So, you want to raise cows? Whether you’re interested in dairy or beef, there’s a lot to consider before taking on such a responsibility. But don’t worry – we’re here to guide you through the process of raising cows, from start to finish.
And trust us – it’s not as difficult as it may seem at first. With a little patience and some hard work, raising cows can be an immensely rewarding experience, as they are a very good source of milk, and meat.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about raising happy and healthy cows!
When you decide to raise cows, the first thing you need to figure out is which breed is right for you.
There are lots of questions you’ll want to ask yourself, such as:
- Do I want to raise cows for milk or for meat?
- What does the market look like where I live (if you plan on selling milk or meat to others and not just raising cows for your own consumption)?
- Do I plan on breeding cows?
- How much space do I have available?
You’ll need to carefully consider the resources you have available and decide what kind of cows you’ll produce then.
Some farms choose to raise only purebred animals, sticking to just one breed and keeping a closed herd. If you plan on showing your cattle in 4H or at other exhibitions, then this is a smart choice.
However, if your goal is simply to produce enough meat or milk to support your family, there’s nothing wrong with raising crossbred animals, either.
They are often stronger and healthier, since they possess something known as “hybrid vigor.” Your calves might grow faster and your females might produce more milk.
In any event, choosing to raise cows on your homestead is a smart choice.
The average dairy cow produces more than seven gallons of milk per day, while a finished beef cow can provide you with more than 400 lbs of retail cuts of beef. Not too bad!
Once you decide on the reasons behind why you want to raise cows, you’ll need to select a breed. Each breed of cow has different rates for which it is recognized.
You can research individual breed associations to find out more about those traits, and to help you determine which breeds will fit best on your homestead.
Often, beef cattle breeds are divided up into maternal and sire breeds. Maternal breeds are not overly huge but are noted for their ability to raise healthy, rigorous calves.
Terminal breeds tend to be larger and are used for meat production.
Of course, there are composite breeds, too, which contain both maternal and terminal breeds and provide ideal genetics for either market.
Some of the most common breeds for meat production on the maternal side of things are Angus, Hereford, Red Angus, and Shorthorn. Great terminal breeds include Maine Anjou, Simmental, Limousin, and Charolais.
The best dairy breeds are as follows.
- Holsteins: When most of us think of the classic dairy cow, we’re thinking of Holsteins. These black and white animals make up roughly 90% of the dairy cows in the United States so they’re relatively easy to find for sale. They produce up to nine gallons of milk per day per animal, on average.
- Jerseys: Although Jerseys don’t produce quite as much milk as Holsteins, they’re still a popular homestead choice. That’s because they have the highest amount of butterfat – up to 5% – so their milk is ideal for making products like cheese and butter.
- Brown Swiss – Brown Swiss cows are some of the most docile and friendly dairy cows. They’re the second most productive, after Holsteins, and have enough butterfat in their milk to make cheese and butter as well.
- Guernsey – Guernseys are known for their yellowish milk. It contains a high volume of beta-carotene, which is an excellent source of vitamin A.
- Ayrshire – This breed isn’t quite as common as the others, but is still a worthy choice. It is an orange-brown in color and is one of the hardiest of all dairy cow breeds. It’s one of the best for homesteads in rugged areas.
- Milking Shorthorn – The Milking Shorthorn is also a good choice for more “rustic” homesteads. These efficient grazers are easy to manage and have an excellent feed conversion ratio.
While you can technically raise any breed of cow for meat (as you can for milk), there are some that are far more efficient to raise than others. Here are some of the best beef cattle breeds:
- Angus: Angus are black cows that are genetically polled, meaning they have no horns. They’re known for their tender, marbled meat and their maternal ability. They can be somewhat aggressive but they require very little care at calving time.
- Hereford: Hereford cattle are large, heavy-boned animals that are docile and mellow.
- Shorthorns: A dual-purpose breed, the Shorthorn produces small calves that grow rapidly.
- Simmental: Originally a dairy cow breed, Simmentals are yellow to brown in color and have white markings. They grow rapidly and are also decent at producing milk.
- Limousin: An ancient breed from west France, this breed grows rapidly and has minimal calving problems. Over the years, it’s been crossed with many other breeds to increase weaning weight and size.
- Charolais: These white cattle are heavily muscled and prized for their feed efficiency.
- Gelbvieh: Gelbvieh are tan in color and are raised not only for milk and meat but also as draft animals. You can use them as work animals on your homestead.
