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Life Of A Dairy Cow: What Does She Do All Day?

Jersey cow grazing

A dairy cow is a part of the workforce for the farm. The farmer or farm manager makes sure she is well taken care of and she provides milk. Let’s take a look at her normal day.

The life of a dairy cow is centered around eating and chewing her cud, which will give her the nutrition be healthy and produce milk efficiently.

Family Cow Milk Production goes over the amount of milk you can expect from your cow based on where she is in her lactation and what you are feeding her.

There are a variety of opinions about the life of a dairy cow from good to bad, with the truth being that a healthy animal always performs better for the farmer.

Whatever livestock you are looking at, any time, any where, healthy, happy animals living in a low stress environment will do the best job.

It is the job of the farmer to make sure the cows have everything they need to be healthy.

This includes appropriate nutrition, vet care when needed, living space that allows for movement with a comfortable place to lay down, and companionship. Cattle are herd animals after all.

Our family cow is a Jersey. Her name is Aleene.
This is Aleene, our family cow. She is a Jersey, which is a very common dairy breed.

It is also the job of the farmer to make the business profitable. If you don’t show up to work or are a low performer you will be fired and so will the cow.

Since the farm is a business, no freeloaders are allowed. Everyone, farmer and cow alike, work for their pay or they won’t stay in their job.

The ability to continually adjust and balance cow needs and business needs requires close attention and a variety of skills from the farmer.

Making sure the cows are well taken care of and the farm (the business) is well taken care of are the main reasons underlying management decisions.

The business of milking dairy cattle is all about efficiently and economically producing milk, no matter the size of the farm.

The best way to ensure profits is to keep the cows healthy and well tended.

Here is a great article from The University Of Kentucky on Good Dairy Stockmanship, this is how you work with cattle. It’s well worth the read!

A dairy calf get a bottle for 6 weeks

Jersey bull calf in a stall
This is the bull calf our Jersey cow had for this year. He was born the last part of August.
  • A calf gets milk for six weeks
  • She lives in her own hutch
  • She will be weaned before she joins a peer group
Here’s one of our bottle calves, her mom is our family cow, Aleene.

A dairy calf can be born any time of year

A dairy calf can be born anytime of the year. Most dairy farms have calves born every month.

This makes the best use of the calf hutches and helps keep a steady number of milking cows in the herd.

The calf is born in a maternity pen. This is a special well bedded pen with only soon to be moms kept in it.

This way the farmer can keep a close eye on any cows giving birth and easily jump in to help if needed.

When the calf is dry, it is moved from the pen, given an ear tag and put in a hutch.

Calves like other live birth animals are born wet. This is from the amnionic fluid the baby lived in while still inside the mom.

The calf will live in a calf hutch

A calf hutch is a small shed, think of a really big dog house, that the calf lives in. Most farms have a fence around the front of the hutch to give the calf a place to lay outside in the nice weather.

The hutch is placed on a pile of bedding, usually straw or sawdust, to keep it up off the ground so no water can get in the pen.

Inside the pen the calf will have a water bucket, some calf starter (feed made specifically for young calves), and a small hay rack.

Calves are fed a bottle of milk twice per day

Beautifully marked new calf, what a cutie!

All calves need a bottle of milk to drink twice a day, for about 6 weeks.

We always fed our calves extra milk straight from the cows, it’s warm and ready to go.

Some farmers choose to feed their calves milk replacer instead. Milk replacer is a powdered milk that just needs warm water added and stirred to be ready to feed.

Milk replacer is a likely choice if the farm keeps the calves a distance away from the milking barn.

Normally, dairy farms keep the heifer (female) calves and sell the bull calves, so the calves in the hutches are probably heifers.

The heifers are kept one to a hutch with the hutches lined up side by side.

Calf hutches are grouped together

The calves can see each other while in the hutches. Spending the first six weeks in a hutch gives them time to get more coordinated and capable before putting them in with peers.

Cattle are pushy with each other even the young ones like to push and shove.

Individual hutches make it easy to see how each calf is doing everyday. Being in a hutch makes it easy to be sure she’s eating and looks happy.

Dairy heifers live with their peers

  • Heifers are housed groups
  • The main job of a heifer is to grow
  • When she is 15 months old she will be bred

When weaned, heifers live in a group

Once the heifer is weaned (does not need a bottle of milk anymore and is eating solid food) she will be moved to a pen or pasture with other heifers her size.

The heifers will get feed and hay and of course water. The feed is formulated to give her all the nutrients she needs to help her grow well.

Heifers will grow taller and longer until they are about a year old then continue to fill out, get rounder, as they age.

At this stage not a lot is going on for the heifer, besides eating and growing.

The farmer is just taking care of the heifers and waiting until they are big enough and old enough to breed.

Dairy heifers are bred at 15 months of age

Ideally, when the heifer is 15 months old she will be bred. For a healthy well grown heifer this will be normal.

If she is a “poor doer” or just poorly managed of she will not be big enough to breed at 15 months. This is a costly mistake.

Early life nutrition and care of heifers must be skillfully managed.

If the farmer wants a healthy well grown heifer to breeding age and breeding condition by 15 months she must be well taken care of when young.

Why 15 months? Since the gestation length of cattle is 9 months, a heifer bred at about 15 months will have her first calf at the age of two years old (24 months).

Calving at two years is the ideal because this is when the heifer is big and strong enough to do well in the rest of her milking career.

Heifers can breed much sooner than this but it is wise to put off breeding until 15 months of age.

This way the heifer is well grown and can support the needs of the growing calf and be in great condition to begin milking.

Most dairy farms use artificial insemination

Many farms use A.I. (artificial insemination) for breeding all of their cattle. A.I. is popular because the farm does not have to keep around a bull, which is safer for the farmer.

Wondering About Using A.I. For Your Cattle? will go over the pros and cons of artificial insemination (A.I.) in cattle.

With A.I., the farmer can choose from a wide variety of bulls, some from other parts of the world. The cow can be matched individually to the bull that will produce the best, healthiest calf.

Since all cows and heifers are individuals, each one needs different traits to be emphasized or minimized to make improvements in the herd.

A.I. gives the most choices for the breeding options for each heifer.

Some farmers choose to use a bull, from either a beef or dairy breed. Since watching for the heat cycles in heifers takes a noticeable amount of time, using a bull lets the farmer get more done in a day.

Jersey Angus cross heifer walking in front of a yealing Holstein bull
The brown heifer is a Jersey Angus cross, the black and white is a yearling Holstein bull.

The life of a dairy cow is well managed

  • Once the heifer has a baby she is now called a cow
  • A cow starts milking when she is two
  • She will milk for three months then be bred again
  • She will milk for 10 months total per year
  • She will get a two month vacation called a dry period
  • She will have her next calf and start milking again

When a heifer calves, she is now a cow

The life of dairy cow as a cow (before this she was a heifer) begins at two years old when she has her first calf. She will be kept with her calf until she licks it off and the calf nurses.

After calving, fresh cows join the milking herd

Once the calf is dry and has nursed, the cow is moved into the fresh cow pen and the calf is taken to a hutch.

The fresh cow (a cow that just had a baby) must be milked separately from the rest of the milking herd until her milk transitions to normal milk, which is in about 3-4 days.

Colostrum is fed to her calf

The first milk produced after the calf is born is called colostrum. Colostrum looks different than regular milk in that it is very yellow in color and has a thicker consistency.

This special milk will give the calf passive immunity (keep it from getting sick until it’s own immune system starts working).

Fresh cow health is closely monitored

The fresh cows are kept together to make checking on them easier. If a cow is going to have problems now is a likely time. Most cows go through calving and the first few days of lactation (milking) just fine.

Some cows, especially if they are overweight, have problems adjusting metabolically to the new demands upon her system.

Generally this maladjustment shows up as milk fever.

Milk fever is a misnomer to be sure, since it is not a sickness at all nor does the cow have a fever (body temperature is usually lower than normal in milk fever).

This is a metabolic problem that is easily fixed with an I.V. calcium mix. If a cow needs to be treated for milk fever she will be back to normal really fast, about 15 minutes-impressive!

A fresh cow will adjust to her new life quickly

Usually, a heifer comes though calving just fine and adjusts to her new life quickly.

One of her first new skills is learning how to behave in the milking area, which is usually a parlor.

A milking parlor is designed so the cows are higher than the person milking so there is no bending down to put on the milkers.

She will learn how to come in to the parlor with the rest of the cows, to stand still during milking and to leave when done.

A new cow will be nervous the first few times she goes in to be milked but she soon learns that milking is actually relaxing and since all of the other cows are calm she should be calm too.

heifer and two cows in pasture with sheep
Jersey Angus cross heifer with two dairy cows in the background in a pasture with sheep.

Milking happens twice a day on most farms

Milking, which is done twice a day on most farms, is one of the main parts of a cow’s day.

Milking three times per day gets more total milk from the cow each day but requires more feed and more labor.

Since the milkings are evenly spread out through the day at least one of those three times will be in the wee hours.

More information on milking can be found in my article Why Does A Cow Need To Be Milked?

Eating is a big part of a dairy cow’s life

The other main part of a dairy cow’s day is eating. Cows love to eat.

A dairy cow will eat all she needs from the feed and hay, or silage mix in the feed trough then she will go lay down and chew her cud.

