your cows and heifers the same time every year without any discrepancies.

If breeding your cows naturally, choose a good bull (male) that will improve the genetic merit of your herd. If using artificial insemination, go shopping for the qualities you want to promote and encourage in your herd. Keeping a “clean-up bull” around can ensure maximum fertilization of your cows if your primary bull “misses the mark”.

Weaning should take place when the calves reach 6 to 8 months of age. Preconditioning calves prior to weaning will minimize stress for them at weaning time.

Health Management

Even if you have an extremely closed herd (with nothing and nobody coming in to your herd from other herds), herd health management is still important for the health of your cows and calves. Annual or biannual vaccination program for your calves, bulls and cows needs to be implemented to keep your herd healthy and protected from virus and disease. Consult with a medical professional that specializes in herd health to determine the best program for your cattle.

  • The most important vaccinations for your herd include 8-way or 9-way Clostridium vaccine, and vaccines for BRSV, BRD, PI3, IBR, and Lepto. Some areas may require a vaccine for anthrax as well, if you are in an area that has historically had problems with anthrax outbreaks.
  • It’s best to vaccinate cows at least 3 weeks before calves are born in order to minimize having to vaccinate calves when you tag and (if you) castrate them.

Feed Management

This is very important to your herd. You can’t have cows without having something available for them to eat. Use the time from spring to fall to make hay, silage and/or grain for your cattle. Make sure you have enough land to make the feed for all animals combined, and that you know the average rate of intake of your cowherd and your bulls. Sometimes you may have to buy feed, but this can become expensive and again, unsustainable.

  • Feed your cows according to their nutritional demands during their reproductive stages. For instance, a cow ingests 50% more when lactating than when she’s dry. Feed that is high in calcium and protein is important to maintain good milk production. When she’s dry (with no calf at side), lower intake and lower nutrition is optimum for her, but enough so that she doesn’t lose weight nor starves on feed that is just gut-filler.
  • All cattle typically eat 2.5% of their body weight in food per day. This means that a cow that weighs 1000 lbs will eat 25 lbs of food, per day. Lactating cows will eat around 3.5% to 4% of their body weight in the same period of time. If you don’t have access to this kind of food, you can’t raise cattle.
  • Cattle require tremendous amounts of water, 15 to over 60 liters per day per individual. If you don’t have sustainable access to this kind of water, you can’t raise cattle.

Pasture Management

Depending on where you are located and what type of operation you have, know when the best time is to let cows out on pasture and when the right time is to switch pastures. It’s best to graze your cows so that you can rotate them once every one to three weeks, allowing the pasture to rest for at least 30 days.

Do not let your pastures get overgrazed. The more a herd of cows graze a particular spot, the less productive it will be. Rotational grazing (or Managed Intensive Grazing) is a good management practice to consider if you wish to keep your grass and pastures as uniform and healthy as possible.

  • Match grass quality with the animals you have, or what nutritive levels they’re at. High quality pastures should be reserved for lactating cows and growing feeder/stocker calves and even bulls that need to improve their condition. Low quality pastures are for dry pregnant cows, cows that have just been weaned from their calves, or cows that have calves 3 months of age or older.
  • Keep an eye out for anti-quality factors such as bloat, nitrate toxicity, grass tetany, and fescue toxicity. Manage your pastures and your cattle to avoid such anti-quality factors from occurring in your herd.

Waste Management

Mountains of manure. Literally. A single adult cow can produce 65 lbs of manure per day. 65 lbs of manure per day, per cow. This is the most likely part of raising cattle that will become problematic. If you don’t have a sustainable way to dispose of this waste, you can’t raise cattle. Algae blooms, salmonella and E. Coli, groundwater contamination, and bad smells are just a few of the problems animal manure can cause, and when you have this much animal manure around; it’s going to cause problems. If it has to get stockpiled, it’s going to be a risk.

Most regions require cattle ranchers to establish “Nutrient Management Plans”. While manure can be sterilized, processed or composted to make fertilizer, if you have a lot of cattle, you will simply have more poop than you know what to do with in a quick enough way. Don’t even think about raising a herd unless you can calculate how much manure you will need to get rid of, and also come up with a plan for how to do that.

Record Keeping

Keep records of everything from calving to breeding to health and feeding/pasture management. You never know when you may need them. Keeping record of your finances will also help you immensely in the long-run to determine whether or not your efforts are viable or sustainable. Tag your cattle; give them necklaces or collars, paint them, pierce their ears, whatever you have to do to tell them apart. Cattle can look similar in appearance and knowing them apart can prove invaluable when it comes to herd management.

Culling

It’s a nice word for killing. Since cattle are so immensely expensive to raise (in food and water at least), it is recommended that cows and bulls that are pulling down your herd should be sold or culled. Cull for temperament, health, conformation, ability to raise and care for a calf, fertility, and forage convertibility. If you get cows that end up being cranky all the time, cull them. It’s not worth the stress to keep crazy cows around, even if they raise a good calf. Culled animals are the ones you should butcher for meat, which can be consumed or sold.