- Wagyu: Wagyu cattle originated in Japan and are known for their highly marbled meat. It’s a delicacy in Japan as well as in many parts of the United States!
- Dexter: Dexters are the smallest of all beef cows. Bred in southern Ireland, they are great at foraging and need less feed than other breeds. They also finish fast, maturing in as little as a year.
Some other popular beef breeds to consider raising include Salers, Tarentaise, Chianina, American Brahman, Murray Gray, Santa Gertrudis, and Beefmaster.
Once you decide what kind of cows you want to buy, it’s time to head to the market.
There are several different ways you can find the cows you need to start your homestead. Sales are held across the country throughout the year, and may offer one breed, two breeds, dozens of breeds, and even crossbreeds.
You can locate reputable breeders in your area and purchase directly from their farms. Often, animals are sold at auction, but you need to be careful about buying any type of livestock at auction.
Often, these animals are heavily medicated so it’s hard to tell whether they have any behavioral or medical conditions at the time you buy.
You can buy from farmers who advertise online. Craigslist is a treasure trove for farmers who are trying to sell their cows. You can text or email the farmer to get more detail on the cow.
Of course, you should use caution when dealing with anybody you meet online – bring a cattle-wise friend along to make sure you’re getting a good deal!
If you’re still not sure where to buy your cattle, check with your local cooperative extension for more information.
Of course, you can always buy calves from dairy operations in your area. This is a great way to save some money if you are interested in raising a few beef cows but don’t want to pay top dollar for premium breed calves.
Since dairy farms don’t need male calves in order to run their farms, they’re usually willing to part with them for very little money.
If you can, avoid buying newborn calves that will be separated from their mothers. You can buy a cow-calf pair (a good way to get a slight discount on your purchase) which will prevent you from having to bottle feed the baby calf.
If you buy a newborn calf, you’ll need to bottle feed it until it is old enough to be weaned – usually, that means bottle-feeding for around four to six months.
Try not to rush into things when you’re buying cattle – and remember, if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
When you are looking at animals that you might buy, there are a few basic selection guidelines that you should follow.
You should always choose breeding males that will complement the best traits in your females while also improving upon their weaknesses.
Get the best bull you possibly can, if you aren’t going to artificially inseminate your herd, because his genetics will be present in all of the offspring and not just some (as will be the case with each individual female).
The genetics from a male can stay in the herd for many years, so it’s important to be choosy here.
As far as females go, look for cows that will produce and wean a calf each year without assistance – and maintain their body condition easily without becoming overfat or overly thin.
Select animals based on their overall performance first.
Ask the farmer or breeder questions about how well the calves grow, how much they weigh at weaning, and whether the animals have any genetic abnormalities or exceptionalities that you need to know about.
Measure characteristics like:
- Milk production
- Meat yield and quality
- Weaning weight
- Birth weight
- Yearling weight
If you’re shopping for animals that are registered (necessary if you want to start your own breeding herd or enter into competitions), you may want to choose a cattle producer with animals that are registered and enrolled in breeding association databases.
These databases will look at genetic characteristics to determine how well the cows will grow with environmental influences factored out.
Take a close look at each individual animal you plan to buy. How is it muscling? Body Capacity? Disposition?
If you’re raising animals for exhibition, you’ll need to look at certain characteristics that don’t have anything to do with productivity. For example:
- Is the animal polled?
- How is it colored and what is the distribution of its colors?
- What is its ear length and shape?
Believe it or not, these are factors that could disqualify your animal from being registered or from competing in a show.
If you have ever purchased any other kind of livestock, you probably know that there are general signs of good health that you should inspect each animal for, too.
Both beef and dairy animals should be bright-eyed and content. You can tell a lot about an animal by looking her in the eye.
She should be interested in what’s going on around her but not so nervous that she’s running away or charging you.
If a cow attempts to hurt herself or damage theft fencing in an effort to get away from you, you should probably pass on that purchase – she’s going to be tough to handle.
A few more tips on what to look for when buying cows:
- The eyes should be clear and bright – avoid those with mucus around the outside
- There should be no mucous around the nose (snot is a no-no)
- Animals should be breathing normally – although some panting is expected on warm days, coughing is a bad size
- Avoid buying female cows that look manly as they may be infertile
- Steers should have both testicles removed – you can always have a vet remove the second one but this can be expensive
- The coat should be smooth and healthy
- Cows should have four quarters that are similar in size to make sure they can produce enough milk for their cows
- Beef animals should have well-developed leg and shoulder muscles
When buying heifers, inquire about whether she has been around a bull. If she’s between seven and twelve months old, the answer should be no.