She will spend hours chewing her cud because this helps her digest her feed. A cow that is happy and well fed spends a large portion of the day chewing her cud.

A milking cow eats feed specifically formulated to give her all the energy and nutrients she needs to stay healthy and milk well.

On most family farms the herd will graze on the pastures during the nicer weather. Pasture grass is wonderful for cows!

Routine is important to dairy cows

The new cow soon will learn to like the routine, since cows like things to be mostly the same everyday.

Having a routine makes her feel secure and keeps her stress low.

A cow is bred to have her second calf after three months of milking. This will make her next calf due at the same time of year as her first calf.

How To Care For Your Family Cow goes over the daily care of your best milker!

Dairy cows have a yearly production cycle

She will milk for ten months before having a dry period (a time when she doesn’t milk) in order to give her a well earned vacation and have her ready to milk again after the next calf is born.

Ideally, a cow will have a calf every year on about the same date. Ten months lactation, two months dry is a perfect schedule for the cow to be at her best.

If well taken care of, a cow can have a productive life of 10-12 years. This was a very normal age for our cows. A few superstars can be productive into their late teens!

Most large commercial dairies do not keep their cows as long, with 4-5 years being more of an average.

Related Questions

Can a cow produce milk without having a baby?

All mammals, including cattle (and humans), need to give birth before starting to produce milk.

Are cows forced to produce milk?

A cow can not be forced to produce milk. She naturally produces milk after she has a calf.


How Do You Make Hay? The Basics

small square bales of grass hay

If you have livestock, you’ll need to have some hay. You could buy it or, if you’ve got extra forage, make it yourself.

How is hay made and what are the key points to making hay that your animals will love?

Hay is made by cutting high quality grass or other forages, letting it dry in the sun, then baling the dried forage for transportation and storage.

Is Making Your Own Hay Worth It? goes over a budget for making your own hay, even if you hire some or all of the work done for you.

Hay is made throughout the growing season of the forage plants in your area. Most people make hay to feed later in the year when the grasses and other forages are not growing well.

In our area, this non growing time is the winter but in extremely hot areas the non growing time is in the summer.  

Hay is a way to preserve some of the growth of your land from the good growing times and use it for your animals later.

Just like canning vegetables, jams and jellies at home or when you buy canned or frozen food at the store, it was all preserved earlier to be eaten throughout the year.

7 Tips To Choose High Quality Hay will show you the specific things you need to look at when you are considering buying a load of hay.

Many types of grasses can be used for hay as long as the plant will dry down enough to keep, otherwise the hay will heat up and begin to decompose.

Generally, farmers use machinery to cut, rake, and bale hay but not always with a tractor.

Many Amish farmers make hay every year without a tractor. They do use machinery to make and gather hay just no engines for traction, only horses provide the draft power.

We use machinery to harvest hay. The machinery we use includes a tractor, mower, tedder, rake, baler and wagons.

Cut the hay at peak nutrition level

1st Or 2nd Cutting Hay? goes over the differences in hay cuttings and why it will matter to you.

The forage growth is monitored as it grows in order to cut it at peak nutritional value, which is just before it starts to flower.

Ideally, at this time you will also have a window of 3-4 dry days in the weather forecast. We don’t want our hay to get rained on because it reduces the nutritional value of the grasses.

Hay needs to be cut so the grass stays in one long piece so the plant will dry out. Hay that is too wet will mold.

Cut the hay with a mower

We use a mower conditioner to cut our hay.

A mower conditioner has a cutting bar across the front that runs close to the ground and cuts the plant stems. Then the grass goes through two rollers that mash the stems to make the plants dry faster.

This is especially useful for forages with fatter stems like field peas that would take much longer to dry if the stems weren’t flattened first.

This is the mower conditioner in action!

A more modern mower is called a disc mower. It has short knife bars on wheels that spin sideways, all under a shield of course.

The advantage to a disc mower is speed and volume. You can drive through the hay much faster and cut thicker growth with a disc mower than other types of mowers.

An older style option is a sickle bar mower. This mower has a 6-8 foot long cutting bar. This is the most popular Amish mower.

Most people use machinery to make and harvest hay, but it can be done by hand. Hand harvesting of hay would involve the use of a scythe to cut the grasses.

A scythe is a long curved blade on a bent wooden handle. It looks odd when not in use but once you see it being used the curves and bends all line up to make your swing of the scythe cut grass evenly.

This is hard work and takes a lot of practice to make it look easy. Not to mention, once the cutting is done and the grass is dry now the hay needs gathered by hand!

This all sounds crazy and out dated but it is still the way some areas of the world that are super steep cut and gather hay.

Haymaking 101 in goes over making hay in New England, since areas have to consider making hay to fit their specific needs, this article may have some insight for your farm.

Ted the hay to help it dry faster

After a day or so of drying the hay needs to be turned over to get all of the plants dry, even the pieces close to the ground or under other plants, for this farmers use a tedder.

A tedder is pulled behind the tractor and runs like a paddle wheel just fluffing up the hay as the farmer drives over the field.

This gets air circulating to all of the individual plants to make sure all pieces are getting sun so they will be dry.

Hay tedder
This is a PTO driven hay tedder. It fluffs up the cut forages to allow the leaves and stems to dry faster, which improves the quality of the hay.

Rake the hay before baling

The rake is also pulled behind the tractor. Once the hay is dry enough to bale (it will feel crunchy) the hay needs raked up into a windrow so the baler can get all of the pieces of dried grass.

The rake has teeth that grab up the hay and roll it over and over into a long thin twisted row of hay. The rake makes the baler able to get all of the hay in the field.

Raking is not mandatory, you could just bale up the dry hay. But not raking is very wasteful, since you will leave a lot of hay pieces scattered in the field.

The baler is not as capable of a gatherer as the rake. To get the most out of your field and your time you need to rake the hay.

Bale the hay when it’s dry

Now is the big moment! The hay is dry and raked and you are ready to start baling. The baler is pulled behind the tractor.

The baler has a PTO (power take off) shaft that you hook up to the back of the tractor. The PTO shaft spins to power the baler so it can take in the hay and compress it into bales.

The baler has no power of it’s own-it runs off of the tractor and is pulled along through the field by the tractor.

This is our baler and bale basket set up.

Balers come in different types and sizes

There are many types of balers.

Some farmers like small square bales, these can be moved by hand, others like bigger bales that take a tractor to move because they weigh hundreds of pounds each.

The big bales can be round or square and come in various sizes.

Small square balers need a wagon

If you have a small square baler you are usually pulling a wagon. The hay bales get pushed out the back of the baler to a basket (like the video) or a person on the flat bed wagon, attached to the back of the baler, who stacks the bales.

Some balers have a kicker, which means you pull a wagon with cage like sides and the baler kicks/throws the small square bales into the wagon. Handy since one person can harvest hay just by driving.

This is cool because you can pull two wagons and fill the back one first, you just adjust the kicker range!

Round bales are gathered with a loader

The round bales are left in the field, they pop out the back of the baler when the bale is big enough and the baler has wrapped the hay in twine or netting so it stays together and can be moved.

Since these bales are so big, 500-1,000 pounds, they must be gathered after being baled.

Some farmers do leave round bales hay out in the field all year but this will ruin the outer layer of the bale. If it is really rainy the whole bale will be ruined.

Large square bales need moved with a loader

The large square bales are just as big as the round bales so will also need to be moved by a tractor.

Lawn mowers do not work for hay

Cutting hay with a lawn mower does not work well. In order to dry, the grasses must be whole so they lose moisture not just heat up and rot.

Think about when you are late mowing your lawn and the grass is pretty tall. The mower spits out chunks of grass that just sit in the sun and get stinky. That’s not good hay.

Plants have to be spread out evenly to dry. The lawn mower cuts the pieces too short.

This is no surprise because lawn mowers are designed to cut the grass in a way that makes the clippings not pile up so your lawn looks nice. This is the opposite of mowing for hay.

Hay can be made from many plants

Just about any grass left to grow long can make hay.

However, certain varieties of grasses like timothy and orchard grass are usually used for hay because you get much more growth so more hay per acre than shorter more lawn type grasses.

Keep animals off of the land you intend to mow for hay and keep checking the growth of the grass so you know when to mow it.

If you have good soil you don’t need to fertilize. If you have poor soil consider some amendments to improve your yield.

Hay regrowth depends on weather

How fast or slow your hay field will regrow depends upon the weather.

Generally, there are multiple cuttings of hay made off of the same field. Just like your lawn keeps growing and you keep mowing it.

Most farmers anticipate the first cutting of a hay field to be a month or so after the spring green up (when everything really starts growing in the spring) and every month or so after that.

For most farmers around here, 3 cuttings would be normal and a 4th cutting would be a bonus.

Most hay plants are perennial

Most grasses used for hay are perennials. Perennial forages will come back year after year. Your lawn is most likely perennial grasses.

Commonly used perennial forages for hay would include orchard grass, alfalfa, some clovers and timothy.

Hay can be made from annual forages

Some farmers plant an annual specifically to produce a quick, high tonnage hay cutting. Annuals are plants that will not regrow next year, they must be replanted.

Annuals used for hay include sudan grass, teff, millet, small grains harvested as forage, and some clovers.

You can sell extra hay

Sure, lots of people sell hay.

The good news is many people that have hay eaters do not have enough grass or hay of their own so they buy hay every year.

