So, you’re thinking about buying a cow? Not sure if you have the space or the know how? Well, rest assured, you have come to the right place! There are so many things to consider when deciding on whether or not to keep a cow on your homestead. By answering a few questions, you can figure out if a cow is a good idea for you and your family.
The very first thing to know about cattle is that they are social animals. They flourish better in a herd. This is one thing that we ignored when we first started raising a cow. I would have to say that as our herd gets bigger, I realize that this is way more important than we originally thought. For one, when a cow is in heat (ready to breed), other cows, heifers, bulls and steers will try to mount her. If you don’t have any other cattle, you will never know when she is cycling. Also, cattle will travel together, even when they are being naughty and jump a fence. Trust me when I tell you it is a lot easier to find several cows out than one cow by herself. Furthermore, once you get one cow to go the direction you want, the others will follow behind. So, I would argue that if you’re not ready to own at least 2 cows (preferably a male and female), you will not be able to be sustainable.
Next thing to consider is how much land you need to support a cow. A conservative estimate is 2 acres per cow. This will depend on whether you are supplementing with grain or hay. If your cow is strictly grass fed, you will need to focus on having a salad bar in your pasture. You will also need the capability of getting hay or cutting it for the months where grass is not as prolific. Just like we can’t flourish on just one food group, cows grow much better and evenly when they have several different grasses and weeds to choose from. Another thing that could change your amount of land needed is whether you are doing traditional grazing or an intense grazing/pasture rotation model. With this intense grazing process, you won’t necessarily need as much land.
Now that we have the broad information covered let’s get more specific. What is your main motivation for raising a cow? Are you wanting to produce dairy or beef or both? Obviously, by definition a cow will produce beef and dairy (it is a mammal after all.) However, you can break cattle into 2 breeds that are raised specifically for its name, beef and dairy. Beef cattle are built more muscular, even the females, to provide more meat when processed. Dairy cattle are leaner since they exert most of their energy making milk. But a cow is still a cow.
Think of it like this. Say you want to buy a boat. First thing you consider is what you are using the boat for. You wouldn’t buy a pontoon boat to pull water-skis and inner-tubes would you? Of course not, you would be looking for something like a ski boat. That is not to say that you couldn’t pull an inner-tube with a pontoon, it just wouldn’t be as much fun. Yes, a boat is still a boat, but there are specific boats built for certain purpose. In the same manner, different breeds of cows are raised for specific purposes. So, deciding on a cow should be approached in a similar fashion.
Once you have decided on beef or dairy, you need to consider whether this will just be a family cow or if it will be a source of income. If you are just raising a family cow you don’t need a huge beef breed or a heavy dairy breed. But if you want to use this cow for profit, you might want to consider which type is the best producer. For a beef breed, Angus and Herefords are the most popular and best producers for any climate. Highland cattle are also great producers, but become more specific to their region. Highland cattle have a lot of hair, therefore making it less than ideal to raise in the south. Beef cattle are much less labor intensive and tend to do well with minimal human interaction providing they have a food and water source. Beef cattle can be left on a pasture with grass, hay, water and good fences and left to be cattle.
If you decide to raise a cow for milk, realize there are way more things to provide and keep track of. A dairy cow has a much higher metabolism which means they need more to eat. While a dairy cow is in milk, she will need even more, including grain and silage to produce a good butter fat count. This count is important if you are considering making butter, cheese and ice cream. For instance, a Holstein cow is a heavy milk producer. But her butterfat content is low. A Jersey cow will not produce as much milk as a Holstein, but her milk is thick and high in butterfat. For this reason, homesteaders would do best to find a cross breed of a heavy quantity producer and a high butterfat producer. In our experience, the Holstein produced 4-6 gallons of milk a day with a very small amount of cream. When we changed to a Jersey Holstein cross, the amount of milk went down to 2-4 gallons a day, but almost 1/3 to ½ of the milk was cream. If you are wanting a good family cow this is the way to go. But if you are looking to sell milk or any cream products, you will need to choose a breed based on quantity or quality. Just realize that regardless of which breed you choose, a dairy cow will require way more maintenance and interaction than a beef cow. She will need to be milked twice a day, every day. When you have a dairy cow in milk, you might as well forget what the word vacation means. Also, you will need to monitor her closely for health issues and when she is cycling. A dairy cow must be bred and calf in order to continue milking. So, in addition to milking and monitoring the cow, you will also need to have a way to breed the cow, whether it be by a bull or A.I. (artificial insemination).
In my opinion, when making the decision to raise a cow, I would recommend starting with a beef breed. Once you become more comfortable around a cow and are aware of what having a cow involves, then you can move onto a dairy breed. For more information about choosing cattle for your homestead check out the video below.