You don’t want to risk buying a heifer with her first pregnancy, especially not if they’re young. Young cows can have trouble calving if they’re too young as their bodies should be most focused on growing.
Finally, take a close look at the farm atmosphere. It should be clean and well-tended.
If the animals are standing in filth and there are flies everywhere, it might be an indicator that you should go elsewhere to buy your cows.
Cow prices vary widely depending on the breed, time of year, and your local market.
If you don’t have any other livestock, it’s a good idea to budget for at least two cows – if not more. Cattle are herd creatures and your cow will become lonely if it doesn’t have any other companions.
That said, you can keep cows with other large animals, like sheep and goats, to help them get acclimated.
Be wary of bargain cows that you see online. Often, you’ll be buying someone else’s problems.
The exception to this is if you’re buying during a severe drought. Often, farmers will offload extra cows – even perfectly decent ones – if they’re having trouble finding them enough feed.
You can expect to pay around $80 to $1000 or more for cows, with younger animals fetching lower prices.
You’ll need a livestock trailer in order to transport your cows to their new home. Make sure you have your fences, pens, and barns set up appropriately so you don’t have to do any cobbling when you have cows in the trailer.
If you don’t have a trailer, you will need to ask the farmer if he delivers. There will usually be a few associated with this. You can also hire a livestock hauling service to do it for you.
Check with the farmer on when and if the cows you are buying have been vaccinated and dewormed. It’s a good idea to do it again if it’s been a while when you get the cows to their new home.
Cows don’t like change. If you can buy the same brand of feed that they were eating at the original home, that’s a good way to make the transition a bit easier. Even so, your cows may act nervous for the first few weeks.
If your cows stop eating or start breathing funny, make sure you call the vet right away.
It’s a good idea to keep your new cattle in a smaller pen, especially if you will be introducing them to other cattle you have on your farm later on.
This can help them get comfortable with you and with the new farm before you throw them into the rest of the mix.
All animals require the proper nutrition in order to stay healthy and productive – and of course, cows are no different.
The majority of your cows’ nutritional needs will be met via pasture and hay.
For fast-growing animals or those with extra caloric needs (such as pregnant or lactating animals), you may have to add an additional source of protein and carbohydrates.
This can be done through sources like higher-quality hay, soybeans, distillers grains, or soybean mail. Corn is another economical energy source.
Again, though, pasture is all your animals need in most cases. The average cow will eat around 24 lbs of hay per day, or about 2% of its overall body weight.
If you’re allowing cows to graze your pastures free choice, let them enter it only when forages are around 6-10 inches tall and then to graze it to only 4 inches.
You don’t want to let them graze it down to a stub, because this can increase the likelihood of parasitic infestations and reduce the weight gain of your cows. It’s simply not as efficient.
Plus, overgrazing your pastures will cause your plants to become weak and to bounce back slowly, something that’s not ideal for healthy foraging areas.
You can add a grain supplement if your cattle are growing rapidly or if there is a pasture shortage.
It will increase their weight gain but should be done in moderation, as it can lead to a fatty carcass. Many people also creep feed young calves when they are nursing.
This is the practice of providing high-quality hay and grain to young calves while they’re nursing to get them used to the idea of solid foods and to improve their body condition.
You will also need a mineral supplement formulated specifically for cows. Free choice minerals can be provided while your animals are on pasture or you can add minerals to a once-a-day grain mix, too.
Before you bring your cows home, you need to take a close look at your farm to make sure you have everything you need for them.
Bringing home cows is exciting, but if you don’t have the pasture, fencing, and water to support them, you’re going to be in trouble in no time flat.
Unless you’re feeding your cows on fresh pasture 100% of the time (unlikely unless you live in a warm, humid area where sufficient grass grows year-round), you’ll need some hay feeders.
The idea of a hay feeder is to prevent your cows from eating right off the ground. This can lead to some major health problems, parasites chief among them.
It can also reduce feed waste – something that’s essential unless you want to spend an arm and a leg raising your cows.
There are all kinds of different styles and sizes of feeder available for cattle. Some can hold both hay and grain while others hold just one or the other.
If your animals will have free access to the feeders all day, you can use smaller ones since not all of the animals will need to eat at the same time.
A popular feeder style for many farms is a fence line-style feeder. This will allow you to output feed and grain into the feeder on one side while the animals access it from another – eliminating the need for you to go into the pen.
A walkthrough feeder will let you walk down the center of it, with grain placed in a trough on the side and hay shared in the central area.