The bad news is that selling hay also takes fertility out of your soil. For any hay ground that you sell the hay from, be sure to replenish the nutrients.

Round bales can sit in the field

If a farmer does not have a good way to store hay, sometimes the bales are left in the field. This is generally just round bales.

Ideally, the round bales will form a harder outer layer from getting rained on then then drying out again that keeps the inner hay dry.

The other type of bales that get left in the field are wrapped with plastic so they do not need to be inside the plastic protects the hay from weather damage.

We make a fermented hay called haylage, these are the white bales that look like big marshmallows sitting in the field. Our sheep love it, so do the cattle.

What Is Haylage? will show you the details and why you might want to make some yourself.

Any size field can grow hay

Any amount of land can grow hay. The question is will it be worth your time and effort to get the hay off of that acreage and can you get machinery in there to do it?

We can get around 100 bales per acre per year here. Your area may be better or worse. Ask around and make an informed decision.

Before we moved to this farm, we lived outside of Wooster, Ohio on a smaller property with a open (nothing to run over/into) front yard.

The yard was less than an acre and we routinely baled that for grass hay. It was right along the road, so I’m sure people noticed, but better than buying hay!

As long as you are okay with the really tall grass by your house, you can bale up nearly anything.

Related Questions

What is the difference between hay and straw?

The difference between hay and straw is that hay is dried grass harvested to use as feed for livestock.

Straw is the dead stalk of small grains, like wheat or barley, that is used as bedding not as feed.

What animal needs hay?

All animals that are naturally grass eaters need hay when grass is not available. This includes livestock as well as pets like guinea pigs and rabbits.

The Cheapest Meat Animal To Raise (Chart And Cost Per Pound Of Meat Included)

Beautiful market steer

Wondering what the cheapest meat animal is to raise? I’ve got you covered. We will go over costs per animal and per pound of meat. Let’s get started!

The cheapest meat animal to raise is the broiler at $0.97 per pound.  Grass feed beef is second at $1.64 per pound. Additionally, eggs can be raised for $0.33 per pound.

Farm Animals That Can Be Raised Together will show you combinations that work and ones that don’t!

Meat AnimalCost To Raise$ Per Pound of Meat
Broiler-cheaper feed + you butcher$4.40/bird$0.97
Broiler-more expensive feed + pay
for butchering
Laying Hens-for eggs
cheaper feed
Laying Hens-for eggs
expensive feed
Feeder Pig-cheaper feed$295.41$1.69
Feeder Pig-expensive feed$372.50$2.13
Feeder Steer-grass only$1223.20$1.64
Duck- cheaper feed +
you butcher
Duck- expensive feed +
pay for butchering
Cheapest Meat Animal to Raise
is the Broiler
$0.97/pound of
Price per pound of meat that you can produce will vary with price paid for the animal and prices for feed in your area and butchering costs.

Raising meat for your family is a wonderful way to become more self sufficient. I love knowing that when we raise an animal to eat we are giving the animal both a good life and a good death.

The second main attraction to raising your own meat is that you know exactly how the animal was raised, what it ate, what it didn’t eat, and if it had a happy life.

These are all factors that affect taste and nutrition of the meat.

Now, on to cost. Raising your own meat is normally a cost savings over buying meat raised in the same way from someone else.

Notice I did not say always. If you don’t keep an eye on your feed costs you can spend more than you had planned.

Nor did I compare the cost to the factory farmed, tasteless, “brine solution” soaked stuff you can easily buy in town.

The brine solution is a chemical mix to supposedly enhance flavor-the packages I have seen list the solution at 8%. That’s 8% of the package weight that you paid meat price for but got fake “salty” water.

Not to mention the fact that well raised wholesome meat does not need flavor enhancement.

For instance when we roast a broiler we just put it in the oven no preparations at all- just make sure it’s completely defrosted. Those birds taste great-tons of flavor!

Where to start your journey to self sufficiency? What is the least cost meat to raise? When can you can save money and when will buying high quality the first time save you money and hassle over time?

Main costs for raising your own meat

  • Purchasing the animal
  • Feed and Hay
  • Equipment

Purchasing your animal(s), get high quality animals to start with

When purchasing animals to raise for meat for your family always buy a high quality healthy animal from a reliable source. The stock you start with will determine the outcome of your project.

Don’t cheap out at the beginning!

A “bargain” animal generally isn’t a bargain at all. Slow growth in less thrifty animals will quickly burn up your feed money and your time with little to show for it.

Buy high quality to get the fastest growing, healthiest animals. Healthy animals will actually be cheaper to raise, even if they cost a little more to get because they will save you on feed and vet costs.

Looking to get some feeder pigs? Buying Feeder Pigs will help you get started!

Maybe you are starting with poultry? How To Choose A Chicken Hatchery will show you how to decide where to place your order!

Feed and Hay are your largest reoccurring animal expenses

There are many places to buy feed and hay (if needed) for your animals. Generally speaking, buying in bulk saves you money per pound. Only buy enough feed for two to three weeks at a time.

Fresher feed is has more the nutrients because as soon as the feed grain is ground it starts to lose vitamins and the fats begin to go rancid.

This is a normal process all living things including food for you or your livestock loses nutritional value the longer it sets around.

Choosing High Quality Hay gives you a checklist of things to notice to tell if you are getting good hay!

The big money saver in feed is buying it from a feed mill in the 100 pound bags instead of the 50 pound bags at farm or pet stores.

From the price comparisons I have made buying from the feed mill is a little bit over half price of the 50 pound bags for twice as much feed!

For example, layer mash (the ground up feed for laying hens) is $15 for 50 pounds in the local farm store but it is $16.30 for 100 pounds at the feed mill. That’s a huge difference!

If you are able, another option is to grow the corn and purchase the other ingredients like soybean meal and the mineral supplement mix then grind the feed yourself.

This is what we do because it is a big money saver if you have the equipment.

Grinding our own feed cuts our costs down substantially.

For example: it costs us $6.60 per 100 pounds to make a broiler feed that would cost $16.30 to purchase at the feed mill and $30.00 to purchase at the farm store.

scoop of homemade feed
Here is some of our home ground feed.

Before we had the grinder we would buy all the ingredients separately from the feed mill, weigh it out on small food scales we bought in town and mix it in 100 pound batches in the wheelbarrow.

When the broiler chicks were small this went okay, but when the chicks got big we were mixing up feed all the time and the batch was only 50 birds!

Some equipment (feeders, waterers, etc.) will be needed for your animals

On to equipment. Most livestock will require at least some equipment even if it is just a water trough or small feeders for chicks.

I am not going to include the cost of any equipment in these comparisons because you keep the equipment for next time.

Just be aware that some non feed purchases will need to be made if you don’t have something suitable already. It also depends upon the animal.

For instance, baby chicks need a reliable heat lamp, but it could be from another animal you raised or you could borrow it.

Or if you are grazing a feeder steer or two and have access to a fenced in pasture all they need is water and shade.

4 Must Have Items For Raising Feeder Pigs goes over your basic equipment needs.

Cost to raise each animal (by pound of meat in freezer)

  • Broilers
  • Laying Hens
  • Feeder Pig
  • Feeder Steer
  • Ducks
  • Rabbits

Of course, there are other animals you could raise (like lambs, goats, etc.), these are just a few ideas to get you started thinking!

Broilers are easy care and relatively cheap to raise

Broilers  will eat 13.5 pounds of feed per bird. The cost of the feed per bag is $15.00 per 50 pounds ($30.00 per 100 pounds or 30 cents per pound). This is to a butchering weight of 6.5 pounds.

Hatchery price varies some with $2.00 each broiler as a good average price.

13.5 pounds of feed x $0.30/pound =$4.05 in feed cost/bird

Cost of each broiler chick=$2.00

Cost to butcher per bird=$3.50

This makes the total for a broiler $9.55 if you use the more expensive small bags of feed and pay to have it butchered.

The carcass weight of a broiler is 4.55 pounds (6.5 pounds live bird x 70% meat yield)=$2.10/pound of meat.

You can dramatically cut your costs if you use feed from a feed mill and butcher yourself.

This would save you the $3.50 per bird butchering fee plus about $2.20 (figuring the mill feed at $16.30/100 pounds) in feed.

Your cost per bird is $5.50 less than before making your new total cost per bird $2.00/chick +$2.20 in feed= $4.40 each if you butcher the broilers yourself.  This bird costs you $0.97/pound of meat.

Consider reading my article Easiest Chicken To Raise For Meat for more information on broilers.

hens sifting through old hay
Our backyard hens pecking through some old hay.

Laying Hens for eggs and as soup hens, later

Laying Hens will vary in cost depending upon if you raise the pullets (young hen) yourself or buy it. For more details read Is Raising Your Own Chickens For Eggs Worth It?

Raising the pullets to 16 weeks (just before she starts to lay eggs) will cost $3.00 per chick and require 11.36 pounds of feed costing $1.85 of feed mill feed or $3.64 of farm store feed.

If you raise the pullet and get your feed from the mill she will cost you $4.85. $3.00 chick price + $1.85 in feed= $4.85

If you decide to purchase the ready to lay pullet she will cost between $12-20 each. We will use $15.

Laying hens need 1.25 pounds of feed per week which equals $10.60 for the first year laying.

