Many people have some land and decide to take advantage of it by raising some cattle for beef. There are several ways to do this, from raising a bottle calf to buying a weaned calf to getting yearlings to finish. You can also have a few cows and raise the calves from start to finish.
The first step is planning. Consider how much land you have available. How much time do you have available? Do you have previous cattle experience? Are you interested in raising a few extra calves for selling to cover expenses and if so would that be direct selling or at the sale barn? Are you interested in purebred, registered or just cattle?
The answers to these questions will dictate the type of cattle you choose. How much land do you have available? Do you have pasture or are you limited to a smaller dry lot situation? Either can be used effectively for raising beef, but the latter means having access to plenty of hay, silage or other forage. This can be done on pasture with good fences or, in a dry lot, with large or small bales of hay, a little grain and possibly protein supplements to boost growth.
Do you have previous cattle experience? If you do then you may be more able to deal with calving and husbandry more than someone who has never handled cattle before. The novice will need a quieter animal and more docile breed to handle safely than the one who has experience.
Are you interested in selling extra animals? If so will they be purebred or for meat, and will you make the effort to sell directly or just haul to the local sale barn? If you are depending on the market you may have a choice of black cattle. If you are selling directly or working towards a purebred herd you have a wider choice in preferences including rare breeds, horned breeds and historical or other breeds that may not be favored in the market.
Alternately if you are on a small area with limited room and raising for just yourself or to direct market you can take advantage of market breaks in price on red, white or tan cattle which typically bring less money at the sale barn than equal sized black calves. Equally the cattle with horns will be less expensive than those without horns. The reason for this is modern feedlots and equipment are set up for cattle without horns. Those with horns must be dehorned to fit in, which can stress the cattle and result in setbacks in weight gain.
If you are interested in delving into registered cattle this, too, can affect your choice of breed. What breeders are in your area? Do you have the experience to maintain a semen tank and inseminate cows? If you don’t have room, facilities or experience for a bull then it means breeding via artificial insemination – or AI in cattleman’s terms or finding a bull owner who will let you breed to their bull, something that is a risk due to disease.
Keeping a bull yourself can be an option for some if you have facilities and an abundance of caution. Bulls are a ton of power that can and have killed people. Some are fearful of horned bulls but polled or dehorned bulls can also be dangerous, as it isn’t the horns that determine danger. Always have a clear escape path when handling a bull, no matter how gentle he is. Growing up we had an ex-show bull from the top Charolais ranch in the country and we trusted him a great deal but even with him were taught to respect (not fear) the power that could crush us without intending harm.
Are you interested in milk from your cattle? Although many have a dairy cow you can use the milk from any cow. Many of the breeds that were dual purpose (or triple purpose – beef, dairy, oxen) are good choices due to the ability of the cattle to be both.
If this is an interest consider the Charolais, Limousin, Simmental or breeds that have split to specialize such as shorthorn/milking shorthorn, Devon/milking Devon or Braunveigh/Brown Swiss. These cows are typically a bit heavier milking to allow raising good sized calves as well as milk for a family.
You do not have to be tied into milking if you pen the cow and calf up at night – separate the calf on the other side of the fence from the cow. In the morning milk out a quarter (or two) and leave the other quarters for the calf, who will nurse eagerly as soon as they are reunited and milk her down during the day.
You may find that most beef animals have never been milked, leaving the decision to raising your own heifer and training her to accept handling. Cattle are creatures of habit – if you are consistent in handling she will learn what is expected.
Oxen are another option from triple purpose cattle. Usually worked in pairs they can also be worked as a single. While in training from just a couple months old they are called working steers. These are often horned animals but not always. While many find it acceptable to eat cattle but not horses because horses settled America they have conveniently eliminated oxen from history.
For many it was oxen, not horses, that pulled wagons west and broke ground for gardens. Horses were faster but often couldn’t work as long. Oxen were stronger but slower and very much an intelligent, trainable animal.
From a beef standpoint cattle can offer many options. Be it crossbred black cattle, shorthorns, longhorns or shaggy highland cattle all can offer options to the small farmer wishing to raise their own food.
If you have pasture area this can be done very economically with a few steers. Buying feeders of about 500-700 pounds is a good option if you are just interested in eating them without a great deal of time put into them. If you purchase direct from the farmer (your best option!) you can insure they are vaccinated, castrated and properly cared for, ready to go.
If you are considering purebred or registered stock are you interested in showing? This can make a difference in the price paid and received as well as the animals themselves.
For the novice work with an honest farmer and tell him (or her!) your experience level. Have him select a couple calves that are gentle enough for your ability. As you feed the calves in a pen the first few days they will learn you are a food source and be easier to handle.
Don’t take squirrely calves and turn them in an 80 acre field and have any prayer of catching them again. If you have 10-20 acres of pasture cattle are a great way to use it, but give your animals a few days to get used to you. Maintain good fences to keep cattle contained and neighbors happy.
If you are interested in cattle research, ask questions and choose wisely. Your satisfaction with the enterprise depends on it!