Of course, you can also feed your cattle with large square bales or round bales, too. These are often fed out in inverted cone-style feeders to minimize waste.
Make sure you have a way to provide plenty of water to your animals in both the summer and winter months.
Water Is the most important element to consider when raising cattle because it can dramatically impact feed consumption. If your cows don’t have enough water – or only have poor quality water – it will decrease their feed intake.
You can use buckets, troughs, and even automatic watering systems – there are many different styles available. Just make sure the water is always there, always clean, and always fresh.
One of the most important things to consider is the quality of your fields. Cows can and will eat some weeds, but they aren’t like sheep and goats – they won’t chow down on absolutely everything.
If you have a field filled with pigweed, thistle, and blackberry briars, that might be perfectly sufficient for a goat – but it’s going to starve a cow. Cows need sunny fields filled with legumes and grass.
Pay close attention to the pasture height to make sure you’re utilizing the forage to the best of your ability. Rotate pastures often to spread out the manure and make sure your cattle are getting everything they need.
Especially if you live in an area that has lots of precipitation and cold weather in the winter, you’ll need to build a shed or shelter. Most of the time, a good windbreak is all you need in the summer.
Take a close look at your fencing. If you purchase a property that was already fenced, that’s great – but don’t assume that it’s still intact. Cows aren’t quite as wily as other types of livestock but they will still find the holes in your fences.
A quality perimeter fence will not only keep your cows contained inside the pasture but will also keep predators out.
Due to their size, there aren’t too many predators you need to worry about with cows – wolves and mountain lions are some of the most pernicious threats.
However, calves can easily fall victim to smaller animals like domestic dogs and coyotes, so it’s important to maintain high-quality fences.
Many farmers use high-tensile fencing with some wires electrified. You can then subdivide large fields into separate paddocks with interior fencing.
This can be a strand of polywire with step-in posts, which is easy to move and also affordable.
Although you may be able to get by with doing some tasks on your own, it’s a good idea to have the contact information for a great veterinarian in your area. Routine health care can prevent diseases that will ultimately be more expensive to manage.
Practices you will need to undertake with your cows on a regular basis include things like deworming, castrating, vaccinating, ear tagging, and dehorning.
You’ll need basic equipment on hand like:
- Liquid bandage spray
- Banding tools and elastrator bands
- Syringes and needles
- Tags and tagging guns
- Drench guns/syringes for administering dewormer
Tagging is one of those tasks that you really shouldn’t skip – it will help you identify animals for medical treatments, slaughtering, and breeding purposes.
Dehorning isn’t necessary for all cattle – polled animals don’t have horns. However, you can dehorn your animals shortly after the horn buds break by using an electric dehorner.
Although some people believe that this practice is cruel and inhumane, it’s necessary to prevent injury to other animals and to yourself.
One more task that you really shouldn’t skip in caring for your cows is hoof trimming. This is only necessary when hooves become overgrown.
In order to do it safely, you’ll need to get the animal restrained on a tilt table. This can be difficult to do, which is another reason why it’s so important to find a vet you trust.
Other equipment you might want to buy includes basic medications (like vaccines, antibiotics, and dewormers), scales, and handling equipment – more on this below.
Cows are such large animals that it’s really not wise to not have any handling systems in place. These will allow you to more efficiently (and safely) work with your cows.
One common handling system is a chute. In this system, a cow will walk single file down a chute and then be sorted or held for routine health care.
The gates at either end of the system hold the animal while you perform the necessary tasks. Gates and chutes are also essential for tasks like artificial insemination breeding.
You can easily tell how healthy your cows are simply by paying attention to their body condition. Cows shouldn’t be emaciated but they also shouldn’t be obese.
Do your best to prevent diseases from entering the farm. There are certain biosecurity practices that can help keep your animals healthy, such as quarantining new arrivals and having visitors disinfect their shoes.
Again, having a close relationship with a vertebra is essential to keep your animals healthy.
Parasites are common among cows, though fortunately, they are less severe in cows than they are in other grazing animals, like shape. Cows are very easy to treat for parasites and medications to prevent parasites in cows tend to be very effective.
You can use broad-spectrum drugs that are applied as a pour-on or as an injectable.
The most common parasites that affect cattle include worms and coccidia, though flies, lice, and ticks can become external problems as well.
It is important to note that there are some parasites that cause abortions in cows. Anaplasmosis is one – this tick-borne disease causes severe anemia. Though predominantly caused by ticks, it can also be spread via methods like castration and dehorning.
