Cow Productivity Depends on Cow Comfort

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACow productivity and cow comfort is something that often is pointed at dairy cattle. Beef cattle, too, are more productive when comfortable. The comfort of cattle is of primary concern among producers who not only want to maximize the care of the cattle.

Modern dairy cows are often a focus due to confinement situations that are needed from a labor standpoint. Many modern confinement systems provide shade, fans and even misters for cows in hot weather. Feed that is easily available is important as well as clean water – both make for more milk. While concrete pens are usually used for reasons of ease of cleaning, it can be hard on a cow’s feet and legs. For this reason a comfortable, dry, clean place to lie down is important.

Free stalls are designed so that cows walk in and lie down, helping to insure that the manure deposited when she stands up is in the gutter or at least at the back of the stall where it is easily scraped into the gutter to be scraped out. Sand, shavings, rubber and cow mattresses are all options that are used in dairies around the US.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile the basics of feed, water, shelter are a great deal towards cow comfort that certainly isn’t all. Dairies that dry cattle off for a rest grass based dairies and beef facilities also make use of pasture. Ground is easier on feet and legs, but more difficult to keep dry and sanitary.

Dry areas to lie down reduce the chances of mastitis and other problems. Cows will lay down in many areas and some cows are just messy and don’t seem to mind laying in manure, but most given a choice will choose a dry stall over a wet one.

Cow comfort of course goes much further. Keeping feet properly trimmed and maintained makes it easier for cows to walk without pain. If they are hesitant to stand or walk they won’t be up eating and, pasture or confinement, can lose production and condition.

Pest control is another important part of cow comfort. Cows that spend their time fighting flies aren’t eating or resting – both essential activities of a cow’s productive day. There are also diseases such as pinkeye that can be transmitted with flies. Pest control also includes controlling mice and rats around the feed supplies.

When designing barns, shelters or even feeding areas in pastures keeping the focus on cow comfort pays off whether it’s 2 cows or 2,000. Observe cattle daily for signs of soreness or injury.

Keeping up on cow care basics is important but it also is important to think from a cow’s preference, not a human one. Don’t let dominant cows keep more submissive ones from the feed – make sure there is plenty of bunk space for all to eat without harassment or fear.

Plan well for cow care and productivity. Your cows depend on you as much as you depend on them, and a good cow is too expensive to replace in rotation before her time. Take care of your cows and they’ll take care of you.

Beef Raising Basics

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf 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.

470_46717For 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!

Endangered Species – Dairy Cattle Need Conservation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the early 1960s Golden Guernsey milk was prized – the Guernsey cow was second only to the Holstein. Today Guernsey numbers continue to fall despite the needed characteristics she has had all along and she is officially a “watch” breed with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. This designation tells there are fewer than 200 annual registrations in the U.S and an estimated global population less than 2,000. According to some sites this is roughly the same numbers as wild pandas – yet pandas get much attention. The Guernsey is just a cow.

Also on that “watch” list is the Ayrshire, milking Shorthorns and Galloway cattle. Not far up the ranks is the Brown Swiss. Critically endangered is the Kerry, milking Devon, Canadienne and a beef breed, the Florida Cracker. Less than 500 of these animals remain – and they need small farms for existence…they could simply cease to exist.

This is an urgent situation and most of society is blissfully unaware of it. The modern dairy uses the common black and white Holsteins, a breed which for decades has been developed for a high confinement, high grain, high production situation. She is not one for longevity – only highly exceptional cows are 7 or 8 years in the herd. Consumers interested in purchasing milk – or meat – from animals raised on grass are less likely to find it among these confinement animals simply because that has not been a selection trait. She has not needed to walk for hours per day grazing. Even the high butterfat Jersey is often a confinement animal in today’s farm situation. The above breeds, however, CAN supply a good amount of milk on grass. Volume is not everything.

The Guernsey cow is a smaller sized animal, fawn and white or a golden and white color that is very distinctive. Often this high yellow is carried down into the fat of the animal, something that makes her less than appealing to many as a beef producer. She was developed as a grazing animal on a small island in the English Channel, and first brought to the US around September of 1840. Today, with the use of artificial insemination and an aggressive young sire program a young bull might have 1,500 offspring in up to 400 herds across the US. This provides a sound genetic base – but with that the Guernsey needs the other critical thing – demand. Only a demand for products from these less popular animals will truly make keeping them a viable option for more than purists with a love for the breed. The Guernsey is known for producing high butterfat and protein in her milk with 20-30% less feed per pound of milk than larger breeds. She also contributes a high concentration of betacarotene in the milk and adapts to warmer climates. American Guernsey Association, 7614 Slate Ridge Blvd., P.O. Box 666, Reynoldsburg, Ohio 43068-0666. Phone: (614) 864-2409.