During the year she will lay about 25 dozen eggs at a cost of $0.62 per dozen. 52 weeks x 1.25 pounds of feed at $0.163/pound=$10.60

The more expensive feed will cost $20.80 each hen for the first year laying making the cost per dozen $0.83.

1.25 pounds/day x $0.32/pound =$0.40/week x 52 weeks=$20.80.

A ready to lay pullet feed the more expensive feed will cost $35.80 to lay for a year making the cost per dozen $1.42. A dozen eggs weighs 1.875 pounds making the cost $0.76/pound of eggs.

A pullet you raise yourself and feed the less expensive mill feed will cost you $15.45 to lay for one year making the cost per dozen eggs $0.62. These eggs cost $0.33/pound.

Update for 2022: since the cost of eggs is up significantly, layers may be more of a worthwhile enterprise than in previous years. You’ll get about 5 eggs per week per good layer then have a stewing hen later.

To read my article about calm chicken breeds that includes breed descriptions, click here.

This is a “talking head” style video that I did, with graphics showing two examples of feed costs for pigs, based on the feed price per pound.

Feeder Pigs grow quickly

Feeder pigs will need three pounds of feed for every pound of weight gain. You will be feeding your pig up to 250 pounds live weight.

Read Is Raising Your Own Pigs For Meat Worth It? for the details on a pig raising budget.

Since you are starting with a 60 pound feeder pig this is 190 pounds of weigh to grow to butchering size.

The total feed cost to raise each pig is $170.00 if you buy your feed in the 50 pound bags at the farm store. 570 pounds of feed x $0.30/pound=$170.00

You will also need to pay for butchering which will be $100.00 per head then $0.30/pound in packaging costs.

The carcass yield of a pig is 70% so you will have a 175 pounds of hanging weight.

Your total butchering costs will be $152.50 in this example. 175 pound carcass x $0.30/packaging + $100/head butchering charge=$152.50.

Your pig will have cost you $50 to purchase. (Remember to figure up these costs for your specific area. I have seen huge variations in both piglet and butchering costs.)

So your total cost per pound of meat if you pay for butchering and use the farm store feed is $372.50 which is $2.13/pound of meat.

The packaging costs will vary depending upon what specifically you want done, the more time consuming your request the more it will cost.

If you decide to get feed from the feed mill you will save money. The total cost is $295.41 which is $1.69/pound of meat.

A feeder pig is a great first project for raising your own meat, they grow fast, are adaptable and will yield quite a bit of meat per animal. Read my article When To Get A Feeder Pig for more details.

piglets on pasture
Cross bred piglets zooming around the pasture. These piglets are still nursing off of their mom. Your feeder pigs will be weaned (not nursing) and bigger than these.

Feeder Steer will take longer, but can be done on grass

Feeder Steer is a bit more complicated to figure feed costs for. If you are feeding your steer on just grass then just figure the rent of the pasture.

Read Is Raising Your Own Beef Worth It? for a budget and ideas on raising your own beef.

The steer needs 1.8 acres of pasture (in an area that grows good grass), but be aware this number varies wildly depending upon where you live.

We’ll say $100.00 to rent the pasture.

The feeder steer is going to cost you $1.00-1.20/pound to purchase.

I am figuring you’ll want your steer to be just a summer project so he needs to be 750-800 pounds to start giving you 200 days for him to put on 2 pounds of weight per day.

A smaller steer will work fine and cost about the same per pound he will just take longer to finish since he started out weighing less.

We will go with $1.00 per pound and buying an 800 pounder so the cost of the steer is $800.00.

$800 for the steer +$100 pasture rent = $900 for a 1200 steer

The cost to butcher is $100 plus $0.30/pound packaging costs. The steer will dress out at 744 pounds (62% of live weight).

The total costs for your beef are $1223.20. That is $1.64 per pound of  grass fed and finished beef.

The feeder steer is the animal with the most potential wiggle room in the price when it comes to purchasing an animal to raise for meat.

If you can get your steer for a better price and have plenty of grass to feed them, then grass feed beef becomes the cheapest meat to raise using the current prices.

My article Reading A Cattle Market Report will help you determine the current prices in your area.

Ducks are fast growing meat birds

ducklings in the brooder
Here is a variety pack of ducklings in our brooder. The white ones are Pekin, brown with stripe on head are Rouen and chocolate brown are Khaki Campbell.

Ducks will be ready to butcher at 7-8 weeks of age if you are raising Pekins. Other ducks grow slower so they will take longer.

Your ducks will eat a total of 21 pounds of feed to get to butchering weight of 5-6 pounds.

Is Raising Ducks For Meat Worth It? will go over more of the considerations of raising meat ducks and will help you put together a budget.

If you purchase your feed at the farm store it will cost $15.50/ 50 pound bag so 21 pounds x $0.31/ pound feed=$6.51 in feed per duckling.

The cost of the duckling is $5.50 each. Plus the butchering cost which is $9.50 each.

$6.51 feed+ $5.50 duckling+ $9.50 butchering= $21.51 total=$5.38/pound

If you can get feed mill duck feed (we use broiler feed) it is $0.163/pound. $0.163/pound x 21 pounds =$3.42 per duckling feed costs

It is completely doable to butcher your ducks at home it just takes time because of all of the feathers, but it can be done. If you butcher at home and buy your feed at the mill your costs will be $8.92/duckling.

$3.42 feed + $5.50 duckling= $8.92 total =$2.23/pound of meat

More information on specific breeds of ducks to choose and those to steer clear of is in my article 16 Duck Breeds For Eggs And Meat.

Rabbits are wonderful backyard meat animals

Rabbits will eat 12 pounds of feed to get to 4 pound live weight.

Rabbit feed cost seems to be the same at the feed mill and at the farm store so there is no cost saving feed option here except try to use high quality hay.

Rabbit feed costs $17.50/ 50 pound bag so that is $0.35/ pound.

12 pounds of feed x $0.35/pound=$4.20 in feed per rabbit

Fryers (young rabbits raised for eating) will dress out at 2-2.5 pounds of meat. We’ll use 2.5.

$4.20 divided by 2.5 pounds =$1.68/pound of meat

Obviously, rabbits don’t just fall from the sky-you had to get them somewhere! I am not sure where to put the cost for the breeding stock, since price varies substantially by breed and location.

Most people getting started with meat rabbits would keep a trio-one buck and two does. They would cost you $20-30 each and have a litter of 8-10 babies every 2 months. That’s 48-60 bunnies per doe per year!

Another thing to keep in mind with rabbits is that after about 5 pounds live weight, feed conversion rates go from pretty good to terrible.

Getting a rabbit from around 5 pounds to more like 10 (adult size of commercial type meat rabbits) is super costly in feed, so these numbers will not hold if you decide to feed your rabbits to a larger size.

Read How Many Rabbits For A Family? to figure up how many breeders you should have depending upon how many times per week you want to eat rabbit.

I’ll show you how to calculate all this out, so you’ll have the meat you need.

Feed and animals costs will vary by location

Here is the catch to this whole article, feed costs and animal costs will vary by location and time of year.

Consider adjusting the time of year that you start your meat animal project, even pushing back the start date by a few months can make a huge difference.

For instance, in my area, a feeder pig purchased between mid March through mid June will be around $100-150 each.

These are feeder pigs running through the livestock auction, not special breeds or private sales, just piglets in spring.

If you buy that same feeder pig in July through February, you’ll pay around $60 each at the auction. The difference? The spring sales have the 4-H kids and their parents buying fair pigs, the fall sales do not.

In places where feeder pigs are hard to come by, $200-300 each is not unheard of. This is simply supply and demand. Check your local online ads, you’ll figure out which area you are in pretty quickly!

If you are looking at one of the more unusual breeds, you may easily see feeder pig prices that are higher still. For example, I just saw some Gloucester Old Spots in my local area with an asking price of $500 each.

Regarding feed, if you live in an area where the 50 pound sacks of brand name feed are all that is available, you’ll have to spend significantly more money on feed per animal.

Nothing wrong with that, as long as you have it in your budget.

Try looking into other sources of feed that would be available bulk, even if you have to drive a bit.

We have feed available in town (10 minutes away) but routinely drive 45 minutes for feed since there is a huge price difference.

Look around and see where people who are raising animals that are not show animals are buying their feed. A great place is look around the Amish community, they’ll have a feed source figured out.

Another option is to try working in some non feed foods for your pigs, like pasture or foraging in woodlot areas.

Pigs love vegetable scraps, my pigs love winter squash peelings but not beet skins. This is more workable for folks living close to produce growers, even farmer’s market growers have non sellable veg!

If you live near orchards or have neighbors that are big into recycling food waste, you’ve got another potential feed source for your animals.

Pigs and chickens, especially, are natural food waste eaters.

Look around your area and see what you can come up with. Unused resources, from orchard waste to right of way lands, can be used to help you raise your own meat.

When I can I give my pigs food scraps like vegetable peelings or edible weeds, like pigweed (which is an amaranth) to eat, rather than buying hay to go with their normal feed ration.

Food Waste For Pigs is a Penn State Extension article going over the things you should not feed your pigs. This same idea would apply to food wastes for chickens, as well.

What is the best meat animal to start out raising?

The best meat animal to start out with is a broiler. They are fast growing and easy to care for.

What farm animals can live on grass?

All farm animals like to get outside and eat grass but only ruminants like cattle and sheep can grow well on grass alone.

