You may want to have a cow for your homestead to provide milk and produce a calf yearly for meat. You might want to have a herd of beef cattle to provide meat for your family and to sell for profit. You might want to have a string of dairy cows to milk for profit. No matter what your ultimate goal, you’ll need to start out your venture by understanding how to take care of a cow. In this article, we provide sound information on caring for cattle on your homestead, on your beef ranch or in your dairy. Read on to learn more on how to care for a cow.
What You'll Learn Today
- 1 How Do You Start?
- 2 How Much Pasture Does A Cow Need?
- 3 Cattle Health And Nutrition
- 4 Firm Up Your Mode Of Transport
- 5 Proper Selection Is The First Step To Success
- 6 Keep Your Cattle Safe
- 7 How To Feed Cows
- 8 How Do You Know How Much To Feed A Cow?
- 9 Keep A Close Eye On Your Cattle
- 10 Keep Your Facilities Clean
- 11 What About Breeding Your Cow?
- 12 What Do You Do With The Calf?
How Do You Start?
The first step you should take, whether you are procuring an individual cow to meet your family’s milk and dairy needs or purchasing an entire herd of beef or dairy cattle, is to make sure that you have the finances for the venture. Even one cow costs a pretty penny when you think of feed, housing, water and veterinary expenses. Before you set out, make sure that you have ample income and enough set aside to properly fund your venture.
The next thing you’ll need to do is set up your facilities. Even if you’re keeping just a single milk cow, you’ll need to have a safe and sturdy shelter for her with an easy to clean, slip resistant floor. Making certain that your facilities are safe, clean, comfortable and inviting helps keep your cattle calm, and this is very important because it makes them easier to handle, improves the quality of milk and meat and ensures safety.
You’ll also need a strong pen to separate cattle for veterinary care and other necessary handling. An open, sheltered loafing area is another important addition which provides protection from the sun and is a good place for feeding multiple cattle.
Contented cattle kept in a safe and clean environment are far less likely to experience illness and accidents which can lead to down cow challenges. A down cow is one who is unable to stand on its own. There are many reasons this might happen, and quite a few of them can be prevented by keeping your property in good order.
For more on down cows and how to get a down cow up, see our comprehensive article.
How Much Pasture Does A Cow Need?
It is possible to keep one cow on one acre of good pasture land, but it’s better to have a couple of acres per cow and to set your pasture up in a way that allows you to rotate them from one place to another. Ideally, you’ll want to graze your cows on one area and cut hay on another area, then switch them.
Unlike goats and sheep, cattle need high quality pasture. If you don’t have good grazing for your cows now, you’ll need to improve the quality of your pasture land. One way of doing this is to plant clover, alfalfa or other legumes in advance because they add nitrogen to the soil and improves the likelihood of good grass in the future.
Having ample good grazing space for your cattle can save you a lot of money. When you keep your cows in a situation that is as close to nature as possible, they can get most, or all of their nutrition from grazing during the spring and summer months and well into the fall. This saves money on feed, hay and veterinary bills.
Keep in mind that a single cow can eat as much is a ton of hay through the winter months, so if you don’t have enough land to produce the hay you need, you’ll need to find a convenient, reliable, affordable source of hay for your cattle. You should also set up secure, dry storage so that you can stock up on hay as soon as it’s cut. That’s when the prices are lowest.
Good Pasture Needs Good Fencing And Ample Water
In addition to having safe shelter for your cow or cattle, you’ll also need to have sturdy, safe fencing. Be sure the fence all the way around your pasture is at least four feet high and is strong enough and tight enough to keep your cattle in. You can use six-strand barbed wire or high tensile wire, or you can use woven wire. The latter is less likely to result in accidents and injury.
Remember that in any area where your cow or cattle will be staying, there must be good access to plenty of fresh, clean water. Cattle need to be able to drink as much water as they want at any and all times. When circumstances are challenging, a cow can drink as much as 20 gallons of water daily.
Cattle Health And Nutrition
Before you ever allow a cow to step hoof on your place, you’ll need to be sure that you have a good source of high quality feed, forage and silage. Silage is similar to hay, it is made from a variety of green, leafy crops. It is chopped and preserved via fermentation and acidification. Silage is specifically prepared for ruminant animals (i.e. sheep, goats and cattle).
You must also be certain of having a good, safe storage space for your feed, hay, silage, supplements and other supplies. You should never feed any spoiled, musty or moldy hay or feed. Eating poor quality feed can sicken your cattle or simply make them stop eating.
Cattle may stop eating for a number of reasons, including poor feed, too little feed and/or illness. For more on what makes a cow stop eating, see our comprehensive article.
In addition to having ample, high quality food on hand for your cow or cattle, you’ll want to be sure to establish a good working relationship with your local veterinarian and your agricultural extension agent. Both of these professionals are indispensable in helping identify health problems with your cattle and keeping you on track in terms of vaccinations and worming.
Stock Up On Fly Control Products
Cows produce a lot of manure, and that attracts a lot of flies. Flies spread diseases and can cause skin irritations and even open wounds. Luckily there are lots of ways to control flies in your cow barn and on your property.
