Selecting Cattle for Your Small Farm Find out Which Breed Best Suits Your Needs
By Heather Smith Thomas
There are so many cattle breeds and crosses that it’s hard to know which ones to choose when researching how to start a cattle farm. Cattle farming for beginners requires researching dozens and dozens of beef cattle breeds and composites, and a half dozen major dairy cattle breeds. There are also a number of minor cattle breeds that are often more attractive to the small farmer than they are to the big producer. You may want to raise animals that are bred for beef or dairy, or you might want a dual-purpose type of cow that provides enough milk for your family and also a good beeftype calf to butcher. What you select will depend on how much room you have and whether you want to have a small dairy or a beef herd, or just a cow or two to produce your own meat or milk.
The many cattle breeds and types of cattle have a wide variety of characteristics that make them unique. Some are better suited to certain environments or management systems than others. Some of the older cattle breeds are less popular today and small in number, but this does not make them any less suitable for beef production (or for dairy purposes on a small scale or for a pasture dairy). Under certain conditions, one of these cattle breeds may fit your goals better than a more popular breed. You may want to take a look at some of the minor cattle breeds or crosses that utilize these breeds when choosing animals that might best fit your interests, environment, resources, and ability to care for the animals.
Some breeds are very old, such as the Chianina — an Italian breed of huge cattle that goes back 2,000 years or more to the time of the Roman Empire, where they were used as oxen. Others (like Beefmaster, Santa Gertrudis, Brangus, Polled Herefords, Red Angus, Senepol, Hays Converter, etc.) have been created in the past several decades by selecting certain traits within an existing breed and concentrating on those (the red gene in Angus, or the polled mutation in Herefords) or by combining the genetics of older breeds to create a mix that becomes a new breed (like Beefmaster, Senepol, Santa Gertrudis, etc.)
Since there were no cattle in North America when settlers first arrived, they brought the breeds they were familiar with — from the British Isles or Europe. In more recent years cattle from other continents have also been imported, such as zebu cattle (including the Brahman) from India/Africa, the Wagyu from Japan, Watusi from Africa, etc.
The many beef breeds have differences in size (height and body weight), carcass traits (lean or fat), color and markings, hair coat and weather tolerance, and so on. Most cattle are horned and some breeds are polled. Some of the horned breeds have had Angus genetics infused into them in recent years, so the offspring are now polled and black — two traits that have become popular with many stockmen. In some of the traditionally red, horned European breeds like Salers, Gelbvieh, Limousin and Simmental, you can now choose black, polled versions if you wish.
Beef breeds are stockier and more muscled than dairy breeds. The latter have been selected for their milking ability rather than for beef production and the cows are finer boned, more feminine and have larger udders — giving much more milk. Many beef breeds were originally bred for large size and great strength so they could be used as draft animals to pull carts, wagons and plows, as well as for beef. When animals were no longer needed so much for draft purposes (after the invention of farm machinery and trucks), these large, heavy muscled animals were no longer used as oxen and were selectively bred just to create beef.
Many breeds (including Shorthorn, Brown Swiss, Simmental, Gelbvieh, Pinzgauer, Tarentaise) were used early on for milk and meat. Some of these breeds were later split into two registries, with different selected types for either milk or beef, while others are now raised mainly as beef animals. In Europe, for instance, the Simmental is a dual purpose dairy animal whereas in North America the breed has been more selectively bred as just a beef animal. The Shorthorn, on the other hand, has a registry for milking Shorthorns and another registry for beef Shorthorns.
Even though some breeds are similar in color, they are not the same in other traits. If you are familiar with the typical “type” and conformation of certain breeds, you can readily differentiate between a Red Angus and a red Limousin, Gelbvieh or Salers. These breeds have differences in body build, frame size, bone size, etc. Most of the modern, popular beef breeds are larger in size (and wean bigger calves) than some of the more rare and “old fashioned” breeds, but in many instances the latter can serve your purposes on a small farm — requiring less feed and often less care.
Selecting an Appropriate Breed for Your Farm
If you want cows that can do well in a pasture dairy (using grass rather than grain) or are interested, in producing beef in a natural environment or on a small farm or in a sustainable agriculture system (with minimal inputs), one of the minor breeds may work well for you. This type of production system often demands different qualities than do the intensive confinement systems that are common in modern dairies or beef production. Animals for low-input sustainable production must have the ability to flourish on forages alone, with greater forage efficiency, parasite and disease resistance, hardiness, maternal abilities, good fertility under marginal conditions, and longevity.
Many of these qualities have been ignored or minimized in popular breeds used for maximum production. Selection emphasis in modern breeds has been on fastest gain, higher weaning and yearling weights, or (in the case of dairy cattle) more milk production. Cattle have been bred for these traits, thinking these animals would be most profitable.
Stockmen working toward maximum production overlook the fact that maximum profit may not come from the animal that grows biggest the fastest (or gives the most milk) — if there’s more cost and labor involved. Often the hardier, smaller cow that needs less feed (and continues to produce calves and keep up an adequate milk flow on inexpensive grazing — without purchased feeds or grain and supplements) is more profitable.
