PHOTO: Ryan Thompson
Jesse Frost
March 23, 2015

Cattle are one of the most classic—perhaps even the most nostalgic—farm animals. We learn what sound a cow makes almost as early as we learn to speak. Regardless of how picturesque you think your land would be with a few cows grazing in the fields, you must keep in mind they’re very domesticated and have a number of demands that need to be met for them to thrive on your farm. Here are eight considerations to help you decide if cattle are the right fit for your farm and vice versa.

1. Check Your Pasture

The general rule of thumb for space is one cow to 1 acre of land. However, all land is not created equal: If that 1 acre is a bunch of sedge grass on clay soil, you’ll need to readjust your ratio. To know if your pastureland will support cattle, first determine the density and type of forage you grow. Do you have domestic grasses, like fescue and Bermudagrass, or native grasses, which need to be grazed lighter? Also consider the average amount of rainfall your area receives, as this could affect forage density, especially in summer.

You’ll also need to be mindful of age of the cattle you’ll be keeping: The older (and thus bigger) they are, the more they eat. Are they lactating cows? This makes a difference, too, because lactating mamas need higher-quality forage.

So, before buying 20 cattle to keep on 20 acres, really take a look around and determine what you have to work with. Your local extension office should be able to help you with this.

2. Choose Your Grazing System

There are two main ways of keeping cattle on pasture, and you’ll have to decide which works best for you. The first is continual grazing, where farmers allow cattle to have access to several acres at once, moving them only occasionally. The alternative, rotational grazing, packs the animals in tight and moves them regularly in electrified fences, imitating buffalo on the prairie. Although it’s lesser known than continual grazing and requires daily work, rotational grazing’s benefits stack up: It encourages grass diversity, soil retention, soil building and carbon sequestration. If you decide to pursue rotational grazing, one big challenge is figuring out a way to move your water with your cattle; however, if done well and consistently, rotational grazing can improve your pastures, making it possible to keep more cattle on a smaller plot of land.

3. Provide Shade

The color of the cattle you purchase determines how much shade they need—red and white obviously staying cooler than black—but in the dead heat of summer, pretty much all cattle need shade. Consider building a shade shack of some form, typically a small, movable structure with shade cloth over top, to pull into their paddocks each day. This is particularly helpful in a rotational grazing system, but continuous grazers will benefit as well. Cattle eat during the cooler times of day, then deposit their manure (aka their homemade fertilizer) in the tree line. With a shade shack, you can encourage them to put their manure in specific places, moving it often to prevent heavy impact.

4. Examine Your Water

Cattle drink different amounts of water at different times of the year. It could be just a few gallons in the winter or after a rain or 30 gallons a day during the heat of the summer. The rule of thumb is to provide each cow with 1 gallon of water per 100 pounds of animal in the winter and 2 gallons of water per 100 pounds in the summer. A lactating cow will drink nearly twice as much water as a dry cow, so just make sure you’re able to provide even more during calving season: At least 30 gallons per day year-round for each lactating cow is ideal. A creek or pond work nicely for this, but then compaction becomes an issue; rotating their access to the body of water can help with that. Your other option is to provide access to a waterer, which might be a rather large expense depending on where you live.

5. Look at Your Perimeter Fencing

Cattle are some of the easiest farm animals to fence. That being said, if you’re relying on permanent fencing, it needs to be sturdy. Cattle will push through weak barbed, high-tensile or woven wire fencing to get to something tasty on the other side. A couple strands of electrified wire can do the trick to begin with, but remember to check them regularly for fallen branches if the fence is near a tree line.

6. Set Up Handling Facilities

Cattle are large animals, and they can be ornery. It’s good to have a sturdy, adjustable corral on the farm to move them for sorting, culling and the like. If all you have is a chute and some cattle gates, that can work, too. In a rotational grazing system, it’s not as necessary to worm cattle as it is with continual grazing, as rotating helps minimize the parasite load. If planning to continually graze, then your handling facilities will need to be a little sturdier, preferably in a barn where you can work out of the weather. Having more docile breeds that are used to humans—yet another bonus to the rotational grazing system—will make the farmer’s need for good outbuildings a little less severe.

7. Locate Feed and Minerals

Grassfed beef has an ever-increasing market and should be thoroughly considered before purchasing cattle. If you plan to feed the cattle grain—corn and soybeans, typically—check locally to see what’s available. You might not be able to find non-genetically modified grain in your area, for example, thus forcing you to travel farther to get grain, which will drive up your feed costs. Grass, notably, is more or less free with good management.

8. Source and Store Hay

A full-grown cow can eat as much as 26 pounds of good hay per day, especially if it doesn’t have any other forage to munch on. Although it can be pricey, hay is a good investment in terms of added pasture fertility. Look around locally and see the type and quality of hay you can get. Start stocking up in the early summer, even if you don’t plan to get your cattle until the fall or winter. It needs to stay dry, so often your hay needs more shelter than your cattle. This may require you to build a small hoop house for the hay if you don’t have a hay barn. Also, if you don’t own a tractor with a front-end loader, you’ll probably need square bales. This means that you might need to talk to your hay source as soon as you can and ask them about square bale availability, as round bales are rapidly becoming the norm in many areas for ease of production.

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