Talk with your local ag extension agent to find out which flying pests are most problematic in your area. He or she will have good recommendations on both chemical and non-chemical fly control options that work well in your locale.
Firm Up Your Mode Of Transport
Before you begin cattle shopping, be sure that you have a good, safe way to transport your animals. Purchase or rent a trailer and inspect it carefully to be sure that it is safe and clean before you set out.
Don’t take cleaning lightly if you are using a secondhand trailer, a borrowed trailer or rented one. It’s easy for cattle to pick up germs left behind by the last occupant. Give the trailer a thorough scrubbing before you put your new cattle into it.
Be certain that the floor of the trailer is skid resistant, and put down a good thick layer of straw or wood shavings to provide some cushioning. Be sure that the air vents on the side of the trailer are open the right amount to allow good circulation while protecting the animals against excessive heat or cold.
Proper Selection Is The First Step To Success
When choosing cattle, naturally you’ll want to be certain that no matter which breed you select, the animals are healthy and strong. Look for these qualities:
- Smooth, Easy Moving Joints and Legs
- Smooth, Regular Breathing
- Clean, Relatively Dry Nose
- Bright, Clear, Alert Eyes
- Full, Round Silhouette
- A Calm Manner
- No Coughing
If you’re uncertain as to how to choose strong, healthy, promising animals, seek out the help of someone who is more experienced. A professional cattle rancher, your vet or your ag extension agent may be able to help you.
Raising Cattle 101
Good Handling Begins at Purchase
Once you’ve chosen the animals you want, be sure to load them up in a quiet and calm manner. Contrary to popular belief, shouting, whistling and waving a lariat in the air is not the way to handle cattle.
If you behave in a calm and rational manner when you load them onto the trailer, they are far less likely to get hurt. They are also far more likely to be ready to load up easily the next time you need to take them somewhere.
Keep Your Cattle Safe
Once you get your new cow or cattle home, don’t just turn them out into the pasture. Instead, keep them up in a small corral with shelter so that you can observe them for a few days and make sure that they’re all right. This also gives them a chance to get used to their new surroundings so that they will be less likely to hurt themselves when they are turned out onto open pasture.
Keep them up and feed them well for about a week, and observe them closely for any injuries that they might’ve gotten during transport or any illnesses that you may have missed. Keep them separate from your other animals for at least three weeks to prevent transmission of any undetected diseases.
This is a good time for your veterinarian to come out and give your new animals their initial examination and any vaccinations they may need.
Once your cattle are acclimated and you are sure they are completely healthy, you can turn them out on pasture. With good fences in place, they should be pretty safe, but you may also wish to have some sort of protection animal to run off stray dogs, coyotes, wolves, weasels and large raccoons. A donkey makes a good protection animal for a herd of beef cattle.
If you are going to get a donkey, do as the presenter of this video says. Get a young jenny, introduce her to the herd so that she will bond with them, and don’t get another donkey. Individual donkeys are good guard animals. More than one will bond with each other.
How To Feed Cows
Cattle are ruminants, so they have four stomachs. It’s important to feed them correctly to encourage the right balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut to facilitate their multi-step digestion processes.
When dealing with new cattle, it’s important to find out what they’ve been eating and lay in a supply of that feed at least for the first few weeks. Make any changes in feeding very gradually over the first 7 to 10 days. Changing feed abruptly can throw the helpful gut bacteria off balance and causes undesirable changes in the pH level of the cows digestive juices.
You may be surprised at how much cattle can eat. Cattle being raised for meat production or milk production need to eat about 3% of their total body weight in feed daily. Additionally, they should have forage or silage available constantly to keep the digestive system busy. This keeps it working correctly; additionally, cattle left without anything to nibble on will become anxious, and this is detrimental to their overall health and quality and amount of milk or meat they produce.
You may need to use high calorie supplemental feed during times of drought or when your cows are pregnant or nursing calves. Some good choices include:
- Cottonseed Meal
- Soybean Meal
Talk with your vet and/or your ag extension agent to choose the right vitamins and minerals to add to your animals’ diet for best results. It’s always a good idea to keep a mineral block and a white salt block available at all times. It’s best to present these under shelter so they are not destroyed and wasted by rain.
How Do You Know How Much To Feed A Cow?
The exact amount you’ll feed your cattle will depend a great deal on how good your pasture is and what type of cattle you have. If you’re keeping an older cow just for milk production for your family, she will eat less that a young dairy cow of prime production age who is being milked several times daily for maximum milk production.
A family milk cow will also eat quite a bit less than beef cattle being raised for meat. You’ll need to take all of these factors and more into account when determining exactly how much to feed the cattle you have. Talk with your vet and/or your ag extension agent to determine exactly what’s needed.
Generally speaking, a family milk cow or a dairy cow will need a maintenance ration of feed to keep her health and body in good condition. She’ll also need a production ration to be able to make the milk you wish to collect.
For a commercial dairy cow, all of this feed will typically be made up of commercially produced feedstuffs and hay. Lucky commercial dairy cows also get grazing time on fresh pasture.