She stays in the herd longer, producing a calf every year, making more money even though her calves are smaller or she gives less milk than a traditional dairy cow. She produces more pounds of beef, or more total milk (more cheaply) in her lifetime because she has more total calves and never came up open, or in the case of a milk cow is not “burned out” and culled from the herd at an early age. Dairy cows in pasture situations — not pushed for maximum production — may continue to produce well into their teens, whereas most dairy cows in the big confinement dairies (where they are fed huge amounts of concentrates so they can give more milk) often break down and are sold by the time they are four-to-six years old.
Animals that are hardy, and adaptable to various environments (thriving even in harsh or marginal conditions), are often less expensive to raise because they need less care and are productive without expensive feeds. Thus some of the minor or rare breeds can be more appropriate for sustainable agriculture systems than more common breeds. One of the reasons minor breeds are not as popular is that they do not produce as maximally and are not a good fit for intensive agricultural systems that push for highest performance. But if you want low input beef production, or a minimum labor grass based dairy system, you need a breed whose efficiency of production is more important than maximum production.
Many of the rare and minor breeds are more adaptable in a variety of environments. In a beef operation, some of the lesser known breeds produce outstanding crossbred offspring, due to the great amount of hybrid vigor imparted to their calves. When matching animals to your own environment, you may want to consider raising or crossing one of these less popular breeds. There are many breeds to choose from; the following list is just a sampling.
Minor Breeds That Do Well in Cold Climates/Rough Conditions
Some breeds can handle colder weather, wind and marginal forages better than others. In a northern climate (and if cattle will be foraging in rough conditions without pampering), these breeds perform better and stay healthier than cattle from a hotter climate.
Originally called the Kayloe, this ancient breed has not changed much since its beginnings in the rugged, Scottish Highlands where it survived on sparse, coarse native forage. These animals have impressive horns and long hair. Most are red, but individuals range in color from tan to black — with an occasional white and dun. As one of the hardiest breeds, they can survive in poor conditions where other cattle perish. First imported to North America in the late 1800s, ranchers on the plains found that during bad winters Highland cattle survived the worse blizzards — and broke trail through snowdrifts, enabling other cattle to make it to feed and water.
Calves are small at birth, but grow rapidly. Mature animals are small compared to most of the popular beef breeds; bulls weigh 1,200 to 1,600 pounds and cows weigh between 900 to 1,300 pounds. Due to their ease of calving, hardiness and dramatic level of hybrid vigor when crossed with other cattle, they are sometimes used in crossbreeding programs to produce efficient, hardy range cattle. Highland and their crosses produce an excellent beef carcass.
This rugged breed was developed in southwestern Scotland during the 16th century, an area not much less rugged than the Highlands. Larger than Highland cattle (mature bulls weigh about 2,000 pounds, with cows ranging from 1,200 to 1,400 pounds), the Galloway is polled, black (though a few are red, white or dun) and sturdy, with long shaggy hair that sheds in summer. They handle severe winter weather very well and keep foraging in deep snow when other cattle give up. They are good travelers, with rock-hard hooves. Galloway cattle were brought to Canada in 1853; the first ones in the U.S. were brought to Michigan in 1870. The belted Galloway has the same genetic background but for the past century has been considered a separate breed.
Calves are born small and hardy, and gain rapidly. Steers produce a very trim carcass with a high percentage of meat. Beef breeders in the U.S. during the early 1900s were impressed by the breed’s efficiency and beef quality; agricultural publications of that day predicted a great future for the breed, considering it much superior to the smaller, more fragile Aberdeen Angus.
Minor Breeds That Do Well In Temporate Climates and Lush Forage
Some breeds were developed in moderate climates, utilizing lush native pastures or improved pastures—producing maximum amounts of beef efficiently, without grain.
Devon cattle originated in southwestern England as draft animals and were later selected for beef production traits, producing flavorful meat on native grasses. This is a popular breed in countries like Australia, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa where few feedlots exist and cattle are finished on grass. Sometimes called Ruby Red Devons, these red cattle may be horned or polled. Mature bulls weigh 1,800 to 2,200 pounds, while cows weigh 1,200 to 1,400. Calves are small at birth, weighing 55 to 60 pounds.
Devons were first brought to North America in 1623 by early colonists for meat, milk and draft. They played an important role in early American agriculture and some were used as oxen pulling wagons west on the Oregon Trail. Hardy and adaptable, the Devon thrives in nearly all parts of the U.S. but the breed population in this country today is small.
Deep red in color, these cattle were developed in the 1840s in southern England (crossing two types of polled cattle in Suffolk and Norfolk counties) to utilize good pastureland, and were first imported to the U.S. in 1873. Originally bred as dual purpose (meat and milk), the cows are highly fertile and raise growthy calves. Calves average about 80 pounds at birth but grow fast. Mature bulls weigh about 1,600 and cows average 1,140 pounds.
Since the breed is not closely related to other beef breeds, it can be utilized in a crossbreeding program to impart exceptional hybrid vigor. Throughout its history it’s been used primarily for grass finishing (reaching market weight at a young age) and excels in meat quality (marbling and tenderness) without grain.
Minor Breeds That Do Well In Hot Climates
Unless cattle are well adapted to hot or humid climates, they suffer heat stress and are not very productive. Breeds that originated in cooler climates (British cattle or most European cattle) do not do well in southern regions of the U.S. that have extreme climate.