The Milking Shorthorn breed was developed when the shorthorn breed split into milking and beef registries. It is said the milking shorthorn comprises best the characteristics for dual purpose – using for milk and meat. The first shorthorns came to the US as “Durhams” in 1783. They were actually known as a “triple purpose” – having not only meat and milk for the early pioneers but also steer calves were trained for draft use as oxen. They are a colorful breed, being red, white, red and white spotted or roan, the latter a mix of red and white that is unique to the shorthorn. The breed’s hardiness and adaptability along with efficient production made them very popular in early America. They are long lived, easy calving and economical to run especially on grass. They are easily managed and an animal that is injured or not kept for breeding is good enough to provide a good amount of meat for the family. More information can be found at the American Milking Shorthorn Society, P.O. Box 449, Beloit, Wisconsin 53512-0449. Phone: (608) 365-3332 or

The Scottish developed Ayrshire cow is arguably one of the most efficient grazing cattle on the planet. Said by some to be nervous, the breed was developed to provide milk and meat to smallholders and dairies in their native Scotland. They are red and white, only – although the red varies from light to dark. Color markings vary widely from almost all red to nearly all white often with jagged, flashy spots. They were known for years for their beautiful horns – something unwanted in today’s confinement system. They are ideal for less than ideal conditions as they were developed under tough conditions with rugged terrain and varied climates. The bull calves can be raised as steers, providing meat for farm families. The overall average for the breed is over 12,000 pounds of milk with some herds as high in average as 17,000 pounds of milk. The current world record for an Ayrshire is 37,170 pounds of milk and 1592 pounds of butterfat. Overall the Ayrshire, like the other breeds, can’t compete with confinement developed Holsteins for volume. A pasture as their food source however and she’ll turn the tables on a good many confinement cows.

The Red Poll is at threatened status with the ALBC – another English native developed on tough pasture for both milk and meat. They are naturally polled – that is they do not have horns – and have been in the US since 1873. They’re a smaller breed, good for rougher less than ideal conditions.

The Dutch Belted breed was a dairy breed originally brought to the US by PT Barnum for his famous circus. There were outstanding individuals milking as the breed became better known as one of the supreme dairy producers alive in the early 1900s. A distinct white belt found only in this breed and the belted Galloway (more of a beef breed) makes them easily recognized.

The Kerry, a small breed usually black in color, were developed as a family cow, for longevity. She was expected to produce a calf every year, either females for breeding or the males not needed to breed for meat. She could still be producing at 14-15 years old. Her small size makes her no longer favored and this breed is highly endangered.

470_46717The milking Devon, like the milking shorthorn, was originally a triple purpose animal. Her calves are still used for milk, meat and oxen power. Unlike many breeds where the draft purpose was a side benefit the Devonshire cattle were known for their speed, intelligence, strength and willingness to work as well as the ability to adapt to many climates. The Devon cows provided good milk for cream and cheesemaking. Oxen are no longer a main power source and the beautiful red colored horned animals have dwindled, their characteristics of hardy ability to survive on low quality pasture no longer important in a world of high confinement. Because they were developed as working animal and often handled by children the breed is noted for their excellent docile temperament. There is more information at American Milking Devon Association 135 Old Bay Road, New Durham, NH 03855. Phone: 603-859-6611

Can we continue the specialized highly industrial pace of many modern confinement farms? What if consumers demanded something else…what if by way of disaster the qualities these breeds have are needed and they are no longer alive? Our food supply could well be saved by these animals – we must save them. Using them for food – both milk and meat – and creating a demand for them allows those raising them a means to continue to do so. There are no zoos or conservation places for cattle. Attempts to form one have been met with “great idea!!” but no donations to do so.

These breeds must be conserved. Extinction is forever.

Selecting Homestead Cattle for Beef and Dairy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASelecting cattle for beef and milk production can be a challenge as in the mid 1900s dual purpose livestock was less valued. Breeds like the Devon and the shorthorn were prized for dual purpose uses but became just Devon (or shorthorn) and milking Devon (or milking shorthorn) due to a call for specialization.

However even the beef cattle milk heavier than some other beef breeds and dairy cattle can be slightly beefier than other dairy cattle. It’s still possible to get an animal to do both as well as those breeds long valued for dual or triple purpose Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, Charolais, Simmental and Limousin are but a few breeds.

Set show winnings aside when looking for your dual purpose characteristics unless they happen to have what you are looking for. A beef animal you want muscle. Muscling over the topline, shoulders and rump especially as this provides your beef. For a dairy animal you want a healthy udder that is symmetrical all four quarters should appear the same size. If one is greatly larger or smaller it can indicate a problem which affects production.

