Congratulations, you’ve decided to get some cattle! Now, how are you going to care for those beautiful bovines to make sure they (and you) have a successful start?
Your cattle will need grass, winter forage, fencing, handling and watering systems. The daily care of your herd will depend upon the season of the year and the reproductive stage of the cows.
Having a plan to care for your cattle will make the first few weeks with your new herd fun and low stress, for both the girls and you!
Just winging it will make your cattle enterprise much more challenging than it needs to be. A bit of forethought and some preparation will get you started right!
Is Raising Your Own Beef Worth It? goes over setting up a budget for your cattle that are headed to your freezer. I’m figuring you are already interested in cattle, no matter what, but you should consider reading this one, as well.
Have the cattle fence up first!
Before any cattle show up at your farm you’ll need to have fencing in place! There are a few things that can be worked out as you go, but fence is not one of them!
The great news is you have tons of options as to your fencing. High tensile, woven wire and electric are the most popular choices in our area.
You have a few choices to make, permanent fence or portable is the easiest place to start. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
Consider combining the two with a permanent perimeter and portable divisions.
The permanent perimeter with portable/movable divisions is what we do with our stock.
Our electric divisions are electric netting, only because it is a mixed group of mostly sheep and a few cattle, so we need the netting.
If you are keeping cattle on the pasture by themselves, then netting will be overkill. Train them to a single strand of polybraid.
From what I see in my area, most people that decide to get cattle already have some other animals on the farm, this means mixed species grazing.
That’s good, actually. Having multiple species on one area, like keeping a few goats with your cattle, diversifies the eating and the parasites.
“Because gastrointestinal parasites from goats or sheep cannot survive in the stomach of cattle and vice versa, multi-species grazing may decrease internal parasite loads.http://www.thebeefsite.com/articles/2415/grazing-small-ruminants-with-cattle/
What’s that part about the parasites? For the most part parasites are species specific, so a cow can eat a goat parasite off of the grass and it does not matter to the cow.
For the most part, goats and cattle do not share susceptibility to the same parasites.
A caution here: goats and sheep tend to share parasites, so you have to be careful there. But goats and cattle, not so much.
What are your cattle going to eat?
I’m guessing that you have grass or some other forage to feed your cattle or you wouldn’t be looking into cattle! We’ll start with pasture.
How much pasture do you need? Check out the article I just finished Beef Cattle: Beginner’s Guide To Feed Costs.
I’ll walk you through calculating your pasture’s expected production and using that number to estimate how many cattle you can feed.
You’ll need to buy some hay, a little to a lot depending upon your pasture situation and how well you manage it.
For the times when you need to buy forage consider haylage, as well. Haylage: Why You Would Want To Use It is an article I wrote on the what and why of haylage.
Depending upon your area, you may have another haylage type option, oatlage.
We love oatlage for our stock and they love to eat it! Check out my article on Oatlage: What Is It? for the details.
How will you feed the hay?
If you would prefer to feed hay, be sure to consider how you will feed it and price per ton compared to price per bale.
If you are willing to carry hay out to your cattle, small square bales will work fine.
Remember, your cattle will need around one square bale for every two adults per day, larger framed cattle will need more.
While this doesn’t sound like much, it can get to be a burden quite quickly.
Before we purchased our hay unroller, we were feeding up to 50 small square bales per day to the stock (sheep and cattle) on pasture. Yikes!
Since we didn’t have a large enough tractor, anytime we bought round bales we had another feeding challenge.
Those we would roll out and unroll by hand. Another yikes!
Bigger bales of hay or haylage
If you are planning to mechanize the hay delivery to the cattle on pasture, are you using a hay unroller or a round bale ring/feeder?
We definitely prefer the hay unroller, since you get to choose where the hay goes each day. Around the ring feeder, you’ll get a big muddy spot!
The big square bales are an option, of course. I always have considered them to be more of a feed inside the barn option.
Great if your cattle are inside for the winter, not so easy if your cattle are outside.