Several related breeds in the American Southwest and Gulf States are descended from Spanish cattle brought to North and Central American during the 1500s. The Spanish cattle were a wide range of colors and color patterns. Their descendents are still colorful, and the various breeds that evolved in the harsh climate of the southern U.S. (hot and dry in the Southwest, hot and humid in the Southeast and Gulf states) are hardy, fertile, and able to utilize marginal forages.
Texas Longhorns were the backbone of the early western cattle industry (able to thrive in rugged grazing conditions with no human care) until the imported British breeds supplanted them. Longhorns were not as beefy, and their horns posed a problem with transport to market when stockmen began shipping cattle by rail rather than driving them. The breed nearly disappeared in the early 1900s, but some were protected in a wildlife refuge. Renewed interest in the breed’s hardiness, foraging ability, long life and maternal traits revived it; today its numbers continue to grow.
Florida Cracker, Pineywoods cattle are closely related breeds that came from the same foundation stock as Texas Longhorns, but developed along the Gulf Coast in a much different environment. They are very small in size, with shorter horns than the longhorn, running wild for several hundred years in swamp and scrub lands (heavily wooded lowland areas). They are resistant to extremes of heat/humidity, insect parasites and disease and thrive on poor forage, producing calves until their late teens and early 1920s. Though cows are small, they produce excellent calves when crossed with other breeds. They nearly disappeared as a breed by the mid 1950s, due to crossing with Brahman, Hereford and Angus, and would have become extinct except for preservation efforts by a few farm families. In 1989 the Florida Cracker Cattle Breeders Association was formed to promote and preserve the breed and 400 animals were registered as foundation animals.
This polled red breed was developed in the early 1900s on the Virgin Islands (St. Croix) by crossing N’Dama cows from Senegal and Red Poll bulls from England— to create cattle that could do well in hot and dry or hot and humid climates. The N’Dama originated in West Africa, descending from humpless longhorn cattle of Egypt. The N’Dama is compact and well muscled, with light bones. The crossbred Senepol utilized very poor sub-tropical grazing conditions, thriving on whatever vegetation was available. These cattle (and their crosses with other breeds) are well suited to hot climates and low input beef production. They add heat tolerance to any cross, without sacrificing carcass quality, and hybrid vigor is greater than most other Bos Taurus combinations. Stockmen like their ease of handling, which makes them attractive to small farmers. Moderate sized (cows 1,100 to 1,200 pounds, bulls 1,600 to 1,800 pounds), they are early maturing and very fertile.
Senepol was recognized as a breed in 1948. A registry and herd book was established in 1976. Parent breeds are noted for easy calving. Red Poll contributed gentle disposition, fertility and maternal traits, along with excellent carcass quality. The N’Dama contributed heat tolerance and parasite resistance, making Senepol the only heat-tolerant Bos Taurus breed. Studies at Subtropical Agricultural Research Station in Florida showed that Senepol cattle cope with heat slightly better than Brahmans, and other studies show that Senepol graze for longer periods of time during hot days than Herefords (doing better in hot weather).
These medium-sized cattle have long, large diameter horns, a straight topline and sloping rump—and are solid colored or spotted. Some have a neck hump. Bulls weigh 1,000 to 1,600 pounds and cows 900 to 1,200 pounds. Calves are very small at birth (30 to 50 pounds) but grow fast because the cow’s milk is about 10 percent butterfat. The breed is heat tolerant, and their large horns serve as radiators to help dissipate body heat; blood circulating through the horns is cooled before returning to the body. The cattle handle weather extremes well, having developed in a climate where temperature may range from 20 to 120°F.
These cattle trace their African ancestry back more than 6,000 years. Forerunners of the breed were long-horned humpless cattle raised by Egyptian farmers in the Nile Valley, eventually spreading to Ethopia and southern parts of Africa. About 4,000 years ago the humped Zebu cattle from Pakistan and India reached Africa (with human migrations, taking livestock with them). After Zebu cattle arrived in what is now Ethiopia and Somalia they were crossed with the Egyptian Longhorn to produce the Sanga, which then spread to eastern Africa to become the base of many African breeds. The Sanga had most of the typical Zebu traits (neck hump, upturned horns, pendulous dewlap and sheath) but their modern descendents vary in size, conformation and horn size/shape due to selective breeding by different tribes. In early times the Ankole-Watusi were considered sacred by many tribes—providing milk but rarely used for meat, since wealth was measured in number of cattle.
Ankole cattle were brought to European and British zoos and game parks from Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and to America from European zoos in the 1920s and 30s and later became available for sale to private individuals. In 1983 a registry was created; some people use these cattle for roping, and some for meat production (due to breed traits of low fat and low cholesterol).
Other Minor Breeds that Appeal to Small Farmers
Some breeds are selected for their dual purpose characteristics (meat and milk) or ease of handling, or ability to thrive in marginal conditions.
These small cattle originated in southern Ireland in the 1800s, bred by farmers with small holdings in the mountains. The cattle foraged in rough country adjacent to the little farms and though they roamed freely they were known as the Irish House Cow. The breed may have begun by crossing the Kerry (small, fine-boned dairy breed descended from the Celtic Shorthorn, brought to Ireland 4,000 years ago) with another breed, perhaps the Devon. The first Dexters imported to America were not recorded; no distinction was made in those days between Dexters and Kerrys. The first recorded Dexters were imported in 1905.