Other animals, like pigs and chickens, can live without supplemental feed, if the have the right genetics, you are willing to accept what is likely to be lower production/slower growth and have the animals in an area of abundant other food sources.

14 Docile Beef Cattle Breeds: Good Choices For A Beginner

beef calf eating grain from a pan

We love having cattle around our farm and nothing does a better job of turning your grass and other forages into meat than a bovine.

As a beginner, what breed of cattle should you choose for your farm? Let’s check it out!

The more docile beef breeds are Blonde d’Aquitaine, Beefmaster, British White, Devon, Galloway, Gelbvieh, Hereford, Lincoln Red, Maine Anjou, Murray Grey, Pinzgauer, Red Poll, Simmental, and South Devon.

You provide the land, water and shelter (which can be minimal) and the cattle work (graze and grow) on their own. Grazing cattle is a great use of your land and a happy life for your cattle.

Considering getting some cattle but are not sure if they are right for you? Should You Raise Cattle? will give you a list of 7 things you should have figured out before you decide to get cattle for your farm.

Is Raising Your Own Beef Worth It? goes over the numbers you need to know to figure up if raising your own beef will be worth it to you and your family.

Calm cattle are easier to work with

Occasionally though, you will need to get those gals inside a corral of some sort for a health check, periodic deworming or sorting off some of the herd to sell.

Maybe you see a cow calving and it looks like she could use some help or you just want a closer look at the baby.

These are all times when disposition of the cattle matters. It matters a lot.

So why not have cattle that are easier to handle and work around?

A big beautiful cow that freaks out when she sees you and runs through the barn wall (true story, it happened to my neighbor and the cow ended up here with ours for a few days) is going to be a tough gal to handle.

She may be a looker, but that’s definitely too feisty for me!

black baldy calf
A nice little show calf inside the barn with cows and smaller calves outside.

All cattle can get riled up and all cows will be leary of you being around her new calf-but does she try to flatten you or just keep close watch?

The calf’s disposition will be inherited from the cow

Another aspect to consider regarding cattle dispositions is that disposition is hereditary. A calm cow will have a calm calf.

Why not be populating your herd with cows you like to be around?

Good disposition is also very important for the health of your herd.

Calm cattle are going to grow better and stay healthier since stress negatively affects animals, just like stress negatively affects the health of people.

Calmer cattle use their feed more efficiently

Docile cattle more efficiently use their feed making them more economical to raise since they aren’t burning up energy while being fruity.

Attitudes are contagious, a few cows being nervous makes the rest of the herd edgy thinking that they should be nervous as well.

Finally a calmer cow is safer for you to be around. Cattle are big compared to people, even the small breeds handily outweigh you.

A beef cow can easily hurt you if she feels you are a threat. It only makes sense to start with an animal that will be easier to work with.

A few thoughts on containment-cattle push, sometimes a lot. An electric fence works well to keep them in.

If you are used to keeping smaller stock, like sheep, cattle will need more substantial gates and pens to keep them secure.

Usually this is because cattle are tall enough to reach over the shorter gate or non electric fencing and will smash it down when trying to reach something on the other side.

These animals are not being overly difficult, they are just being cattle.

Docile Beef Cattle Breeds

  • Blonde d’Aquitaine
  • Beefmaster
  • British White
  • Devon
  • Galloway
  • Gelbvieh
  • Hereford
  • Lincoln Red
  • Maine Anjou
  • Murray Grey
  • Pinzgauer
  • Red Poll
  • Simmental
  • South Devon

Blonde d’Aquitaine is a French breed

The Blonde d’Aquitaine is a cattle breed from the Garrone River region of France and is a combination of three lines of cattle all native to the area. The Blonde d’Aquitaine was imported to the U.S. in 1972.

Blondes are a larger breed with bulls weighing 2,600 pounds and cows averaging 1,700 pounds.

They are known for having a docile disposition, calving ease and heat tolerance.

Blondes color can range from nearly white to brown, but generally as the names suggests they are blonde.

The Beefmaster is originally from Texas

The Beefmaster is a common breed mostly found in the hot, dry regions of the U.S. Beefmasters were developed in Texas to give a higher yielding carcass on cattle with heat and insect resistance.

Tom Lasater was a rancher in Texas wanting more meat on his Brahman cattle.

The original cross he used in the 1930’s was 25% Hereford, 25% Shorthorn and 50% Brahman. This cross combines insect and heat resistance with good meat quality.

He chose six traits to breed for and completely ignored non commercial traits like color so the Beefmaster can be any color or pattern.

The six founding traits of the Beefmaster are 1. disposition, 2. fertility, 3. weight, 4. conformation, 5. hardiness, and 6. milk production (to ensure fast growing calves).

If you are in a hot area give Beefmaster a look as your breed of choice.

Unlike the rest of these breeds, Beefmaster is selected specifically for hardiness in heat.

British White are polled cattle

The British White cattle are originally from East Anglia, England. They are also called Polled White Park. The British White was imported to the U.S. in 1941 and again in 1976 and 1989. The breed society formed in 1976.

British Whites are known for being hardy, having good quality beef, and a gentle disposition. Bulls weigh 1,500 pounds and cows weigh 1,000 pounds.

The White Park cattle look very similar to the British White so be sure to look for polled (no horns) animals.

British White have an all white body with black points (like a Siamese cat) meaning the eyes, ears, nose, hooves and hair on the end of the tail are all black.

Devon cattle are a rare breed

The Devon is originally from the counties of Somerset and Devon in England. Other names for this breed are Beef Devon, North Devon, Red Devon and Red Ruby.

The Devon was also split into separate lines with the meatier stock used as beef and the cows with more dairy character used as a dual purpose cow, now called the Milking Devon.

The Devon bulls weigh 2,200 pounds and the cows weigh 1,100 pounds. Devons are known for being adaptable, early maturing, having a stocky frame and both cold and hot weather tolerance.

As you may have guessed from some of the alternative breed names these cattle are a beautiful ruby red color.

The Devon is also relatively difficult to find because it is a rare breed.

Galloway cattle are from Scotland

The Galloway is from Galloway, Scotland. The breed herdbook was started in 1862. The Galloway and Angus were initially kept together but split in into a separate breed society in 1878.

Galloways were imported to the U.S. shortly thereafter. with the U.S. herd book starting in 1882.

Galloway cattle started as a dual purpose breed (cattle kept for both meat and milk production). Now Galloways are kept only for beef.

Galloway cattle are known for hardiness, ease of management and great mothering ability.

Galloways come in solid colors ranging from brown to more of a dun. The winter hair coat is shaggy. It has two parts long hairs to shed rain and shorter hair for insulation.

Gelbvieh cattle are also called German Yellow

The Gelbvieh is from Bavaria, Germany and is also called the German Yellow.

Gelbvieh was created by mixing four main triple purpose cattle starting in 1856 in Germany. The breed was producing true and therefore able to start a registry 1897.

Gelbvieh is known for fast growth, feeding efficiency and having an even temperament. The name Gelbvieh is pronounced “gelp-fee” and simply means yellow cow in German.

The common color of Gelbvieh is yellow but can be any where from cream to reddish to black. These cows have a bit of a roman nose and have a very strong, muscular conformation.

Bulls weigh 2,500 pounds and cows weigh 1,600 pounds.

Hereford cattle originated in Herefordshire, England

The Hereford is from Herefordshire which is just outside of London, England. Herefords came to the U.S. in 1847.

This is a very popular breed that can be found nearly anywhere farmers are raising cattle.

Herefords can be polled or horned, with each breed kept in separate registration associations.

Herefords are red cattle with a white face, underside and tail switch (the switch is the long hair at the end of the tail).

These cattle should be a beautiful cherry red and not have any black hairs any where on the body.

Hereford’s are so popular because they are fast growers, docile, and produce good quality beef.

Since they are so wide spread throughout the world they are also easy to find making Hereford a great choice for a new beef cattle raiser.

Lincoln Red are a larger cattle breed

The Lincoln Red is from Lincolnshire, England. Originally a dual purpose breed they are now bred for beef production.

Lincoln Reds are as the name suggests always red in color, some with occasional small white specks on the underline.

Lincoln Red is the largest British beef breed with bulls weighing 2,000 pounds and cows averaging 1,500 pounds.

These cattle started off as part of the Shorthhorn breed but were separated off into their own breed in 1894.

They are known for the ability to thrive on less than great feed, fast maturity, easy calving, and having a high dressing percentage (more meat on the carcass and less bone). Lincoln Reds are docile.

Maine Anjou originated in France

The Maine Anjou originated in Brittany, France in the 1830’s. Durham, another name for Shorthorn, and Mancelle, a native Brittany breed, were crossed to produce a dual purpose breed suited to the area.

The Maine Anjou is a red and white breed that is the heaviest of all french breeds.

They are known for having a gentle disposition, good growth rate, frame sized (big bone structure) and feeding efficiency.

Maine Anjou bulls weigh 2,500 pounds and cows weigh 1,700 pounds.

Murray Grey are from Australia

The Murray Grey is a cattle breed from New South Wales, Australia. The Murray Grey started as an attractive cross of Angus and Shorthorn first selected for in 1905 with the breed society forming in 1963.

Murray Greys are known for high quality beef, early maturity, being docile and being good mothers.

These are stocky, low set cattle with bulls weighing 2,000 pounds and cows weighing 1,200 pounds.

