First Steps

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

Country Smallholding - - Inside This -

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.

What breed?

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://small­hold­er­train­ cat­tle-for-be­gin­ners/

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