Today the breed is few in number but there is growing interest in these small, gentle cattle since they need less feed than other breeds and thrive in a variety of climates. Mature cows weigh less than 750 pounds; bulls weigh less than 1,000 pounds. There are two varieties–the short-legged beef type and the long-legged Kerry type, but both can appear in the same herd, from the same matings, and both have good milk and beef production. Most are black, but some are red, and all have horns. Cows give more milk for their body weight than any other breed (including high producing dairy cows). Calves are born easily and grow fast, maturing by 12 to 18 months of age as finished beef.
This breed originated along the coast of Wales and has an excellent disposition; they were historically raised and tended by women. Harsh weather and poor grazing honed the breed’s ability to get by on minimal forage and they handle cold weather better than most breeds. They were first brought to the U.S. in 1966. Originally bred for milk and meat, the cows raise fast-growing calves. Mature cows weigh 1,000 to 1,300 pounds; bulls weigh 1,800 to 2,000 pounds. Cows are fertile and long-lived. The cattle are horned, but many U.S. breeders select for polled individuals.
This colorful French breed harks back to cattle brought to Normandy by Viking conquerors in the 9th and 10th centuries, evolving into a dual purpose breed. Some went to South America in the 1890s, where there are now four million purebreds (and countless crossbreds). They are adaptable and hardy, doing well in the Andes Mountains at elevations up to 13,000 feet, traveling long distances over rough terrain to utilize native forages. Carcasses have high muscle to bone ratio and lean meat that marbles readily. Cows weigh 1,200 to 1,500; bulls weigh 2,000 to 2,400 pounds. They have long, deep bodies and wide ribcages, and perform well on a high roughage diet. Calves are born easily and grow fast, and finishing beef animals have rapid gain on roughage alone, with no grain.
This breed traces back to belted cattle from mountain farms in Switzerland and Austria, highly prized for their milking and fattening ability. Some of the first imports to the U.S. were by P.T. Barnum in 1840 for his circus. These cattle flourished in the U.S. as a dairy breed until about 1940, but are now listed as critically rare by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They are attracting interest from farmers who utilize grass based beef and dairy programs, however, because of their easy calving, exceptional longevity and fertility, high meat yield and friendly disposition.
Traditional breeds can also work well, if you select wisely
Sometimes it’s easier to find cattle from more popular, traditional breeds, since you can probably buy them locally without having to look so far or travel a long ways to find, buy and bring them home. Look around your local region, talk to other small farmers, find out what types of cattle they are raising and what seems to work best for them. You may be able to select cattle from someone you know, who has a few to sell. Cattle that are adapted to your climate and conditions are often the best way to go, when you are just getting started. If you have a favorite breed, choose some good individuals from that breed — from a local, reputable stockman.
You don’t need a purebred (unless you are specifically interested in raising purebreds) nor even a herd of just one breed. Oftentimes a crossbred or composite animal is the best fit for a small farm because it combines the best traits of more than one breed and has the added advantage of hybrid vigor: more hardiness, better fertility, longevity, and increased production under more marginal conditions. Crossbreds or composites are often the most profitable cattle.
The individual traits of a given animal are also more important than what breed it is. There are outstanding animals and some poor ones, in every breed. Even if a certain breed is well known for feed efficiency and fertility or for sound udders, or “good disposition,” for instance, you still need to be selective; don’t buy any animal sight unseen. There are usually some individuals in every breed that don’t live up to the breed standard and they will disappoint you. Carefully evaluate any animal before you buy it. If you are unsure about some of the finer points of bovine conformation or what makes a good cow, have a friend (whose knowledge of cattle you trust) help you pick out the ones you buy.
Know When to Hold, When to Run Tips on How to Avoid Getting Hurt When Handling Cattle
By Heather Smith Thomas
Most accidents with cattle occur when people handling them do not understand basic cow psychology, they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, or trying to force an animal to do something it doesn’t understand and it becomes agitated or panics. Accidents at calving time can occur if a cow considers you a threat to her calf.
Cattle can become dangerous when handled in a confined area if they panic and become defensive. Their reaction to a perceived threat to their own safety is fight or flight; if they don’t have room to run away they will attack.
Cattle generally won’t attack a person if they have room to move away from you instead (especially if they know and respect you), but even gentle cattle can accidentally hurt you by running into you in their efforts to get away if you press them too closely. Wild, nervous cattle are much more dangerous in close quarters than calm, gentle ones, for they panic much quicker and need a lot more room. They become agitated and defensive (and on the flight) even if you are some distance away, whereas a gentle cow accustomed to human handling will tolerate your presence until you are practically close enough to touch her.
Always have an escape route in mind when working cattle in a confined area (even if cattle are calm and gentle); leave yourself enough room to dodge aside if one backs into you or turns around and runs back out from the chute entrance. Don’t be in a position with nowhere to go if the animal suddenly turns your way as it tries to run off. Don’t get run over or smashed into the fence.
Remember that even a gentle cow may kick if you come up behind and startle her, and a nervous or defensive cow will kick if she feels threatened when you get too close. Cows have a greater range of side motion when kicking than a horse does, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you are out of range when standing beside a cow. She can hit you with a swift “cow kick” if you are anywhere behind the front shoulder.
