Just imagine it: A juicy hamburger topped with melted cheese and sandwiched inside a toasted bun. Or maybe even a thick steak, grilled to perfection and dotted with seasoned butter. You savor each bite, knowing exactly what you’re eating because you raised the animal yourself.
Raising beef cattle is not rocket science, but it does take patience. You also need understanding of what is required to end up with the best meat you’ve ever tasted.
Breed Between the Lines
There are many different breeds of cattle around the country, so you’ll want to research some and learn what traits interest you most about the different ones.
When it comes to the meat, Angus is known to be well-marbled, which means that it has flecks of intramuscular fat throughout the meat. This is what makes it so tender and desirable.
Our family personally enjoys the leaner meat from Holsteins or even the sweeter beef from Jersey cattle. If you aren’t sure what kind you like, find someone nearby that raises beef cattle and ask them some questions.
Maybe even try sampling meat from different breeds to see which appeals to you most.
When selecting the size of animal, you will have a wide range of options. Some people might prefer to buy a larger animal (350 to 500 pounds), while others prefer the commitment of raising a bucket calf. One benefit of raising a bucket calf is that it will be tame and used to being handled. This is important when keeping the animal around your family or farm.
Cattle are herd animals and will be calmer when kept together. As they relax and graze more, you’ll find they even grow better from it.
Before you head out to pick out your first animal, be sure you know the basic terminology.
- A bull is a male that has not been castrated, while a steer is a male that has been castrated.
- A heifer is a female that has not had a calf, and a cow is a female that has had a calf.
A lot of people tend to call cattle in general “cows.” But it will benefit you when you go to buy one if you can know (and tell) the difference.
Buying Your Beef Cattle
As you look to buy, you’ll have two main options: a local sale barn or a private seller. If you’ve never been to a live cattle sale in person, I suggest that everyone go at least once. The rhythm of a good barn is something to experience.
The startlingly fast chant of the auctioneer, movement of the cattle and handlers in the pen, the observant eyes of the audience and the hum of bids being placed are sights to behold.
One word to the wise: Be cautious of two things when you visit the sale barn:
- No. 1: Have a price in mind ahead of time, and don’t get swept away in the excitement.
- No. 2: Keep your hands in your pockets unless you want to haul that critter home!
Until a person reaches a point that they are fairly knowledgeable (and comfortable) with judging an animal by merely looking at it, check around to find a reputable private seller. Someone who is honest and willing to teach you things can answer questions and offer you quality cattle.
Before you even purchase your animal, carefully look at it and the rest of the cattle around it. This will give you a good idea of what yours could eventually look like. If half of the herd is snotty and coughing and the other half is lame, turn right around and head back home.
While the animal you chose to raise and butcher doesn’t have to be show quality, there are a few things you might want to be aware of when looking for good conformation. Check to see if the animal has some width between the front shoulders and hindquarters (indicating good muscle development) and a straight back; the tail is not high-set; and that there is no potbelly.
Before you bring your new purchase home, make sure you have the proper facilities ready to go. Some things you can get by without, such as a stock trailer—you can just hire someone to haul your cattle home. But you need the following things, so plan accordingly:
- a pasture or appropriate space for them to graze in
- a building to shield them from the elements
- a feeder
- a water trough
- any other equipment you might want to use to tend to health issues
The majority of the time, you can avoid larger purchases, such as a squeeze chute or newly constructed working facilities.
During your time as a beef cattle owner, never feel like you’re in it alone! Reach out to experienced people around you. You can depend on your trusted local veterinarian, cattle buyer, butcher, county extension agent or even large-scale producers when you run into a question or problem.
Chances are that they’ve already seen it and can offer some insight on how to proceed.
Caring for Your Cattle
Figuring out what to feed your herd can be a bit of a challenge for someone new to raising beef cattle. A few things that all cattle need include:
- fresh, clean water
- a source of roughage (hay and/or green grass)
- an energy source to fatten them (grain)
- a good source of protein (which can somewhat depend on the time of year and the quality of grass already being provided).
Here in central Kansas where I live, about 3 to 3 1/2 acres of good grass would be needed to sustain one steer. The number of acres needed varies across the country. When it comes to sources of protein, alfalfa, cottonseed meal or soybean meal would all be sufficient options.
Should you decide to try your hand at raising alfalfa to feed, you could sufficiently provide for one steer by planting 2 to 3 acres of alfalfa.
Questioning whether the animal receives enough protein in their diet? Take a stroll through their pen. If the cow pies are “stacked up,” they’re doing fine. If they simply “make a pile,” they’re lacking in protein and you’ll need to up it in their ration of feed.
(A ration is the daily portion of mixed feed that is offered to an animal, composed of a variety of different feeds to meet the animal’s nutritional requirements.)
Make it a point to schedule when you feed. If cattle get too hungry and then eat too fast when finally fed, the grain could upset their stomachs and cause them to bloat and even die. (We’ll cover bloating in a bit.)