Your family dairy cow may need about 20 pounds of hay a day along with a substantial grain ration, grazing time and maybe some root vegetables like carrots, turnips and so forth, during the winter months.
Keep A Close Eye On Your Cattle
If you’ve set everything up properly, you should have nice, healthy cattle. Even so, it’s a good idea to look over your cow or your herd every day with a sharp eye out for problems. Remember to always move calmly and speak quietly when dealing with your animals. Keeping a calm and quiet environment will help them to stay healthy and injury free.
Keep track of how much your animals eat, and take note if consumption increases or decreases. Lack of appetite can be a harbinger of illness. If your cattle are living on pasture, you may have a harder time keeping track of the amount they eat. In this case, keep a close eye on their physiology. Happy, healthy cattle living on pasture should have nice round stomachs.
If you’re handling your cattle every day, it’s a good idea to keep a chart of vital signs on each one. For a healthy, mature cow, vital sign should look like this:
- Temperature 100.4 to 103.1°F
- Pulse 40 – 80 beats per minute
- Resting respiration 10 – 30 breaths per minute
By keeping a close watch, you’ll easily know when anything is amiss. Contact your veterinarian right away when you see a significant difference in normal vital signs.
Talk with your veterinarian about establishing a regular schedule of vaccinations and worming. Follow it closely along with any other advice your vet may give you.
Raising Cows – The Basics
Keep Your Facilities Clean
You’ll soon find out that cattle produce a great deal of manure. You have to do something with that manure, but luckily, it’s actually a very valuable resource for your farming venture.
Cow manure, along with the manure of any other livestock you may have on your place, can be composted and worked back into the soil to improve the quality of your pasture and the productivity of your vegetable garden.
If you’re very ambitious, you can also use manure to produce heat and energy for your home and/or your barns. For more on cow manure management, see our complete article on how much manure a cow can produce.
Remember That Keeping Cattle Is A Big Responsibility
If you’re keeping a herd of beef cattle on open pasture, you may be able to have a break from time to time and leave them unsupervised for a few days here and there.
If you have a milk cow or a dairy, you’ll need to milk every day or make arrangements to have someone milk for you. It is also possible to establish a breeding schedule for your dairy cattle that will allow you and them a break during the winter months.
To learn more about what happens if you don’t milk a cow, see our complete article.
What About Breeding Your Cow?
If you just have one family cow, and you’re keeping good health records, you can talk with your vet about using artificial insemination to produce your annual calf. This is by far the easiest, safest and least expensive way to breed an individual, homestead cow. When you use artificial insemination, you can choose from some very fine bulls and sidestep all of the hazards and inconvenience inherent in dealing with them personally.
To use artificial insemination, you’ll need to keep track of your cow’s vital signs, as mentioned above, and observe her symptoms to know when she’s ready to breed. A cow who is in heat may bellow and seem anxious. Her temperature may be slightly elevated, and she may exhibit some vaginal discharge.
When this happens, you’ll need to summon your vet and have him or her come running with the semen specimen which you will have chosen in advance.
If you have a herd of cows, you may want to keep your own bull; however, a bull is a labor-intensive and difficult creature. If you have fewer than a dozen cows, it’s not worth it to try to keep one.
The third alternative is to borrow a bull for a few months at a time or to take your cows or heifers to a bull who is standing at stud.
What Do You Do When Your Cow Is Pregnant?
Cow pregnancies last for nine months or two hundred and eighty days. If you’ve done everything that we’ve discussed so far and can provide your pregnant cow with a safe, healthy, clean environment and plenty of good food and water, you won’t have to do much. She should be able to sail through her pregnancy trouble-free and deliver her calf without help.
In the best case scenario, your cow should be living happily out in a field full of grass where she has her baby on her own, in the springtime, with no interference from you. If you must keep your cow indoors because of weather or some other circumstance, you’re inviting complications. In this case, you may find yourself needing to assist with extra padding and absorbent materials on the floor and you may even need to help with the actual delivery.
First Calf Heifer Calving
Keep an eye on things, and don’t be in too big a rush to help. Calving can take a while. Call your vet if your cow seems to be in trouble.
What Do You Do With The Calf?
What you do with your new calf depends a great deal on what your expectations of the outcome are. If it’s a beef calf on pasture, you can just leave him or her with the mother until it’s time for weaning.
Dairy calves are very often separated from their mothers right away so that the most milk possible can be taken from the mothers. It goes without saying that separating cows from calves immediately after birth causes a great deal of distress for both.
It’s a cruel thing to do and should be avoided at all costs. Calves who are separated too early usually become ill and have little chance of survival. A cow who is distressed by having her baby taken away from her too early may not produce the best or the most milk.
If you’re keeping a homestead cow and producing a single calf for meat, you should leave the calf with the cow full time for at least a week so that it can get its fill of first milk. The colostrum in the first milk will help protect the calf and build up it’s immune system to keep it safe from illness.
After the first week, you can leave the calf and the cow together most of the time but give her a break overnight so that you can milk her first thing in the morning to get milk for your family. When it’s time to wean the calf, you can do so gradually and naturally and continue milking the cow until she begins to dry up. At this time, it will be time to breed her again and start the whole cycle over.