When working cattle, it helps to know them individually, able to predict their actions and be prepared for what they might do, or to “read” an unfamiliar cow’s intentions. Some become insecure and unpredictable when being worked—more apt to panic or become aggressive. Some are not aggressive but still may hurt you intentionally if you happen to be in the way. An old placid cow may just shut her eyes to avoid a flailing whip and keep coming, walking right into you by accident. Two animals busy fighting may not see you at all, and smash you into the fence as one pushes the other or if one suddenly dodges the other’s charge.
An over-protective mother with a young calf may choose to fight when you get too close. Some cows can be more emotional and dangerous than bulls. Know your animals; be prepared for how they might act when being worked in a corral. Respect them and what they might do, but remember that you must be the boss, the dominant one. If you are afraid of them they will know it and quickly take advantage of you. No one who is actually afraid of cattle should ever work them in a corral. There is no need to be afraid of cattle, however. If you have mind control over them and a dominant attitude, they will respect you and back down, just as they would from a dominant herd member.
Try to know their minds and read their body language. Cattle give you clues to what they are thinking and you can usually anticipate their next action. If you watch them closely you can detect when they are about to move. Cattle are long-necked and front heavy; they rely on head and neck for balance and directional control of their body movement. Watching the head, neck and shoulders of a cow will often tell you what she is about to do. If a front shoulder drops slightly, she is about to turn to that side. If the skin twitches or rolls in the shoulder area, she is getting ready to turn quickly to that side, such as spin around.
You can usually tell from the eyes and head position if an animal is scared or mad. A steady stare often means an aggressive attitude; the animal may be getting ready to charge at you if you give it any excuse. Rapidly moving eyes usually mean the animal is afraid or nervous. Slowly moving eyes generally mean you are being evaluated to determine whether or not you are a threat. An animal that slings its head in threatening gestures is giving you a warning; this is an aggressive action and if you make a move, the animal may charge.
An animal with head held low is being very aggressive and poised to charge at you, ready to hit you with its head. An animal with head above shoulder level is usually nervous or frightened, while one with head held at normal (shoulder) level is either unconcerned and not feeling threatened or is still evaluating whether or not you are a threat. An animal that does not face you (keeping its rear end toward you) is either frightened and wanting to flee, or is unconcerned and at ease, not bothering to face you.
If an animal makes aggressive gestures, hold your ground and stare it down, unless you are too close to its personal space. In that case, slowly back up. Do not run!
Aggressive cattle always charge at movement. Stand still and project your most dominating thoughts. You are the boss! If you must move, move slowly. If you can out-psych the animal before it charges, it may not follow through with aggressive action. You might need a stick handy which will give you a psychological upper hand. Not only will some of them hesitate to charge at you if you have a weapon, but if you feel more confident they can sense it. They are less apt to charge you. (Beating any animal isn’t going to change its basic nature, and can usually make the situation worse. — Ed.) If an animal does charge at you, yell. A high-pitched scream will often deflect or interrupt the charge because cattle have sensitive ears. A scream may distract the animal enough that you can dodge away and get to the fence. Cattle prefer to move away from high-pitched noises.
The best way to avoid being hurt by cattle is to handle them properly (this creates less chance of getting them frightened, upset or on the fight), handle them enough to train them (so they know you, and know what to expect from you, and accept you as boss), and select for good disposition and calm individuals when keeping replacement heifers for a herd or when choosing a bull. Any truly unmanageable or mean animals should be culled.
There is no reason to raise wild cattle that are hard to handle. Even if an ornery cow raises a big calf, that calf may be a problem in the feedlot or at slaughter. You are better off to cull that kind of cow and replace her with a heifer that has a more manageable attitude and disposition.
Calm Animals Make Better Beef
Quiet, gentle animals are always nicer to have in a cowherd than wild ones, and also do better in the feedlot, gaining weight more efficiently and not disrupting or upsetting the other cattle. The wilder, more nervous ones have lower average daily gains; the calmest animals tend to have the highest gains. Another problem with wild, excitable cattle is they are often dark cutters when butchered. The meat is darker than normal, with a shorter shelf life, not keeping as well. Abnormally dark meat is due to low level of muscle glycogen at time of slaughter, and stress is the main cause of glycogen depletion in muscles. Physical stress (strenuous exertion) and psychological stress (adrenalin secretion from excitement) are primary factors. These stresses can be due to poor disposition (nervousness and excitability) or abusive handling, and abusive handling often occurs when cattle have poor dispositions and are difficult to work with.
On most small farms, pasture management is the most crucial factor involved in keeping cattle. Your total acreage (whether 3 or 30) will dictate how many cattle you can graze, as will your climate (whether you have year-round grazing or seasonal grass growth), and how you rotate or manage the pasture. You can always grow more grass (and hence more beef) with well-managed pasture, grazed in a rotation system, than you can when using it as one big field. In the latter situation, some plants are overgrazed and may weaken and die out, while some of the least favorite plants may never be eaten unless the cattle run out of better feed.
How Many Cattle Will Your Pasture Support?