As you may have guessed the color is grey, which can vary from light to dark and may have a few small white spots on the underside.

What you may not have guessed is the Murray Grey actually has black skin so the skin around the eyes and the end of the nose are black.

I have always preferred a black skinned cow, the dark pigment makes head look much more defined and attractive.

Pinzgauer cattle originated in the Austrian Alps

The Pinzgauer is from the Austrian Pinz Valley, which is in the Alps. The Pinzgauer is a friendly breed that adapts well to many areas.

Pinzgauer bulls normally weigh 2,500 pounds and cows average 1,500 pounds.

They are a chestnut brown color on the sides with white on the top line from the shoulders back to the end of the tail. The underside is also white.

Red Poll cattle are from England

The Red Poll is from the Norfolk and Suffolk counties of England. As the name suggestests these cattle are always a red shade from light to dark but always red and always polled (naturally do not grow horns).

The Red Poll is known for hardiness, maternal ability, lean beef and having one of the longest lifespans of all the British breeds.

Red Polls were imported to the U.S. in 1873.

Red Poll for those who are interested would make a great homesteading type cow because of it being easy to get along with and a non picky eater. They also give a decent amount of milk.

Simmental cattle are from Switzerland

The Simmental is originally from Switzerland and has many names depending upon the country including Fleckvieh (Germany), and Pie Rouge, Montbeliard, and Abondance (France).

Simmentals were a triple purpose breed meaning they were developed and used for meat, milk and draft. This breed was officially recognized in 1862.

Now most people raising Simmentals raise them for meat. Their partial dairy heritage makes them better milkers so the calves will be able to grow faster.

Simmentals are currently the third most popular beef breed in the U.S.

The main characteristics of a good Simmental are good mothering, a docile disposition, good beef quality and being a hardy animal.

Simmentals can come in any color there is no color specification at all. Most of the stock I see is black, especially if you are using Artificial Insemination, all the current bulls available are black.

I always like the blonde body color with the white face-that is a beautiful cow!

South Devon are dark red cattle

The South Devon is a separate breed from the Devon mentioned above. South Devons are originally from South Hams, near Devon, England.

They are known for being docile, having a long lifespan and being resistant to heat and insects.

The South Devon were mainly kept on small farms as a dual purpose breed providing milk and oxen for draft power.

The South Devon is a brownish red color. This is an easy way to distinguish it from the Devon and the Sussex, both of which are similar looking cattle breeds but Devons have a much darker red coat.

Crossbred cattle may be a better choice for beginners

I know this is an article about cattle breeds, but please consider getting some crossbred cattle for your starter herd, if there are some in your area that you like and are based on some of the breeds listed above.

Crossbred cattle will not be registered breeding stock, if that is a concern of yours, but are likely to be a bit more beginner friendly, as in bounce back from your mistakes, than a purebred individual.

Smaller cattle will be more efficient to feed

Here is something you may not be running across in your information search, small framed cattle are more efficient to feed. By small framed, I mean shorter at the hip, yet still very wide in bulls and feminine in cows.

By “more efficient to feed” I mean they gain weight on less feed. The feed is whatever you give them, grass or hay, it doesn’t matter. (This has nothing to do with grain feeding.)

Look up some talks by Johann Zeitsman of Southern Africa or Jim Elizondo of Real Wealth Ranching.

They both give excellent information on they body type of cattle you should be selecting with plenty of pictures showing small framed, great looking cattle that are making their owners money on grass.

The reason I’m giving you these two sites to start your search with is that most of the information you’ll find on raising cattle focuses on bigger cattle, bigger cattle.

Those bigger cattle will finish at a higher weight, but they’ll do it much later and at a much higher cost to you! Since your biggest expense with raising cattle is feed, why not start out with cattle that grow more for the feed you provide?

Read Pharo Cattle Company information and insights

Consider looking into Pharo Cattle Company genetics. Check out their website and click around to see what they believe in and what they have to offer. If I were looking to get started in cattle, I’d start here.

Pharo offers articles, podcasts, great bull information and multiple YouTube videos. Seriously, spend some time reading over this site and think about how you could set up your herd to benefit you, your land and your herd the most.


A Field Guide To Cows by John Pukite; and the Beef Checkoff website

Related Questions

Which breed of beef cattle is best?

The best breed of beef cattle is the breed that suits your area and the way you want to manage your herd.

There is no such thing as the one perfect breed. All breeds have advantages and disadvantages.

What are the most common beef cattle breeds?

The most common beef cattle breeds in the U.S. are Angus, Charolais, Hereford, and Simmental.


What Is Heritage Breed Pork? Sorting Out The Confusion

Berkshire pigs on pasture

Heritage pork and heritage pig breeds are hot topics! Everyone is talking about heritage pork, but everyone seems to have their own definitions.

The information is confusing, at best! Now to the big question, what exactly is heritage breed pork?

Heritage breed pork is pork from a traditional breed of pigs. 

Actually, that definition looks pretty straight forward to me. A heritage breed is a breed that has been established over many generations from a specific area.

This means the heritage breed will have specific traits that it has been selected for to suit the conditions of the area it is from, those are the traits that make the breed unique.

Best Breeds Of Pigs To Raise For Meat goes over my recommendations for the best pig for beginners.

No argument there, so what’s all the fuss? The next point is where people start to get their hackles up.

The biggest difference in opinions I can find centers on this question: are traditional breed pigs that are raised in a traditional way (non confinement farm) called heritage breeds?

Where this definition gets murky is when you consider that certain breeds that have been established for hundreds of years, something that I would easily call a heritage breed, can and is used in large volume commercial agriculture.

Berkshire and Yorkshire are both traditional breeds

The Berkshire is the prime example here.

Berkshires are very popular for herd sires on both small and large farms and rightfully so since they are renowned for intramuscular fat (marbling) and wonderful flavor.

Berkshire boar
My Berkshire boar, Toby.

Berkshire is the breed most commonly used as breeding stock on the farms and in the companies selling heritage meat. My Berkshire boar, Toby, is pictured above as an example.

Yorkshire, called Large White in England, are also a heritage breed. Yorkshire pigs have maintained popularity with small and large farms alike, yes, even confinement farms.

The Best Breeds For Pig Breeding Stock goes over the things you should consider when buying your starter herd of pigs.

Traditional breeds can be heritage pork

Yet, if you are defining heritage as a traditional breed, no one that I have seen ( I look around for this information all the time) is raising Yorkshire pigs and calling them a heritage breed.

However, it only makes sense that Yorkshire would qualify as a heritage breed if Berkshire qualifies as a heritage breed.

Both breeds have a long history as a purebred and both breeds are currently used on commercial farms.

I just picked Yorkshire as an example.

Multiple breeds that are commonly used commercially are also listed as producing heritage breed pork. (Two breeds that quickly come to mind here are Duroc and Hampshire.)

Rare breeds can be heritage pork

Another side to consider is the implied necessity that the the breed of pig that the heritage pork is originally from is a rare breed.

This is the main concern of the rare breed conservationists.

The rare breed advocates think that pork can only be called heritage breed pork if it is exclusively from breeds that are rare (based on low population numbers) not just breeds that are traditional.

I have found this to be the main point of confusion regarding heritage breed pork.

There are multiple rare pig breeds

Check out The Livestock Conservancy for a list of rare breeds in the U.S.

They have a great site with plenty of information on all of the American rare breeds, including pictures and details on where to get them if you are interested.

Not in the U.S.? No worries, many rare breed conservation societies are established around the world, look them up.

Heritage pork can be large farm

Consider that the conditions in which the pigs are raised is also an important aspect of heritage pork.

A heritage breed, however that is defined, can still be raised in a confinement farm style.

berkshire cross sow with newborn piglets
This is Marta. She is 3/4 Berkshire and her piglets were sired by a Berkshire boar.

Small farm heritage pork is available

If you are wanting to support small scale, hands on farming, animal husbandry, and regenerative farming practices make sure the meat you buy is from farms that “walk the talk”.

By “walk the talk” I mean, they are doing what you think they are doing. Ask about pasture or woodlot raised, bedding, freedom to roam, shade and diet of the pigs before you buy.

You want pork from pigs that were able to be active and act like pigs, rooting is key. When the pigs can root around and eat some forage, now you are getting somewhere!

Please note: sometimes (in the winter, for example), it is appropriate to have pigs in a building. As long as the pigs have rooting opportunities and plenty of room, they will be happy, healthy pigs that will make great pork.

Want to raise your own pork? Consider reading my article When To Get A Feeder Pig for more details regarding raising your own pigs.

Shopping for pork? Be sure of what you are buying

Once something easy, like putting the word heritage on meat packaging to get shoppers to pay more, you as a shopper will see heritage stamped on near everything in the meat department.

Common sense says this is just advertising talk, not really what you are wanting to buy. Small scale, lovingly cared for heritage breed pork can not be found in a chain store.

For this article I have grouped well established pig breeds that most people would consider heritage breeds into two groups: traditional heritage breeds and rare heritage breeds.

Traditional Heritage Pig Breeds

  • Berkshire
  • Yorkshire
  • Duroc
  • Hampshire
  • Poland China
  • Spotted
  • Landrace
  • Chester White

Traditional Heritage Pig Breeds  are the long established breeds of pigs currently popular enough (at least in the U.S.) that they are pretty easy to find if you just look around a bit.

