Fancy taking the plunge and buying your first cattle? First ensure that you have enough land, buy the right animals for your requirements and ditch the nerves, advises Debbie Kingsley
Cattle, by Debbie Kingsley
The smallholder and the cow — a topic that engenders extreme opinions rarely entered into when thinking about first sheep, goats, pigs or poultry. For some, cows are the equivalent of bringing home an elephant or a grizzly bear, while others see the beef, dairy and dung opportunities provided by cattle as the epitome of the smallholding experience. To be honest, I used to be in the former camp and am now firmly in the latter.
Mostly cow fears are about size and how to manage and handle what is certainly a large beast. Even the little Dexter is in excess of 300kg and my medium-sized Red Ruby Devons weigh up to 750kg.
Keeping your nerve
If you are wondering if cattle should form a part of your smallholding life and have no prior experience of being around them, it is an excellent idea to spend some time with a well-managed, docile herd to assess whether you have the temperament for keeping them. In fact, the temperament of the keeper is as important as the temperament of the cows. There is nothing wrong with a dose of inexperienced nervousness. Confidence (but hopefully never complacency) comes with experience, and having a good manner and proper facilities will build confidence.
However, if you are genuinely terrified, or so nervous that you can’t move smoothly and quietly among a herd, think about having goats or sheep instead. You may even come back to cattle later, once you have a few years of solid animal husbandry behind you.
What do you want cows for?
There are various sound reasons for keeping cows: to provide the household with milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, butter and ice cream unadulterated by anything other than what you choose to add. There are also the options of grass-fed beef; conservation grazing by native breeds on rough pasture; dung for soil nutrition; help in breaking the worm cycle by grazing in advance of sheep; or, of course, for the sheer beauty of the cow herself.
Another consideration not to be sneezed at is that cows are much easier to keep than sheep if you are set up for them and buy in healthy animals. There is no shearing, if feet need trimming (we have ours done annually), you employ a specialist to do so; they rarely suffer from flystrike and, in general, there are fewer husbandry tasks to tackle. Remember that just because they are big doesn’t mean that you can have just one cow. As herd animals, keeping two is an absolute minimum.
There is a whole world of possibility in terms of breeds of cattle, but knowing what you want your cattle for will help to determine your choice. There is no point in buying a few Jerseys if you primarily want beef, or if you want cows that produce small quantities of milk with a low butterfat content. Jerseys, however, would make an excellent choice if you want fabulous milk, cream and the associated goodies you can make from that.
Other people may suggest hardy crosses, which do have much to recommend them, but I happen to have a passion for pure bred natives. Checking out your local/ regional breed and assessing if it might suit your purpose is a good start. If you have clay soil in wet climes you might be able to keep cows for longer outside if you choose a lighter breed (although this also depends hugely on your stocking rates). I hugely admire English Longhorns, a truly beautiful breed that produces wonderful beef, but I really don’t want horned cattle and the same goes for adorable Highlands. Be conscious that, unlike sheep, changing
your mind about cattle breeds once you have set yourself up for one kind can be an expensive hassle. You may even be forced to change your feeding equipment, barriers, crush, race and more to accommodate horned or significantly different sized animals.
Equipment and fencing
There are times when it is crucial to be able to restrain a cow and that’s where the cattle crush comes in. Most vets will insist on having a crush in place to carry out bovine TB tests, take blood, do pregnancy diagnoses and other treatments. If you intend to breed but aren’t planning to have a bull, the AI technician will expect a crush too. If you plan to have daily handled house cows to provide your dairy needs, you may get away with using a gate to restrain them, particularly if they are halter trained. I wouldn’t be happy injecting or dosing a cow without the security of a crush.
My husband, Andrew Hubbard, and I made a considerable investment in gating our cowsheds so that we can separate out animals as necessary for calving, artificial insemination and general management, and hardly a cow handling day passes when we don’t say “thank goodness we did this properly from the start”.
Also think about your ground and whether you will need to house the cows over the winter. It is not the cows that can’t take the elements, it is the damage they do to wet ground — poaching and compacting it, which will result in no spring grass — which needs taking into consideration. Make sure that you have good, strong fencing (no skinny, paltry half round posts for cattle) that can take them leaning into any hedges for a bit of supplementary foraging. Three strands of barbed wire or electric fencing may suit cows, but not if you intend to use the same areas for sheep.
How much land?
No matter how much you fancy having cows, you will need to have enough space to graze them or you might as well forget the idea. As a general rule, you need to have knowledge of the productivity of your ground, your intended grazing system, whether you will be making your own forage for winter use and an appreciation of the daily intake needs of your breed. You will need about an acre-and-a-half per cow and the same again if you include her winter forage needs. For a minimum of two cows, you will require three to six acres. In a year like 2018 and its summer heatwave which fried what grass there was, any smallholder will be glad of a lot more land. And as for water, cows drink a great deal. Depending on their age, size and stage of lactation, they will each consume between 15-80ltr per day.
Cattle sourcing and what to look out for
Determining where to source cattle may depend on each individual smallholder’s cattle keeping plans. If the idea is to raise a couple of steers for beef, maybe choose a local livestock auction or dealer as the animals will come in, be reared to meat weight and then go for slaughter. If, however, the intention is to have a small dairy or suckler herd where the dams will be kept on the holding for many years, ensuring high herd health from the start will be crucial.
Check if the source herd is closed, as buying or bringing in stock increases the risk of disease. A herd is not closed if the farmer buys in or borrows bulls, exhibits at shows, shares cattle handling facilities for testing, directly returns unsold cattle from market to their farm, has poor boundary fences or uses common grazing or housing.
Ask if the herd belongs to a health accreditation scheme and is accredited Johne’s, BVD, Leptospirosis and IBR free and check its TB history. The smaller the source herd the better, preferably under 50 animals, and if at all possible it is advisable to buy animals from one place only rather than from a range of sources.
Check that there are no visible signs of external parasites and talk to the seller about the animals’ treatment history, in particular worming against lungworm and the use of flukicide (or tests showing that the cattle are clear of liver fluke and salmonella). Have a good look at the animals for structural soundness, no lameness and good conformation. Crucially, assess the cows’ temperament, as any challenging animals are not for the inexperienced and possibly not for anyone. Spend time with the herd, watching how the cows interact with each other and with their keepers. Ideally you want to see them carrying on quietly with what they are doing (grazing, cudding, interacting) and not getting into a state of stress because people are with them.
If you happen to be there when a cow is bulling (in season, ready to be served by the bull or artificially inseminated), there will be a heap of hormone-induced excitement, so go back a couple of days later to make a proper assessment. For the uninitiated, bulling cows become very active, leaping on other cattle until they themselves are in standing heat, ready to stand still and be served. You don’t need a bull to see this behaviour. Steers (castrated bulls) or other cows will be perfectly willing to oblige. Cows not in calf will come into season every 18-24 days, averaging 21 days.
If it is any encouragement, I never thought that Andrew and I would have cows, but seven years on and with over 30 calves born they are now, without doubt, my favourite animal on the farm.
NEXT MONTH: A shopping list for your first smallholding tools and equipment.
Debbie and her husband, Andrew Hubbard, run Cattle for Beginners days on their farm in Devon. For more information, visit https://smallholdertraining.co.uk/ cattle-for-beginners/