Foot health is also important for cows. Proper biosecurity measures can keep contagious diseases like hairy heel wart (aka digital dermatitis) off the farm.
Treating this disease can be expensive and challenging, since it requires antibiotics and hoof trimming.
Otherwise, poor hoof health is usually caused by poor nutrition. If you notice that your cows have cracked or curved hooves, it’s a good sign that they’re suffering from a mineral deficiency.
Other diseases that can impact your cows include chlamydia and trichomoniasis, both sexually transmitted diseases. You can prevent these by only buying cows from reputable sources.
If you plan on breeding your cows and not just raising them for one single season, it’s important to understand how the reproductive system of a cow works.
Beef cattle generally have a gestation period of about nine months, though it can be a little more or a little less.
Cattle are like humans in that they cycle throughout the year – however, having a specific breeding system that is in line with your other farm practices can help you stay organized and more effective.
Many farms breed cows so that they calve in the spring, when the weather’s warm, though others would rather have their cows calve in the fall so the market isn’t as saturated with newborn calves.
When breeding your heifers (the females), it’s important that you wait until they are at least 65% of their mature weight. This is usually at around a year of age, though it can be later. Breed them one cycle ahead of mature cows if you can.
Don’t breed females that are much younger than this – they often don’t have the body condition to support a growing fetus yet.
Most of the time, cows give birth well outdoors. That’s why calving in the spring is ideal. If you breed so that calves are born in the fall, make sure the cows have access to a warm barn.
There are a few signs that your cow is about ready to calve. Her udder will begin to tighten as it fills up with colostrum. Colostrum is essential for all newborn mammals as it contains valuable antibodies that can protect the young from diseases.
Once your cow is ready to give birth, her hip muscles may appear to be sunken in.
Her vulva will change color and swell, and the udder will begin to tighten up. She may move away from the herd and will likely go off her feed.
Once you see the water bag, this is a good sign that labor is impending. After the water bag is expelled (this is the cow equivalent of when our water breaks as humans!) you’ll notice the front feet and nose of the calf pushing out.
After the calf is born, the mother will begin to dry the newborn calf off by licking it and she will encourage it to stand and nurse.
Most cows can go through all of these behaviors completely on their own and require no assistance.
You may need assistance if there is no calf within six hours of the water bag appearing or if the cow is straining. You should exercise extreme caution while working around laboring cows or around those who have recently delivered their calves, since they can be aggressive. Call a vet if you need assistance.
For the first few days after calving, keep a close eye on both the mother and her baby.
Mothers should always be attentive to their newborns and allow them to nurse – if they kick or nudge their young away, that could be indicative of a problem. Calves that are unable to nurse may require the assistance of a feeding tube.
If you plan on raising dairy cows, you’ll need to have a plan in place for milking them.
Calves wean off milk pretty quickly – within a few months – but you’ll need to wean them faster if you plan on milking the mother. That means bottle-feeding the calf!
Plan on milking your cows at least twice a day – you can do this by hand or by using automated milking machines.
Most people who raise dairy cows just for themselves and their own consumption on the farm will milk by hand.
For the most part, you can’t slaughter your own beef cows unless you will be the only one consuming them. If you plan on selling your meat, you need to have the animal processed in a USDA-inspected facility.
Many farmers get around this by selling calves live and then “providing the service” of delivering the animals to a local processing facility when they’re finished.
Most beef cows are ready for slaughter at around 12 to 22 months of age.
Of course, there are other ways to make a bit of extra money by raising cows, too. You can market breeding stock or sell feeder calves to the feedlot. You can also sell animals that will be used specifically for show.
Many farmers specialize in selling cow-calf pairs, something that can not only make the farmer’s job easier (no bottle feeding) but also help you make some money by getting rid of the animals you no longer need on your farm.
Whatever you choose, it’s important that you do some research about your local market.
What are people willing to pay for beef? What about live animals? What local laws and regulations are in place that you’ll need to abide by?
Doing extensive research is essential to staying in business!
If you’re interested in raising cows, or are just curious about the process, we hope this guide has been helpful. It can be a lot of work to take care of cows, but it’s also very rewarding.
Consider these tips when getting started: choose your cow breed wisely, make sure you have enough land and resources for them, give them plenty of space and fresh air, and provide good food and water.
With a bit of hard work and some practical advice, you can be on your way to successful cow-raising!
Rebekah is a high-school English teacher n New York, where she lives on a 22 acre homestead. She raises and grows chickens, bees, and veggies such as zucchini (among other things).