Additionally look for, if the cow is milking, the “milk vein” which runs along her belly. If you look at heavy producing dairy cows online or in magazines there will be a noticeable vein’ on the belly and although beef cattle don’t have this to the extent that dairy cattle do, it is a reliable indicator of good milk production. Remember even those people raising beef calves need milk production! Plenty of milk raises big, beefy calves that sell well and feed out better. The farms that have calves with heavy weaning weights on grass have cows that milk! Choose an individual that is eating eagerly. Good appetite and ‘attacking’ the pasture means more production – they weigh more from a beef standpoint as well as take more nutrition in from a milk production standpoint than the one who doesn’t eat as well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARemember that this is your foundation cow or cows. She will be your milk producer but will also produce calves that ideally become beef or replacement milkers. More than not you will probably be buying calves which allows you to raise them your way, but do pay attention to those calves’ mothers! If you find a cow that has these traits getting a daughter increases the chances of getting the kind of cow you want. Finding a dual purpose cow can take effort but allows maximum use of your resources.

Although for home production you don’t have to have a purebred it does allow you to have a predictable look and size. If you’re purchasing from someone close to home inquire about having her serviced either by their bull or artificially this eliminates your having to keep a bull.

Along with physical characteristics temperament is important. A good temperament makes a difference between an animal that is enjoyable to work with and one who wants to hurt you. Animals can have bad days too but selecting for temperament is a high importance for a homesteader.

Another option many are going to is the smaller breeds such as Dexters that produce milk and beef but in a smaller size. This can be a good choice for smaller pastures where more limited space is a factor.

Handle her often and rub her belly and udder even as a calf when there is no developed udder. You want to teach her that this is normal – if you wait until she calves and try to milk her she may be less than agreeable and kick or walk on you. If she’s already used to being handled this is just another day. For those not wanting to bottle feed calves an easy way to milk is milking out three quarters, leaving one full then letting the calf nurse that quarter. Be sure to milk first as the calf won’t be picky!

A homestead cow for milk and beef production can take some effort to find but she does exist. Good care and handling means she will provide milk and offspring that will feed your family for years to come. Many of these dual purpose origin breeds can live well into their teens with good management so it’s a long term investment! When you find one treasure her.


Abuse on Farms

I became aware last night of a video shot by an animal rights group at a farm in Ohio. It has taken this long to simmer to stringing words together that made some type of sense rather than venting alone but may still appear as both.

The idea that it’s standard practice to abuse animals in agriculture is wrong. Does it happen? Sure it does. There are bad actors in any industry and ag is no exception. There are many who for a moment reprimand an animal harsher than intended or who in standard acceptable practice goes wrong and if captured on video perhaps could look much different. But sticking cattle with pitchforks in the milking parlor, hitting, slapping and throwing calves, beating cows with crowbars is absolutely unacceptable. Dairy cattle will not produce in an environment there is fear and cattle subjected to such practices will be fearful.

The mention on the video of a mastitis cow – perhaps a surge in them – can be an indication that should have been picked up by the owner. Slapping a cow to encourage to get up in some situations is needed – tieing her up and hitting her in the head with a crowbar is NOT.

The farming and dairy industry has condemned these actions easily found online. This is not a video that is easy to watch. I was livid at the images on the screen. But this wasn’t even at a full boil until I found out the “undercover” person continued filming and letting it go on for WEEKS – nearly a month! – so that they could put a ‘go vegan’ on the end and benefit HSUS in Ohio call for more regulation. The cameraman should also face charges and if involved so should the organizations funding it…standing by and letting such abuse continue in order to paint all dairy farmers as cruel shows these groups DO NOT care for animal welfare. If they did the video would not have been held onto for nearly a month.

Most people farm and have animals for the love of animals. Even animals raised for food. There is no excuse for the kind of behavior demonstrated in this situation. Presenting that as happening on farms everywhere is slanderous – it does NOT.

The people involved need to be punished. Whether directly or indirectly involved there is no excuse for letting it continue.

What is “big ag”

There are terms that from time to time will be pondered here. With the previous entry about YellowTail supporting HSUS to the tune of $100,000 it has raised some eyebrows perhaps. After all for most people “live the country dream” is about a small farm.

On Twitter and elsewhere one of the terms people use is “big ag”. No one can quite define what “big ag” is so the farmers and ranchers mentioned in the previous entry may or may not be “big ag”. 

When pressed frustrated activists say “big ag” is like Cargill, Monsanto and other major agribusiness companies, which are far removed from the smaller operations. We hear of tight living quarters and no room to move and yet see Mr. Troy Hadrick’s cattle in the video clip – clean, well fed animals with plenty of room to move, what appeared to be very safe and functional surroundings.

Whether you have two, ten or a few hundred cattle isn’t as important as how their cared for. Like many “homesteaders” farmers care about their cattle. They’re out in all kinds of weather insuring their animals are fed.

And “big ag” may never get a definition.