How to Start a Cattle Farm on Small Acreage
Can Cow Farming be Done on a Small Homestead?
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Learning how to start a cattle farm throws you into the deep end of the homesteading pool. Cattle are large beasts and require strong fencing, water, grazing land or feed and a plan. Knowing why you are raising cattle on your property should be decided first. Breeding for feeder calves, milk production and meat for your table or market are the three main reasons to raise cattle. There are some breeds, such as the Jersey, which can fill all three of the needs. There are many cattle breeds to choose from. Some cattle breeds are chosen by what is available in your area. Miniature cattle should also be considered.
Cattle farming for beginners can be an overwhelming project or a huge success. My first recommendation for people who ask how we raise cattle on small acreage is to start small. In other words, when learning how to start a cattle farm, do not start with many heads of cattle. What is many? Of course, that is a vague term. We began with two Black Angus feeder heifers. Yes, you can raise the heifers for meat too. This also gave us the option of possibly breeding. We did not choose to use that option, but we had it available.
About a year after acquiring the first two feeder cows, we purchased three more. This was a tricky addition but the price was right. Looking back, I do feel that the additional three cows on our small farm were too much for the land. Cows are large, heavy animals. They eat a lot of hay if you do not have unlimited grazing pasture. The small amount of grazing pasture we did have was quickly eaten. We were able to barter for round bales of hay to keep the cows grass fed. The amount of hay you will need of course depends on the number of animals and what you have available for forage. In addition, dairy cows may require more protein than what is available in grass hay. Alfalfa hay is higher in protein and calories and may be needed to keep up the dairy cows production.
How to Start a Cattle Farm and Fencing Needs
Fencing is a mandatory part of how to start a cattle farm. Homestead fencing can be wooden board, cattle panels, barbed wire, all reinforced with two strands of electric wire. Cattle may not be the escape artists that pigs are, but they are very hard on fencing. Cows push against fencing while grazing and their weight pushing against the fence can cause the fence to fail. Checking and mending fences will become a part of your daily life when raising cattle.
What Will You Do With the Manure?
Manure management should be considered before you figure out how to start a cattle farm. Just as the amount of food and hay consumed is larger than for other livestock, manure is excreted in greater quantities too. If you are near other neighbors, or in more suburban areas, you may be required to remove the manure from your property rather than compost it on site. Cow manure is smelly. Those who do not raise livestock on their homestead may very well object to the aroma of cow manure wafting across the fence line. Of course, cow manure is a wonderful fertilizer but most of your neighbors won’t care if the smell lessens their enjoyment of being outside. Check the manure regulations first and be considerate of your neighbors when storing manure for future compost.
Taking Care of the Land
Your homesteading land will take abuse from the large size cattle. We were surprised at how much the ground needed to recover after two and a half years of raising a few beef cows. The manure that was not removed from the pasture quickly piled up. If we had a lot of rain for a few days, the field would turn to mud. The leftover hay from the round bales was smashed into the ground by the heavy cows. After we had all the cows sold and processed, the homesteading land needed to rest for over a year before we could use it for other livestock. Actually, we learned that the space we had available for cattle was not adequate. Next time we will need to increase the land for keeping cattle by at least two times the three acres we had to use. Each homestead’s land will react slightly differently. I think it is safe to say you will need more than a few acres to raise a small herd of cattle without damaging the land. Keeping one dairy cow will be different than raising five beef cows.
Parasite Control and Pasture Management
Develop a plan for parasite control. When figuring out how to start a cattle farm, figure on two years of keeping the cows healthy, fed and comfortable. Most larger grass-fed cattle farms will practice rotational grazing or forward grazing. These terms refer to how the cows are moved from grazing areas to new grazing areas to keep them from eating grass that is laying near the manure. The manure can break down during the time the cattle are grazing elsewhere, nourishing the land. Meanwhile, the parasites are not being eaten by the host (cow) and die off. The practice not only prevents over-grazing of the grass, it also interrupts the parasite life cycle. If your cattle need to stay in one field primarily, they will probably require a worming program to keep them healthy. Check with your local extension service to find out what you should be worming against in your area.
How to Handle Large Animals
Handling the cattle will be necessary, too. Large animals can be unpredictable with serious consequences. Developing almost a sixth sense about where the cattle are and reading their body language is key. Ears pinned back and eyes fixed on you is an aggressive stance. Learn the body language your animals are showing. A calm cow, serenely munching on hay can change direction in a moment if startled or frightened. Cows can also have very sweet dispositions. Dairy cows are usually more docile than breeds raised for beef. Dairy cows are also more used to people as they are used to being milked every day. Respect the size and temperament of your animals for a more pleasant experience.
We tamed our cattle using small amounts of sweet feed. The amount was small so we still considered our beef grass fed. This was a way to get the cows where we wanted them so we could work in the field or spray fly repellent, feed wormer and other herd management needs. While eating, our cows didn’t care what we were doing. The sweet feed was a treat and a good management tool for our use.
Learning how to raise cattle taught us many lessons about homesteading and raising food for our family. Cattle farming for beginners like us was a rewarding effort. We did enjoy the fresh taste of quality, grass-fed beef. Our freezers are getting empty again and it is time to decide how we will fill the need this time around. The biggest lesson we learned is that you can try to raise too many cows at one time on a small farm. Next time, we will either need to increase the space available or raise only two cows at a time.
What did you encounter when learning how to start a cattle farm? We’d love to continue the discussion in the comments below.