Be sure to check them often and keep on top of their regular care and maintenance.
The longer you raise cattle, the more chances you’ll have to end up with a sick one. Read up on the most common ailments ahead of time in the chance that you have to deal with a problem in your herd.
A two-prong approach should be taken toward the health of your beef cattle:
- Preventative care to maintain the best possible health for your animals
- Reactive care in response to any illnesses or injuries
Having good nutrition practices, minimizing stress when handling animals, staying on top of parasite and pest control, and keeping facilities clean and sanitary will greatly improve your experience raising beef.
Herd Health Basics
As with all animals, a vast number of problems could plague your cattle. Here are three of the most basic to watch out for:
Bloat occurs when cattle are unable to pass the gases produced during the fermentation process in the stomach. This leads to a distention of the rumen (a part of their stomach compartment).
Basically, the gases build up and, due to an obstruction in the esophagus, they’re unable to burp and remove the gas. Thus, the stomach fills with gas. If not treated, this can eventually lead to death.
You’ll be able to tell if the animal is bloated by looking at it from behind. If the stomach appears to be protruding out on the upper left side, it’s probably bloated. This isn’t something to play around with. If you believe you’re dealing with a case of bloat, call your veterinarian.
Some ways you can work to avoid future bloating in your herd include:
- not overfeeding grain
- keeping to a regular schedule for feeding
- allowing plenty of roughage (i.e., chopped hay) in the ration of feed
Foot rot is a common problem for cattle and is caused by bacteria picked up through a cut or wound. Something as simple as getting a cut while walking through a field of stubble or on loose rocks can provide opportunity for the bacteria to get inside.
You can identify foot rot by the swollen area between the toes, at the heel, and/or right above the hoof.
Wherever the wound is will likely be the most swollen. Depending on how severe the case is, the animal might become lame and reluctant to put weight on the foot. Antibiotics can be used to treat foot rot, but check with your vet to get the right medication.
Keep in mind whether you will still want to butcher the animal after treating with antibiotics. If so, look for a medication with a short withdrawal period.
(A withdrawal period is the time needed after an animal is treated with an antibiotic before it’s safely out of the body and the animal can be butchered without danger of harming those that consume the meat.)
Pneumonia is an infection of the lower respiratory tract that focuses on the lungs. If the lining of the windpipe has been damaged or irritated enough, it can let in such infections.
Some factors that can also cause pneumonia include stress from extreme changes in temperature or weather, or overcrowding during transportation.
Cattle with pneumonia might appear depressed, quit eating and just lie around. Their ears might droop when standing and their breathing be labored. Cattle don’t have excessive lung capacity to start with, so something that limits respiration even more can have deadly consequences.
You can use antibiotics (or even sulfa, if the animal isn’t dehydrated) to treat and slow the progression of pneumonia. But check with your vet to choose the best course of treatment.
Sometimes just a quick phone call can give you the information you need.
Basic Bovine Butchering
What weight you butcher your beef cattle at depends on what your goal is behind having them. Keep in mind that the bigger they are, the more marbling and fat they will have. So shoot for between 800 to 1,400 pounds.
One of the most important things to do before butchering an animal is to ensure they are long past the proper label withdrawal times if they’ve been given any antibiotics in the past. Read the back of your medicine bottles, and keep track of which animal got a shot and when.
Most locker plants only require a phone call to set up a date to drop off your cattle. They’ll do all of the work of putting the animal down and then processing and packaging it.
In the Cut
At some point, they’ll eventually call you to ask for cutting instructions. This means that they would like to know how you want your meat cut and packaged.
Do you prefer your ground hamburger to be in 1- or 2-pound packages? Do you want any stew meat, brisket, ribs, etc.? Or would you rather it all ground into hamburger? How thick do you want your steaks cut? How many steaks per package?
Tell your butcher if it’s the first time you’ve had beef processed, and feel free to ask questions to understand what the difference is between different cuts of meat.
When your meat is ready, the locker plant will contact you. Depending on how large the animal was and how much of it you’re keeping yourself (sometimes people will sell 1⁄4 or 1⁄2), you’ll want to make sure you have room in your freezer, an empty trunk in your vehicle and plenty of coolers or cardboard boxes to transport it in.
Pay attention to the outdoor temperature as that will affect how you transport the meat. The last time I picked up a beef from the locker plant, it was so cold outside that I was able to leave some of the meat in the car for a while.
It might have been colder outside than in my freezer!
Raising your own beef is a rewarding and enjoyable experience. There might be things that cause you to step outside of your comfort zone, but you will grow and learn from these experiences. Beef cattle can be a great addition to your farm. I’d also be willing to bet that you’ll enjoy that first cheeseburger a whole lot more knowing that you raised it than you would have if it came from a fast-food drive-thru!
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.