The thought of home-raised meat that has been fed by hand, carefully tended to and humanely butchered to fill your family’s freezer is enticing to many a homesteader. Whether it’s a flock of meat chickens in the back coop, some rabbits in the new hutch, or a couple of beef cattle calves that you’ve bought, it’s hard to beat home-grown meat raised right.
Purchasing and raising beef cattle can seem like a huge step—a daunting thought and rather large commitment. It’s true that cattle are for sure a bigger project than a handful of chicks. But the return you get for your effort is also much greater.
Raising beef cattle can offer a great learning experience for not only you but the entire family! Here are several tips that will help you get started on the right “hoof” when you decide to purchase your first beef cattle:
1. Know the Purpose of Your Beef Cattle
Knowing what the purpose is for your cattle will be helpful when picking out your cattle. It will also benefit you in the long run, as you seek to make them a profitable addition to your homestead. This is true even if the return comes simply in the form of fresh milk for your family and not necessarily additional dollars.
For example, while Angus beef cattle will produce milk, it’s generally not as much of a quantity as the milk that would come from a dairy cow such as a Holstein or Jersey. So if looking for a high-producing milk cow, Angus likely wouldn’t be one of your top choices.
2. Look for Good-Quality Animals
High-quality beef cattle with good genetics and calm dispositions are especially desirable. Genetics will play a larger role in your search if you think you might want to eventually begin breeding cattle and are searching for heifers and bulls to raise and breed.
Good conformation, though not necessarily a major factor for an animal you intend to raise and butcher, is also important if you ever hope to raise cattle to breed. Yet even in the shorter-term scenarios, confirmation can still play a major role.
For example, a heifer with poorly conformed hooves can begin to stand and distribute her weight unevenly among the hooves. This could eventually lead to lameness.
As far as the disposition of the family calf goes, it is very important to consider as it will likely grow up and be handled around (if not by) any children in the family. Look for an animal with a calm nature that has been raised by a gentle handler. Then continue to use gentle handling practices and keep a calm environment for the animal to grow up in.
3. Purchase from an Individual
While the thought of stepping into a live sale at a local sale barn might seem intriguing, keep in mind that for a smaller operation it is even more important to bring home the right beef cattle.
Large feedlots can afford to be somewhat less particular. Their animals are not intended to be handled as much or kept in as close of proximity to people as the backyard heifer or steer. Whether it’s temperament, health or genetics, larger-scale operations won’t likely be as particular as a homesteader might.
One of the most important reasons to avoid buying from a livestock sale? You won’t have much information on the animal you’re purchasing and the amount of sickness it has been exposed to at the sale. From background and handling, previous ailments and the original herd health—not to mention exposure to sickness from simply being at the sale—there are multiple reasons to look for a private seller over a sale barn.
With a private seller, you’ll have a better chance of seeing the original herd the calf comes from, hear about any previous ailments, and hopefully have an open, honest conversation about anything you might have questions on (within reason!).
4. Know the Needs Before Heading Home
Different animals will have different needs. If you intend to bring home a young calf, you might need to purchase milk replacer and electrolytes to have on hand. If it’s a freshly weaned calf, make sure you have something to offer it that will be “soft” and easy for them to digest, such as hay and grass.
It’s good to think carefully through each step of caring for your new homestead addition before jumping right in to find yourself in over your head.
5. Be Diligent about Health
This point ties in with number three, as you look to purchase beef cattle from an individual. Make sure you take time to ask the seller questions about not only the health of the animal you may purchase but the rest of the herd.
When was the last time this animal was sick? What did it have?
Ask if you can see the rest of the herd. Look for signs of illness such as any snotty noses, coughing and wheezing, or even signs of lameness throughout the herd. Be aware and keep your eyes open for ailments you might face in the future with your own cattle.
6. Prepare the Facilities
It’s helpful to come home with a new animal and have the facilities already prepared. This includes basic feed and fresh water, as well as supplemental items like mineral licks.
Feeders and waterers should be cleaned out and filled with fresh feed and water. Make sure your building is solid and not lacking any major repairs. If using electric fencing, make sure the wires are clear of any brush or grass that might interfere and that the battery is working to keep them hot consistently.
7. In Case of Emergency
Of course you can’t prepare for every situation that might arise. But it can be helpful to keep a few basic medications on hand.
Consider having treatment options available for ailments such as coccidiosis or BVD (Bovine Viral Diarrhea). If raising small calves, make sure electrolytes are kept handy. Save your trusted veterinarian’s number on speed dial and a good friend to call in case a situation is more serious than you’re comfortable dealing with alone.
8. Set Your Butcher Date
In today’s world, one of the most common challenges for anyone raising their own meat is finding a good date to get it taken into a locker plant for butchering. Meat lockers book months (if not years) in advance, and people will hog spots or butcher dates like they’ve hogged toilet paper in the past.
For this reason, even though your bottle calf is a long ways from being ready to butcher, consider doing some calling around to local meat lockers to see how far out they’re taking reservations. If you can, do a little math to figure out how long it might be until you’re ready to butcher. Consider reserving a spot in advance to ensure you’ll have somewhere to take your calf when it’s finally ready to go.
Raising beef cattle can be a very rewarding, educational experience. The longer you have beef cattle on your homestead, the more chances you will have for an experience to catch you by surprise and teach you something new.
Strive to keep a calm mind and an openness to learn from each situation that comes up. Be willing to ask for help and open to trying new things. Before you know it, the seasons will have passed and you’ll have a freezer full of fresh meat!