Any of the forage options would work for cattle eating through headlocks. You might need to spread out the hay then redistribute it later as they push it around, though.
Do you have a watering system set up?
Your cattle need access, year round to fresh, clean water. In the mild days of spring and fall, no big deal.
Watering cattle or any other livestock is easy then, since they don’t need much!
Watering the cattle in the summer
Things get a bit more tricky in summer and winter. For the summer, the challenge is volume.
You want all of the cattle to be able to drink in a pretty short amount of time.
To make this happen, you’ll want a trough, not just an automatic waterer, available to them.
I know the automatic waterer sounds like a better deal, that automatic part is attractive. Why give yourself one more thing to do in a day?
As good as it sounds, the automatic waterer will not be able provide the volume of water the cattle need in the time period they need it.
Short version: it’s too slow!
An automatic waterer will be fine for one or two cattle or for use in the barn, but will not have the volume for summer watering needs.
Cattle do not sip all day, they drink all a large volume a few times a day. And of course, they’ll all want to drink at the same time!
A trough will give them the volume, ready for them to drink, that can refill fast enough to keep up with the herd’s drinking needs.
The size of the trough will have to be figured out based on how many cattle you have.
You can fill the trough with a hose, or put a float on it and have it refill itself through out the day. Caution: keep the float out of reach of the curious!
Cattle seem to be on a mission to knock a top float off of the trough, so you are “watering” the ground until you find it!
You can prevent this by using the type of float that is in the water of the trough.
Once you get going, you may decide to put in summer water lines though out the pasture or get a water tank that you fill and take out to the cattle.
Since you’re just getting started, a trough is the way to go.
Watering the herd in the winter
The biggest challenge for winter watering is ice. We use troughs that we fill with the hose.
Keep in mind, most of the herd is not in the barn for the winter!
If we had a large number of cattle needing watered in the barn, filling the trough would be a never ending job!
Automatic waterers for the herd
In one of the barns we have automatic waterers that have a heating element in them. We don’t ever use these.
What? It’s true, we have noticed that the cattle seem to feel uneasy about drinking from the waterer, I figure they are getting some current (these are old waterers.)
I have not looked into the newer heated waterers on the market.
If you are planning on putting in an automatic waterer with heat, you’ll have to check into this one for yourself.
There are unheated waterers, be sure to see if they will work (not freeze) in your area and with your number of cattle, before you install them!
If we had a ton of cattle inside for the winter, a new automatic waterer or two would be top priority.
But we don’t, the cattle are on pasture for the winter so it’s not a big deal.
Do you need a barn for your cattle?
Maybe, maybe not, it depends on where you live and how much land you have available.
Around here, North Central Ohio, we get a winter full of muddy periods mixed with frozen periods.
When the ground is frozen feeding the cattle on pasture is easy. When it’s not frozen, if we had a large herd outside, it would be a mess!
When the ground is thawed, your cattle will turn your pasture into a muddy disaster if you leave them in one area.
This is really why you would want a barn, to save the pasture.
If you have the ability to move the cattle daily to new ground and are willing to let a few of those moves get pugged up, then you can keep them outside.
If you have limited land, or do not want the pugging, you need to have those cattle on a bedded pack until the grass is ready.
Cattle need shelter from wind, too
Your cattle will also need shelter from the wind. This doesn’t mean a roof necessarily but it does mean windbreaks of some sort.
Wooded areas are great for cutting down the wind!
Have easy access to your cattle working facilities
Sometimes the current set up or arrangement of your farm can be a challenge.
For us, the barn is close to the road and in a place with a very small pasture. We have more land, but not with access to the barn unless we block off the driveway.
Not an ideal situation, so we work around it.
You may have a similar mismatch between what you have and how you would like things to be arranged.
We choose to not build a barn until we can pay for it without debt, so for now we are working with what we have.
You will have the same sort of choices. If you can build new, first off, that’s awesome!