For instance, these are breeds that I normally see at the local weekly feeder pig auctions.

Generally speaking, these are breeds of pigs that have maintained their popularity through the years.

Traditional breeds continued to be used as breeding stock in the U.S. because they have specific traits that transitioned well to larger more confinement oriented farming operations.

Not all pig farmers chose to get really big. Some farmers kept to a smaller less industrial system and continued on raising pigs as always.

Either way, the traditional breeds are well represented in the U.S. pig industry because of their adaptability and taste.

Rare Heritage Pig Breeds

  • Tamworth
  • Red Wattle
  • Large Black
  • Mulefoot
  • Gloucestershire Old Spot (GOS)
  • Hereford

Rare Heritage Pig Breeds are breeds of pigs that are very low in total population, at least in the U.S., so much so that these pigs require some research to find.

These breeds are around, but not something I normally see at the auction. It can occasionally happen, for instance I saw a pen of Red Wattle feeder pigs at the sale a few months ago, but that was unusual.

Rare heritage pig breeds started out just like any other breed-a local population of farmers breeding for specific traits and selecting the best pigs over time.

For some reason or another, usually being too fatty or not preforming well in a confinement system, these breeds did not transition well into modern pig farming therefore declined in popularity.

Interestingly enough, many of the rare heritage breeds are popular show pigs at the state fair (at least here in Ohio) -Tamworth and Hereford specifically.

Resources: The Livestock Conservancy website

Related Questions

What is the difference between ham and pork?

Ham and pork are both meat from a pig. Ham is the thigh area of the back leg that is cured and usually smoked. Pork is the name for uncured meat from the pig.

What part of the pig is bacon?

Bacon is cured and smoked pork belly. Pork belly (uncured bacon) comes from the long abdominal muscles and fat layers that run from the ribs down the front of the pig to the back leg.

Need A Family Cow? 12 Breeds You Should Know

Brown Swiss cow and heifer in the background at the county fair

Thinking of getting your own cow? Fresh milk from your own cow is wonderful! It’ll ruin you for store milk, seriously.

Your cow’s milk and store milk are not even on the same planet when you consider taste or nutrition.

12 dairy cattle breeds in the United States are: Holstein, Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, Guernsey, Jersey, Milking Shorthorn, Dutch Belted, Milking Devon, Normande, American Lineback and Dexter.

If you are looking for a shorter list, you know, just the best, consider reading Family Milk Cow 5 Best Breeds, where you’ll get the short list of my top contenders!

BreedFamily cow potentialMain characteristic
(production too high)
high milk yields
Brown Swisshighcalm cow
Ayrshirehighhardy cow
Guernseyhigheasy to get along with
Jerseyhighmost popular
Milking Shorthornlow
(hard to find)
traditionally bred
cows are hardy
Dutch Beltedlow
(not beginner cow)
unique markings
Milking Devonlow (rare)colonial breed
Normandelow (rare)great for cheese
American Linebacklow (rare)hard to find
(must be from
dairy focused herd)
smaller framed cow
Crossbredhighgreat family cow choice
Let me walk you through the main points to look for when selecting your family cow.

Here are 12 breeds, some common some, more rare, of dairy cattle found in the U.S.

I have included my comments on the breed under the Homestead potential section.

12 Dairy Cattle Breeds to consider

We (my husband and I) have hands on experience with the majority of the breeds on the list.

Most of these dairy breeds we have owned. Holstein and Guernsey cattle experience comes from helping out other farmers we know.

If we don’t know anything about the breed first hand, then I point that out as well.

The Holstein is a milk machine

Holstein heifer calf
This is a really cute Holstein calf at the county fair. She’s a looker for sure!

Homestead potential? Low. Her crime? She’s too good of a milker! Holsteins are great cattle, but they are going to produce way more milk than you can use.

The Holstein is the most popular commercial dairy cow in the U.S. As far as milk production goes she is untouchable.

These gals are originally known as Holstein-Friesian being a combination of the cows from the province of Friesland in the Netherlands and the Holstein region of northern Germany.

Holsteins are larger sized, black and white cattle often weighing 1500 pounds. Her milk will be around 3.9% fat and 3.2% protein.

Holstein cows will average 23.713 pounds of milk per lactation. Fluid milk production is measured in pounds with eight pounds to the gallon.

So if you do the math here that is:

23,713 pounds of milk divided by a 305 day lactation =77.75 pounds of milk per day (we’ll round up to 78 pounds per day)

78 divided by 8 pounds per gallon =9.7 gallons of milk per day!

If you are looking into a family cow that is a lot of milk!

Generally speaking, most Holsteins will need at least some supplemental feed in addition to grass in order to keep on body weight, support a pregnancy and provide milk for you.

There is an exception here: A Holstein that is a sweetheart but too low of a producer for a commercial dairy is a possibility for a family cow.

What To Feed Your Family Cow goes over the nutrition needs of your favorite milk maker!

Brown Swiss are gentle

Homestead potential? Very high, if you have the space and feed for a bigger cow. Brown Swiss are wonderfully calm cattle, I love them. And they produce a good size calf!

The Brown Swiss is the oldest purebred dairy breed first imported to the U.S. in 1869.

Brown Swiss cattle are bigger boned with a larger frame than any other breed. This is a very substantial cow!

Brown Swiss come in a solid color ranging anywhere from grey to brown body color with black nose, tongue, hooves and tail hair.

Brown Swiss are docile, hardy cattle that graze well.

Being heavier bodied than most other dairy breeds, Swiss produce nice size calves to feed out as well. She will be a large cow weighing 1600 pounds.

Brown Swiss cow at a family farm
Brown Swiss cow in the center with Holsteins on both sides

Brown Swiss are bigger and longer than all other dairy breeds except for Holstein.

If you had a smaller breed cow before and are switching to Brown Swiss be aware she will need more space in the barn and in the milking stall. Well worth it -these are great cows!

Swiss have a higher component milk with 4.2% fat and 3.7% protein. Her total pounds for the year will be around 19,387.

These gals are very gentle and mild cattle. We had a Swiss named Twinkie in with our Jerseys.

We were concerned she might be pushy with the much smaller Jersey cows. Actually, it was the other way around!

The Jerseys liked to bother Twinkie but she would just ignore them by acting like they didn’t exist!

Ayrshires are hardy grazers

Homestead potential? Very high. Great choice, hardy and productive cows.

An Ayrshire bred heifer for sale at the 2019 Fall Dairy Sale in Wooster. She is lovely!

The Ayrshire is from Scotland in the county of Ayr first coming to the U.S. in 1822.

As with all animals from harsher climates the Ayrshire is bred to handle less abundant forages.

She is a red and white cow that can vary from nearly all red or all white to quite patchy but clearly defined colors-my favorite color pattern.

Ayrshires will reach 1200 pounds body weight and will milk 17,807 pounds of 4.1% fat and 3.4% protein milk per lactation.

These cattle are known to be hardy and good grazers.

Daily Care For Your Family Cow goes over the few things your cow needs to be happy and productive.

Guernsey have a wonderful attitude

Homestead potential? Very high. Calm, friendly cows. My husband wants a Guernsey for our next family cow.

The Guernsey cow is originally from the Channel Islands, specifically the Isle of Guernsey, that are off the coast of France.

Guernseys came to the U.S. in 1831 and were the most popular dairy breed by far for decades.

Golden Guernsey Milk was this breed’s main selling point-the golden part comes from the high beta carotene in the butterfat giving the milk a gold like color.

Guernseys are a light brown and white spotted cow weighing 1200 pounds. She will produce 16,290 pounds of milk with 4.8% fat and 3.5% protein.

The Guernsey is a gentle, fast maturing breed that grazes well.

Jersey has rich milk

Homestead potential? Very high. We have a Jersey.

She produces tons of milk on grass alone (3-4 gallons per day, no grain, milking one month) and reliably breeds back.

And she’s old-14 is our best guess, we lost track!

Next we have the Jersey. She is a cute smaller cow with large eyes and a dished face.

Aleene, our Jersey eating late winter grass.

Jersey cattle are from the Channel Islands (like the Guernsey cow)-this time the Isle of Jersey. Jerseys are an old breed that came to the U.S. around 1815.

Jersey cows are popular because of their high butterfat milk. This is the main breed we milked and the breed of our current family cow.

Jerseys are great grazers, friendly and tend to have an easier time calving than larger dairy breeds.

Most Jerseys will be at 1000 pounds or less of body weight making them the smallest of the recognized (major) dairy breeds.

These cattle come in a variety of colors some spotted some solid ranging from light brown to almost black.

The classic Jersey look is a fawn brown body with darker coloring of the head, legs and tail.

Jersey cattle are still popular on dairy farms today because of their high component milk.

Components are the nutrients in the milk that are not water- mainly fat and protein, that you get paid for in your milk check.

Higher components equals more money per pound of milk.

Jerseys will milk around 15,593 pounds per lactation with 5.1% fat and 3.8% protein.

Our Jersey gets grass or hay (no grain) and still produces 3 gallons or so per day.

Milking Shorthorn is hardy

Homestead potential? Very high. Milking Shorthorns are hardy, reliable cows.

The Milking Shorthorn is a dairy cattle breed from England near the Scottish border.

Milking Shorthorn and the Shorthorn (a beef breed) started off as the same breed.

