The need to know where your food comes from is one of the most common reasons many people decide to farm. Most folks get started with a garden and maybe a flock of laying hens and a few goats. But, eventually, you may want to consider raising some larger livestock to improve your self-sufficiency, such as cows for meat or milk.
Obviously, adding large livestock gives you more control over where your food comes from and how it’s raised and processed. There are also other reasons to raise cattle on the homestead that are less common, such as using them as a work animal or for producing your own leather. They also provide large amounts of fantastic garden fertilizer in the form of manure.
Choosing to add a cow, or cattle, to your homestead is a big decision. Plan on doing a lot of research before you make a decision. You want to be sure that you have the proper education, infrastructure, and finances to take the best possible care of your new investment. Here are some of the basic things you’ll need to consider before adding cattle to your homestead.
Dairy Cow Basics:
Just one dairy cow can keep a family in milk and dairy products for most of the year. To produce milk, your cow will need to be bred either by a bull or through artificial insemination. Breeding is usually required once a year, but some cows will produce milk longer without being bred. Dairy cows can often get by on pasture for most of the year. Hay and grain are used to supplement during winter, if the grass is scarce, or if the cow is having a hard time maintaining her weight.
Many dairy cows can be milked for as much as ten to fifteen years, but their production will decrease over time, with the first five years being the most productive. Dairy cows require a serious commitment because they generally have to be milked twice a day. There are some tricks to get around this though, such as having the calf do the milking for you some of the time.
Some of the more common dairy cow breeds are:
1. Holstein: Holsteins are quite common and are easily recognized due to their black and white spots. They are known to produce large amounts of milk.
2. Jersey: The Jersey cow is a small cow that comes in all shades of brown. This breed makes an excellent family cow because they produce lots of high-quality milk, and they are sweet and docile in temperament.
3. Brown Swiss: The Brown Swiss is thought to be the oldest breed of dairy cow. Colors can vary from dark brown to silver. Their milk has a high protein to fat ratio that makes it perfect for cheese making.
4. Guernsey: The milk of the Guernsey cow has a golden tone because it contains large amounts of beta-carotene. Guernsey cows come in most shades of fawn and gold, and they often have white legs and markings on their bodies.
Beef Cattle Basics:
Beef cattle are often raised on pasture whenever possible. Grain and hay are also added to the diet when needed to maintain or gain weight, or according to personal preference. They can eat as much as 3% of their body weight in feed each day, so be prepared for a massive feed bill if you plan to overwinter them. Beef cattle are hardy, tough critters that can handle both heat and cold better than most other livestock species.
Just a couple of beef cows will keep a family in beef year-round. Many folks purchase a steer or two when they are young and raise them until they’re ready to be butchered, rather than maintaining their own herd year-round.
Here are some common breeds of beef cattle to consider:
1. Angus: Angus cattle were brought to the U.S. from Scotland in 1873. Most commercial beef growers choose to raise this popular beef breed.
2. Hereford: Originally from Herefordshire, England, the Hereford cow is a prevalent beef breed throughout the United States. It is known to be an efficient, early maturing breed.
3. Limousin: Limousin cattle originated in France and are known for their deep chests and strong hindquarters. They are incredibly hardy, adaptable, and efficient which makes them perfect for meat production.
Pros of Raising Cattle on the Farm:
In summary, the main benefit of keeping dairy or beef cattle is having the ability to produce your own milk and meat. You will be more self-sufficient because you can provide all the milk, dairy products, and meat your family needs. Dairy cattle become part of the family and often bond with their family making them much like a pet.
Your family will be healthier because they are consuming the best quality dairy and meat possible. Grazing cattle on your pasture will improve the quality of your pasture over time. And, you will also have a better garden, thanks to all the fabulous fertilizer your cows provide.
Cons of Raising Cattle on the Farm:
Raising cattle isn’t cheap. Both dairy and beef cattle can be expensive to purchase, and they require a lot of food. High-quality pasture can cut down on the feed bill, but you still need to plan on providing large amounts of hay all winter. If summers are dry, your pasture may not do well, which will mean you must provide a lot of hay all summer, too.
Cattle need a lot of space and high-quality fencing. You should plan on having about 1.5 to 2 acres of decent pasture for each cow and calf. On the other hand, they can usually get by with a basic three-sided shelter in most climates. A proper barn usually isn’t required.
Cattle aren’t suited to every farm and situation, but if you educate yourself properly, you will be able to make the best decision for your homestead. There’s nothing better than farm fresh milk and grass-fed beef raised by your own hands.