Cattle are a big part of the Kentucky landscape. Driving down country roads it’s always exciting to see calves in the spring fields. Beef cattle provide our farmers with income and provide communities with a good local food source for consumers.
In Kentucky, the average herd size is fifteen cows and is nurtured by a farmer who has a regular full-time job. Although we don’t have large cattle ranches like out west we do supply quite a bit of beef and leather for the state of Kentucky.
According to the USDA, Kentucky is the leading beef producer east of the Mississippi River and is ranked 14th in the USA for beef production. By comparison, Kentucky’s dairy industry is in decline due to low retail prices, high costs to the farmer, and lower demand for cow milk.
Raising cattle is not a very profitable industry. While you may gaze fondly at the cows and calves out in the field this spring, know that there is a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into producing beef.
This article will help you learn more about what goes into raising beef cattle, getting started with beef, or just making improvements to an existing herd.
We use a lot of different terms when it comes to describing cattle. Here’s the low down on the vocabulary.
Cattle – the term we use to refer to a collective group or herd, can be either sex
Cow – a female that has given birth
Heifer – a young female who has not had a calf
Calf – a baby that can be either male or female
Bull – a male breeding animal
Steer – a castrated animal being raised for meat production
Oxen – a bovine used for draft work, usually a castrated male
Bovine – cattle belong to the scientific family Bovinae and are often referred to as bovines
Check out Dr. Glaza’s podcast on cattle.
Cattle are grazers and need a field or paddock with access to grass. The rule of thumb is that you need one and a half to two acres of grass for each one cow with calf. That’s an average because it will vary widely on the season, type of grass, and size/health of the cow.
For times you don’t have sufficient grass you will need to supplement with good grass hay.
There are many types of fencing that work well with cattle. Field fence does a good job if it has been stretched and tightened properly. That way it does not sag if a cow decides to scratch their itchy butt on the fence.
An electric fence also works well. Electric fence has the advantage of being portable. Moving cows around a field (rotational grazing) is a good management technique.
Dr. Glaza does not recommend barbed wire because it is dangerous to humans and animals. He does not want you to have an expensive bill when he has to come to stitch up your prize bull who is bleeding profusely from barb wire cuts.
A water source is critical. Using potable water is best either from a public water source or a cistern. Many farmers add gutters to a barn or loafing shed and run the water into a cistern or stock tanks.
A pond or creek can be a back-up source of water. Natural water sources may dry up in summer or become polluted with E.coli if to many animals take to using it to cool off in summer. You can purchase simple water testing kits to check your water for pollutants.
Barn or Shed
You need a barn or loafing shed with a stall to isolate any sick or injured cattle. A building provides shelter for inclement weather. Having a stall means that you have a space to put up a cow that needs to be isolated from the others.
There will be times that you need to vaccinate your cattle or draw blood. A veterinarian is not going to chase your cow around the field in hopes of examining them.
HeadGate and Chute
A Headgate and chute allow you to hold a cow for treatments or examinations or any other time you need close inspection. They do not harm the cattle, it just helps to keep them still and refrain from causing themselves or the farmer injury.
Here is an example of a simple one for a smallholding.
When you are getting started, or want to improve your herd, it can be hard to know what direction to go. There is lots of information out there and many people may say that one breed is “better” than another. That may be mixed with a lot of personal preference!
When I was growing up we had polled Herefords. That was the “in” breed. Now Angus are very popular. Heritage breeds such as Gallaway and Randall have become more common in our area.
When getting started the most important thing to remember is that animals that are disease-free are more important than pedigree. There are many cattle diseases that will affect not only the health of the animal but your ability to sell the animal for meat.
Bovine leukemia, anaplasmosis, and Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus can all be serious diseases. We will have more information on cattle diseases in our next blog. You can learn more about worming and Fecal Fridays in this blog.
Buying a bottle calf at a livestock auction is never a good idea. These calves have often had little time with the mother and are throw away calves that the farmer does not want. They are often already sick, pick up diseases at the auction, and very stressed. A high percentage of these calves die within three days of purchase.
- Start small.
- Get a bred cow. Remember a cow has had a calf before so she will know whats going on – versus a heifer who may be a nervous new mom.
- Talk to farmers in your area. Go look at their herd.
- Buy a cow from a local farmer and one you can call if you have questions.
- Buy a couple weaned calves that are six months old. They will have developed immune systems and you can start working with them when they are still young.
Bull Or No Bull
Think about this question long and hard. There are advantages and disadvantages to owning a bull.
A bull will provide more thorough breeding services to your herd. Dr. Glaza recommends you leave the bull with the cows for sixty days. This will assure all the cows get covered but also keep calving within a two month period.
The downside is what to do with a bull for the rest of the year. A bull still needs care during this period. In addition, keep in mind that a bull is a large and potentially dangerous animal. He is not a pet.
If you don’t want to own a bull there are a couple of other options.
You can rent a bull from another farmer in your area. Make sure that farmer is willing to give you paperwork proving the bull is free from communicable diseases.
The other option is artificial insemination (AI). This is when a straw containing semen is inserted and into the cow’s vagina. This method is not as dependable as a bull but is easier and safer.
You can find local persons trained in AI or you can learn how to do it as well.
Cattle are a great way to raise your own beef and to make a small income on the side. Make sure you are set up with good fencing, a barn, and headgates before you purchase your first cow.
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Author, Ame Vanorio, is the director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center and a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She teaches onsite and online classes in organic gardening, solar power, and wildlife rehabilitation. She lives on her farm in Falmouth, Kentucky with too many animals to count!