Second, ask around to fellow cattlemen as to what they love about their set up and what they would change.
Spy around online, find someone who makes sense to you and see what that gal/guy does.
Include a cattle sorting/handling area
One reminder: you will at some point need a sorting area, complete with loading ability.
The occasional vet call, an injury, a quarantine area for a new bull you purchase, a way to give medications or dewormers, etc.
Make sure the corral you are counting on has a sturdy build.
Your sweetheart of a cow can be a handful when she gets riled up, make sure you can handle her when she is upset but still needs care.
Set up a care routine for your cattle
This is a complicated sounding section heading for a really simple idea: get into the routine of going out to the pasture and spending time with your herd!
We like first thing in the morning and last thing at night, to make sure things are going well.
To be clear, I am referring to sunrise and sunset, the natural “ends” of the day.
In the morning you can see how your cow’s digestive tract is working by looking at her manure.
Sure as the world, the first thing a cow does when she gets up is to fertilize your pasture!
At night you can make sure they are bedded down and comfortable. Each of these gals should be chewing her cud and laying down contentedly.
If that isn’t what you are seeing, make note and be sure to specifically check her in the morning.
I do need to point out that if it was smoking hot out during the day, your cattle may choose to do their grazing at night, or closer to evening when it is cooler. No worries, if that’s the case.
If not, you need to look into what is going on out there. Any cow not doing what the others are doing warrants a closer check.
Anytime the herd is acting “off” you need to take a look, as well.
Have a large animal vet in mind
I have to tell you, we don’t call the vet much.
That being said, we know a few great vets and don’t hesitate to call them when we get into something we can’t handle ourselves.
I’m telling you this because, in perfect world, I would never have to call the vet.
Since we do not live in a perfect world, it is foolish to be without help when you need backup. That “backup” is your vet, let him/her help you.
You’ll notice the title is “large animal” vet. The vet who specializes in pets will not be equipped to handle your cattle. Seek out a large animal practice.
Identify each cow or calf
If you have a few cattle, you will be able to easily tell one from the next. Things get more complicated when you get a dozen head in the field that all look similar.
If you don’t care whose calf is whose, then no worries, individual identification doesn’t matter much.
Since you are spending time with your cattle each day, you’ll be able to easily tell which calf goes with which cow.
If you need individual identification
If you want to start making breeding decisions based on performance or you want to register your cattle, identification is needed.
Read my article Tags or Tattoos to decide on your options.
A small caution on individual performance, it is not the same as profitability for the herd or the farm.
This is a subject for an entire article, for a short basic insight: money per animal is not the same as money per farm/acre.
If you are raising cattle because you want to, then please yourself. If you are raising cattle for profit, this matters.
Do what the person you got the cattle from was doing
Shamelessly copy the management and husbandry of the gal you bought your herd from to get the results that she is getting, or as close as your situation will allow.
The closer you are able to manage your herd to the way they are used to being managed, the more similar your results will be to the place you bought them from.
The opposite is also true, the more you change how you manage your new herd from how they were being managed, the more you will change the results.
Be aware: you may not get the results you are hoping for in all areas.
An example of what I mean
For example: if you buy a starter herd from a neighbor who does heavy and frequent dewormings but you are not planning on deworming at all, you will run into some challenges.
You will have to cull your way to cattle that perform as you need them to perform in your system.
These new cattle will need to adapt to being raised without dewormings and not all will be able to make that adaptation.
You can change their care and make them as parasite free as possible, rotate pastures, don’t graze grass low, etc., even so, some of them will not make the cut.
In this situation, if not using dewormers is important for you and the way you want to raise your cattle, get your starter herd from someone else.
Adapting these cattle is likely to be more costly and will definitely be more frustrating than buying a more suitable herd to begin with.
This is an example I made up. Your “most important thing” could be gains without grain, attitude, size, whatever.
Purchasing a starter herd that is already doing what you want them to do makes the most sense and will be the most profitable for you.