On average, a good quality pasture — good soil, containing palatable forage plants rather than weeds—that gets adequate moisture from rainfall or irrigation will easily feed 2 adult beef animals per acre (such as yearlings or dry cows) during the growing season. Diligent mob grazing—moving the cattle frequently from one very small portion of the pasture to another and then allowing it to completely regrow before returning to that same piece—will increase this stocking rate.
It will take more pasture to feed a lactating cow (cow/calf pair), especially a high-producing cow that gives a lot of milk, such as Gelbveih or Simmental; they may need twice the energy at peak lactation than they did when they were dry. When you go from a dry cow at maintenance to peak lactation, you have doubled the stocking rate on the farm in terms of forage demand, even before you add in what the calf grazes.
A good rule of thumb would be one acre per cow/calf pair, and you might need to adjust this figure a little to fit your pastures and type of cattle. After the peak of the growing season, when climate becomes hotter and/or drier, it may take 50 percent more pasture acreage to feed the same animals if you are depending on it to regrow that same season. In a climate that has cold winters, grass growth will slow or stop after the weather turns cold in late fall.
If you live in a dry climate and part or all of your land is not feasible to irrigate (too steep, or no available water source or water right), forage plants will likely be native grasses. Many of these are quite nutritious, but not as productive (not as many tons of forage per acre) as tame grasses that depend on regular watering (from rain or irrigation). Without irrigation, it takes more land to raise cattle in the arid West, for instance, where annual rainfall might be 6 to 12 inches of moisture, compared to a farm in the East or Midwest where rainfall might be 25 inches or more.
On native hillside pastures in the West it might take 10 to 50 acres to feed a cow and calf for one month. Overgrazing this type of pasture will damage the plants and eventually kill them. Native grasses evolved being grazed (by elk and bison) and are healthiest if grazed during their growing season, but were grazed by wandering herds that grazed them once or twice in a season and moved on. Repeated grazing by confined animals throughout the growing season may weaken and kill the plants. Dryland (non-irrigated) pastures always take more acreage per animal because the grass grows more slowly and there is more space between plants. Thus the number of cattle you can raise without supplemental purchased feed will depend not only on the amount of acreage you have, but also on the climate, access to irrigation water, soil types and forage plants.
One way to use summer grass is to buy small yearlings in spring when grass begins to flourish, graze them until fall, and sell them when pasture quality and quantity begins to decline. If you have a herd of cows, they can be fed hay during the winter or dry season, and calved when grass starts to grow.
It’s often most economical to calve during the time of year your grass is starting to grow, rather than too early in spring when the cows are still on hay. If cows have their increased nutritional needs during peak lactation met by pasture, and calves are sold or weaned before the cows need hay in late fall, you save money on hay. Your calves may not be as big in the fall as early-born calves, but they are more profitable. You’ll have less winter feed cost associated with raising the later born calf.
Don’t assume that reduced weaning weight means reduced profit. Cost should always be considered, whether you are raising calves or yearlings to sell, or fattening a beef to butcher. The more days the animal can be grazing (versus eating hay) during peak nutritional demand, the lower the annual cost of keeping that animal on the farm.
For best results in grazing management, look at forage demand rather than cattle numbers—and try to match the number of cattle with what the pasture will produce. Be observant and aware of what’s happening with the pasture and cattle, and flexible enough to adjust the stocking rate according to the pasture conditions, and to learn from your mistakes.
If you have good quality tame pastures (with adequate rainfall or irrigation) you can get maximum beef production per acre by using rotational grazing, timing the grazing of each small pasture segment when the plants are most ready, then letting them regrow while you graze another part. Giving each pasture enough rest to recover before coming back to it may allow you to regraze it several times during a growing season.
Grass grows in three stages. Stage one occurs when it comes out of dormancy, after winter, or after being harvested—as hay or by grazing — down to short stubble. It takes awhile for it to grow enough leaf area to capture enough solar energy to grow rapidly (phase two). Cattle prefer the grass in phase one because it is tender and succulent, and high in nutritional quality.
If a pasture is grazed continually through the season, without rest periods facilitated by rotation, cattle keep going back to the same short plants, seeking out phase one grasses. This stresses the plants because they don’t have enough leaf area to support their maintenance needs. Plants have maintenance requirements and growth requirements, just like animals do. In phase one, the grass is just maintaining itself; the small amount of growth is very high quality, and grazing animals really like to eat it.
If the pasture is rested during phase one, the plants start to accumulate enough leaf area to where they can grow more swiftly (phase two). This fast growth will continue until the mass of the plant takes a lot of energy to maintain its large structure. By then some of the lower leaves will be shaded by upper ones and some leaves start dying. When the plant gets to that point it goes into phase three, in which growth rate slows dramatically. This is the phase in which it would be cut for hay; the plant is as large as it’s going to get. If you’re grazing a pasture, however, rather than cutting it as hay, you may want to keep as much grass as possible in stage two (rapid growth)—for best total production during the growing season.
The ideal situation is to keep cattle off the pasture until grass enters phase two and is not as easily damaged or set back by grazing. Put cattle into the pasture when the grass is four-to-six inches tall and let them graze until they eat it down to about three inches. If you graze it all the way back to phase one, stripping the plant of its leaves, it will take much longer to recover. It needs a longer rest period before you can graze it again. This may make the rest period longer than you can afford, if you only have a few pastures.