They were selected for either milking traits or carcass traits and kept as separate breeds for quite some time now-the breeding lines were originally separated in the 1700’s.

Milking Shorthorns are red and white cattle ranging from nearly all white to all red to a mix called roan.

I love the dark red roan cows they are truly sharp looking gals.

They will reach 1200 pounds at maturity. Cows average 15,450 pounds per lactation with 3.9% fat and 3.3% protein.

Milking Shorthorn heifers also at the 2019 Fall Sale in Wooster.

The Milking Shorthorn is a good grazer, fertile, and hardy.

We have had a few of these cattle and for the most part they are a good take care of herself kind of cow.

Some have more dairy character (thinner build) than others but usually milking shorthorns are a sturdier cow that will have nice sized calves that would do great fed out as a steer.

If you are interested in a Milking Shorthorn, you should know the herd book has opened up to allow red genetics that are not Milking Shorthorn to be used in the pedigreed cattle.

This means that your Milking Shorthorn cow could easily be part Red Holstein!

That’s not a problem, but it will result in a higher producing cow that is closer to a Holstein than a Milking Shorthorn in performance.

Before you buy, ask if the breeder has been using anything other than 100% Milking Shorthorn genetics.

If they have, this cow may not have the hardiness that you are expecting to find in a more traditional type Milking Shorthorn.

Dutch Belted is eye catching

Homestead potential? Maybe. If you have cattle experience, sure. If you are a total beginner, no-choose a calmer breed for your first family cow. Great cow, but has too much energy for a beginner.

The Dutch Belted or Lakenvelder is from the Tyrol areas of Switzerland and Austria.

The name Dutch Belted comes from the white belt that goes completely around their body and that they were brought to the U.S. after being noticed in Holland where they were very popular at the time.

The Dutch Belted cattle are black on both front and back ends with a wide white belt going around the middle.

Dutch Belted cows weigh 1100 pounds and produce 12,000 pounds of milk per lactation. This is a rare breed with low numbers in the U.S.

That being said of the more unusual breeds listed the Dutch Belted has a higher milking potential than most of the other rare breeds.

We had some Dutch Belted that we kept in the herd when we milked cows for a living and they did as good as any of the more common dairy breeds provided they were fed as needed to produce more milk.

The Dutch Belted cow is a good grazer, fertile and easy calving.

Additionally this breed seems to cross well with other dairy breeds producing a versatile belted cross.

If you have some dairy cattle experience, Dutch Belted cattle are great. Dutch Belted cross cattle are wonderful, as well.

If you do not have any dairy cattle experience, start with another breed for your first cow and go with a Dutch Belted cow next time.

Sophie, a Dutch Belted Jersey cross cow
This is Sophie. She is a Dutch Belted Jersey cross cow. She is only 1/8 Dutch Belted, yet you can see how well the belted color pattern shows up in crossbred cattle.

Milking Devon were colonial cattle

Homestead potential? No personal experience with Milking Devon, however, (going off of the information I have been able to find) I would be happy to have one as a family cow.

The Milking Devon is from Devon, England where it was kept as a triple purpose breed providing meat, milk and draft all in one breed!

Milking Devons were brought to the colonies with the Pilgrims beginning in 1623.

These cattle are red- anywhere from dark to light occasionally having a white udder or tail and have white horns with a black tip.

Milking Devons weigh 1100 pounds and produce rich milk with no grain.

These cattle have a compact body, square set legs, and good udder structure.

Milking Devon is the original low maintenance, hardy cow for America.

They are also a popular breed choice for farmers looking to raise a team of oxen.

As I mentioned above, when we need another cow, I would definitely consider a Milking Devon, if we could find one!

For more information on Milking Devon, check out The Livestock Conservancy-Milking Devon Cattle, they are a wonderful source for information on unusual breeds of livestock.

Normande is a cheese superstar

Homestead potential? Very high. When we look for another cow, I hope to get a Normande.

The Normande is a dual purpose cow, bred for meat and milk, from Normandy, France.

She is red and white with speckles and stripes-called brindle.

These cattle can not be imported.

Any Normande here is from an imported embryo or is bred up in an upgrading plan by using Normande semen on a dairy cow and keep using Normande each generation until nearly 100% Normande is reached.

Normande cows weigh 1300 pounds and produce 14,000 pound of 4.4% fat and 3.65 protein milk per year.

Normande milk has higher casein levels making it ideal for cheese making since it produces 15-20% more cheese per pound of milk than other dairy breeds.

Normandes are an attractive package-calving ease, good grazers, high fertility, and good feed conversion.

American Lineback is unusual

Homestead potential? Maybe. Make sure she was raised as a dairy animal.

The American Lineback is an unusually colored cow having a solid colored body with a speckled edge line of white from the top of the head all along the back and down the tail.

The base body color can be black, red, or roan or have patches of one color on a contrasting color background.

American Lineback weighs 1,000 to 1,500 pounds and will produce 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of 3.5% fat and 3.8% protein milk per year.

Dexter is a small cow

Homestead potential? Maybe. Make sure she was raised as a dairy animal.

The Dexter is the smallest dairy breed weighing in at 700 pounds and standing about 40 inches tall.

Dexters are originally from Ireland. They are most commonly black in color but can also be red.

These small cows produce 8,000 pounds of milk per year with 4-5% fat and 3.5% protein.

Dexters are primarily grazers and do well with minimal barn space.

I have seen a few of these and would caution you to be sure the farmer you are purchasing your cow from raises his/her cows as dairy animals.

All of the Dexters I have seen are cute but they are being raised only as beef animals.

That is perfectly fine but doesn’t suit your purposes if you want a dairy cow!

The other concern I have is when I spoke to the breeders (granted this was just one farm) all they talked about was short legs not fertility, growth, conformation for longevity just short legs.

That is not a good choice of a trait to focus on when other factors are much more important to the health of the animal and the health of the breed.

If you ask how the breeder is making breeding selection decisions and the answers are cosmetic reasons, please look somewhere else for your cow.

Crossbreds are great family cows

Homestead potential? Very high! Chances are good to get a great, hardier than most cow with a more reasonable price than a purebred

The Crossbred is not a specific breed, but a combination of two or more breeds put together to get the outstanding traits from the parent breeds all in one cow.

Crossbreds are great cows that will do everything for you a purebred will do and actually be a bit more hardy and adaptable than a purebred.

Crossbred cattle will also be more affordable than a purebred, especially once you start looking at the rare dairy breeds.

The obvious drawback of a crossbred is that if you want to raise purebred livestock she is not purebred.

However, you always have the option of grading up by consistently using the same breed of bull on each generation so each calf is more genetically than the previous generation.

Right now we are using Angus ( a beef breed) to breed our Jersey cow.

We are getting way more milk than we need from the Jersey so we cross with a beef sire to get more hardiness and a sturdier body in the calves.

So far, we have a nice looking steer (castrated male) able to take care of himself with no grain and this year’s heifer (young female) calf who is doing well, growth wise.

A family cow turns grass to milk

Dairy cattle are kept on farms all over the world because of the cow’s ability to convert renewable and regenerative feed sources like grasses into milk.

We, as eaters with a simple stomach, need some help here because our digestive system cannot use the tough plant fibers in grasses and hay.

Why Does A Cow Eat Grass is an article I wrote explaining more about the cattle digestive system if you want to learn more.

People can’t eat grass, but grass builds soil

What do we do? Having land in pasture is great for the soil life, builds organic matter and eliminates erosion (all great stuff!) but we can’t eat that grass!

We do what people have done for centuries-let animals harvest the land for us.

This way instead of us gathering 120 plus pounds of grass per day (that we couldn’t eat anyway) we take care of one cow she eats the forage and we “gather” the milk.

Looking around you will see there are lots of breed choices for dairy cattle.

Once you and your family decide to start doing more to produce your own food and get a few of the smaller things done like chickens or a garden it might be time to step up your game and try a cow of your own.

There are many more dairy breeds worldwide that I did not put on this list.

I only included animals that if you live in the U.S. you can find these breeds or cross breed your cow to one of these breeds using A.I. (artificial insemination)

Cautions required before buying a cow

A few words to the wise:

1. If you have zero or very little livestock experience please start with smaller animals and work up to cattle. Cattle are wonderful animals to be around but not a wise choice as a first animal project for a total beginner.

2. When looking into getting your first cow (or any animal) make sure the farm you get her from has the same priorities as you do and is managing their animals in the way you want to manage yours. For example, if you want an easy calving cow don’t get her from a farm that has 24 hour monitoring to pull calves (during a difficult birth) unless you are going to do that as well.

3. Make sure the selection criteria for the breed are for attributes that make sense. For example selecting for short legs is a poor choice. Whereas, selecting other traits like longevity, calving ease, and/or being a docile easy to get along with animal are very important to you and to maintaining the quality of the breed so are excellent logical and meaningful criteria.

Resources: Canadian Dairy Information Center 2017 Dairy Breeds Comparison Chart; The Family Cow Handbook: A Guide To Keeping A Milk Cow by Philip Hasheider

Related Questions

Which cows give milk?

All breeds of cows of give milk once they have a calf. Dairy breeds are cows that have been selected over generations to produce more milk than a beef breed.

Which is the highest milk producing breed of cow?

The Holstein produces the most milk per year compared to any other breed of dairy cow. Holsteins are also the most popular breed of dairy cattle in the U.S.