Overgrazing is defined as a plant being grazed before it has a positive carbohydrate balance—such as too early in the growing season, or continuously eating it down before it gains enough reserves. In a continuous grazing situation, when animals stay in the same pasture year round or all through summer, overgrazing occurs on the favorite plants because cattle keep grazing them back to phase one. This can happen if you have cattle in a pasture too long or the rest period is too short in a rotation system. In a continuously grazed pasture you’ll see overgrazed areas (phase one grass) right next to mature patches the cattle won’t eat (phase three) because the plants are over-mature and coarse — with no phase two grass.
If you have abundant rainfall or do a good job of irrigating, and keep the number of animals in balance with the pasture, you can get by with continuous grazing (not having to rotate pastures). The common problems in this situation (in most climates) are temperature extremes, and not always being able to have the grass watered when it needs it. Growth rate fluctuates, with grass growing very fast for awhile and then slowing; it’s hard to keep all the grass in phase two. Rotational grazing gives you more chance to try to hold grass in phase two for as much of the season as possible.
Fencing for Rotational Grazing
Depending on your situation, you may want permanent fence or portable fencing to divide your pastures, fence off ditchbanks or other small grazing areas from hayfields, etc. If there’s a chance you might want to use the field or pasture as a whole (or put up hay on it), use temporary fence to divide it.
Temporary electric fencing is inexpensive and can be quickly and easily moved if you use push-in posts — and you don’t need gates. You can move cattle from one area to another just by setting two tall sticks or pieces of PVC pipe in the fenceline for a moment to raise and hold the wire at a height the cattle can go under it and into the new section of pasture. Once cattle learn they can do this, it’s easy to move them through the fence, without needing a gate.
Selecting Hay for Cattle
By Heather Smith Thomas
During winter, drought or any other times that animals do not have adequate pasture, hay is the mainstay of diet for cattle. Next to pasture, good quality hay is the most ideal feed.
Types of Hay
Hay falls into several categories: grass, legume, mixed (containing grass and a legume) and cereal grain straw (such as oat hay). Some of the more common grass hays include timothy, brome, orchard grass and bluegrass. In some parts of the country fescue, reed canary grass, ryegrass and Sudan grass are common. In northern parts of the U.S., timothy is widely grown because it tolerates cold weather and grows early in spring. It does not do well in hot climates, however. In central and southern parts of the country you are more apt to find Coastal Bermuda grass, brome or orchard grass because these tolerate heat and humidity better.
Some hayfields consist of “wild hay” or “meadow hay” as compared to “tame” hay grasses that have been planted. Many of the native or volunteer plants that grow in uncultivated hayfields are good, nutritious grasses that make acceptable hay for beef cattle. As long as the plant mix is predominantly grasses of palatable types (rather than weeds or swamp grasses), meadow hay is quite adequate for winter feed—especially for mature cows that don’t need high levels of protein. Some of these native grasses, when cut before seed heads mature, are very palatable and high enough in protein content for calves and lactating cows, without having to add a supplemental protein source.
Cereal grain crops (especially oats) are sometimes cut while still green and growing, rather than waiting for the seed heads to mature for grain. If harvested properly, this makes good hay, especially when it is grown with peas (a legume). There is always some risk of nitrate poisoning, however, if cereal grain hays are harvested after a spurt of growth following a drought period. The hay can be tested for nitrate content if you are considering using this type of hay.
Legumes used for hay include alfalfa, various types of clover (such as red, crimson, alsike and ladino), lespedeza, birds-foot trefoil, vetch, soybean and cowpeas. Good legume hay generally has a higher level of digestible energy, vitamin A, and calcium than grass hay. Alfalfa may have twice the protein and three times the level of calcium than grass hay. Thus alfalfa is often fed to animals that need more protein and minerals.
Early bloom alfalfa (cut before the blossoms open) has about 18 percent crude protein, compared with 9.8 percent for early bloom timothy (before seed heads fill), 11.4 percent for early bloom orchard grass, and lower levels for most other grasses. Alfalfa cut at full bloom drops to 15.5 percent crude protein, compared to 6.9 percent for late bloom timothy and 7.6 percent for late bloom orchard grass. Thus legume hay, cut early, is more apt to meet the protein and mineral needs of young growing animals, pregnant and lactating animals than will many of the grass hays.
Nutritional value of hay is related to leaf content. Leaves of grass hay have more nutrients and are more digestible when the plant is immature and growing, and more fiber when the plant has reached full growth. Legume leaves, by contrast, do not have the same structural function and don’t change that much as the plant grows. But the stems become coarser and more fibrous. Alfalfa stems, for example, are woody, serving as structural support for the plant. Leaf to stem ratio is the most important criteria in judging nutrient quality in an alfalfa plant. The digestibility, palatability and nutrient value is highest when the plant is young—with more leaves and less stems. About 2/3 of the energy and 3/4 of the protein and other nutrients are in the leaves of a forage plant (whether grass or legume). Coarse, thick-stemmed hay (overly mature) has more fiber and less nutrition than immature, leafy hay with finer stems.
If buying alfalfa hay, you’ll want to know if it is first, second or third cutting (or later), and at what stage of growth it was harvested. If buying grass hay, maturity at harvest will also make a difference in its nutrient quality. Your choice will depend on the type of animals you are feeding, and their specific needs.
Hay for Cattle
Cattle can generally tolerate dustier hay than can horses, and can often eat a little mold without problems. Keep in mind, however, that some types of mold may cause abortion in pregnant cows. The quality of the hay needed will also depend on whether you are feeding mature beef cattle, young calves, or dairy cattle. Mature beef cattle can get by on rather plain hay—of any type—but if lactating they will need adequate protein. Good palatable grass hay, cut while still green and growing, can be very adequate, but if grass hay is coarse and dry (with little vitamin A or protein), you’ll need to add some legume hay to their diet.
Young calves have small, tender mouths and cannot chew coarse hay very well—whether grass or alfalfa. They do best with fine, soft hay that’s cut before bloom stage; it not only contains more nutrients, but is also much easier to eat.
Dairy cattle need the best hay— with the most nutrients per pound— since they are producing more milk than a beef cow. Most dairy cattle will not milk adequately on grass hay, nor on stemmy, coarse alfalfa without many leaves. A dairy cow needs to be able to eat as much as possible, and she will eat more fine, palatable alfalfa hay than coarse hay, and get a lot more nutrition from it.
If hay is expensive, beef cattle can often get by eating a mix of straw and some type of protein. Straw (aftermath from harvest of oats, barley or wheat) provides energy — created by fermentation breakdown in the rumen. A small amount of alfalfa or a commercial protein supplement can provide the needed protein, minerals and vitamins. If buying straw to feed, select good quality, clean straw. Oat straw is the most palatable; cattle like it quite well. Barley straw is not as well liked, and wheat straw is least desirable as feed. If feeding cereal grain hay (cut while still green and growing, rather than at maturity, as straw), be careful with this type of hay, and have it checked for nitrate levels, to avoid nitrate poisoning.
In cold weather, cattle do better if fed extra roughage (grass hay or straw), since they have a large “fermentation vat” (rumen). During the breakdown of fiber in the rumen, heat and energy are created. During cold weather you need to feed your cattle more roughage, rather than more legume hay.
As a general rule, good quality legume hay costs more than grass hay (due to higher protein content), unless you live in a region where legume hay is the primary crop. Relative cost for hay will vary around the country, with cost reflecting supply and demand — along with freight costs to haul it. In drought years when hay is scarce, it will cost a lot more than on years when there is plentiful supply. If hay must be hauled very far, the price of fuel (in freight costs added to the base price) will make the total very expensive.
Tips on Selecting Hay
Hay quality can vary greatly, depending on growing conditions (wet or dry weather, hot or cool). Hay that grows slowly in cool weather is often more fine and palatable, with more nutrients per pound, than hay growing rapidly in hot weather. Hay that grows fast doesn’t have as much time to absorb minerals from the soil, for instance, and some types of plants mature too quickly; they may be too coarse and stemmy (and past bloom stage, with less nutrient quality than green, growing plants) by the time the hay is harvested. Other factors that affect nutritional value include plant species, fertility of soil, harvesting methods (whether the hay was crimped and conditioned to dry faster, losing less leaves and nutrients during drying) and curing time.
One way to assess maturity of alfalfa hay is the snap test. If a handful of hay bends easily in your hand, the fiber content is relatively low. The hay will be more nutrient dense and digestible (with less woody lignin), than if the stems snap like twigs.
Hay samples can be tested; core samples from several bales can be sent to a hay testing lab for analysis. This is always wise when trying to evaluate hay for protein or mineral content. You should also open a few bales and look at the hay inside, to check texture, maturity, color and leafiness. Check for weeds, mold, dust, discoloration due to weathering (to know if the cut hay was rained on before being baled and stacked). Check for heat (and smell the hay) to know if it’s fermented.
Also check for foreign material in the bales, such as rocks, sticks, baling twines or wire. The latter can cause hardware disease in cattle if ingested wire pokes through the gut and creates peritonitis. Cattle often eat hurriedly and don’t sort out small foreign objects. Baling twines in hay can also be hazardous if eaten. Calves often chew on and eat twines, which can create fatal blockage in the gut.
Rained-on hay that had to be redried will be dull in color—yellow or brown, rather than bright green. All hay will weather; the sun bleaches the outside of the bales. You often can’t tell the quality of hay by looking at the outside. The inside should still be green, however, even if the outer edges have faded due to exposure to rain and sun.
Odor also gives a good clue to quality. Hay should smell good, not musty, sour or moldy. Flakes should separate easily and not be stuck together. Moldy hay, or hay that heated too much after being baled will usually be heavy, stuck together, and dusty. Alfalfa hay that has heated excessively may be brown and “caramelized,” smelling sweet or a little bit like molasses. Cattle like it, but some of the nutrients have been cooked; much of the protein and vitamin A have been destroyed. Good hay will be uniformly green and smell good, with no brown spots or moldy portions.
Try to select hay that has been protected from weather by a tarp or hay shed, unless you are buying it directly out of the field after baling. Rain on a stack can ruin the top layer or two, soaking in and causing mold. The bottom layer of bales may also be moldy if the stack sat on ground that draws moisture. Top and bottom bales will weigh more (adding cost) and have spoilage.