The most important thing that anybody should know about anything about cattle farming is that no farm or ranch is the same. No one farm follows the production practices of another, and no one producer manages his or her cattle the same way as the next one does. If you want to know about everything involved with cattle farming, get to know the basics first, what makes every farm click and everything else in between before anything else. Dairy farming or beef farming, it doesn’t matter what, there are certain things within those enterprises that make them run, from the feed fed to the cattle and the finances needed to run the farm to the cattle themselves.
It’s a lot of Hard Work…
Anybody would be a fool if they said raising cattle was easy. You have to be a veterinarian, an accountant, a mechanic, a carpenter, a plumber, a salesperson, an electrician and everything else in between to manage a farm. You have machinery, buildings, fences, and handling facilities to maintain, repair–even replace if it’s absolutely necessary–cattle waterers to fix if they freeze over in the dead of winter or if they quit working on you all of a sudden, hay to haul, finances to keep on top of (loans, utility bills and taxes to pay), fences to maintain and repair, the list keeps going on. You will experience periods of fatigue during times when the farm needs you the most–be it mental or physical fatigue. Your muscles will ache, your head will ache, and there will be times when you wonder why in the heck did you get into the cattle business in the first place!
It can be Life Threatening, Dangerous Work…
When you experience fatigue or get complacent around machinery or livestock this can result in serious injuries or even death. It is so easy to get caught when you least expect it, and by the time you realize you’re caught it’s often too late. It can be as simple as forgetting to never step over a running PTO shaft, never turn your back on a seemingly docile bull, cut with your knife away from you, things like that. The best thing to ensure your survival and to keep all your limbs intact is to always be aware of your surroundings, know if and when you’re feeling tired, never wear loose clothing around running machinery, and show the utmost respect to all bulls and new momma cows with their new calves. There is a whole list of farm-safety things I could lay out in this article, but I fear it will only take up more space than I intend and cause me to severely veer off track.
Regardless, bulls and cows must be respected and often not trusted either, no matter if you’re working or managing a dairy or beef farm. Dairy bulls are especially dangerous and ones to never turn your back on. Beef bulls can be just as bad: at first they may seem quite gentle and docile, but they can turn on you with the slightest provocation. This is a concern if you haven’t established dominance with them and if they don’t respect you and your space. Hormones can play a large factor in a bull’s aggressiveness. If a bull sees you as competition for his harem, he will come after you. If not, and sees you as just a two-legged human and not a two-legged bovine, then you should be safe, but don’t take my word for it because who knows what goes through a bull’s mind during breeding season!
Hormones are also a big factor in aggressiveness in cows. A cow’s initial instincts when that calf hits the ground is for her to nurture, suckle and protect it with her life. This means that no other animal should come within ten yards (some more, some less) of her baby without her explicit permission!! To some she can attack without warning, but I can say I doubt that–they do give you a warning to stay away if you know what to look for. A curled lip, that cold gleam in her eye, head shaking, that sort of thing are body language signs to look for when she’s telling you to stay away. Bulls also have their way of communicating that they’re not tolerant of your presence too: showing their sides, arching their neck showing their size, head shaking, not acknowledging your presence at all (in other words, ignoring you) when you’re in the pen with them, etc. These are all warning signs to either get out, or be prepared to stand your ground and make it known that you don’t tolerate their behaviour towards you. Then be prepared to go through with your escape plan, if you have one.
It Takes Knowing a bit of Bovine Psychology
When raising cattle, you really have to know a fair bit about what cattle are telling you in order to tell if they’re just being friendly, a nuisance, a threat, or a potential cull. Cattle that acknowledge your presence, and come up to you but keep their respective distance from you (except if you invite them) are friendly. Some of the friendly ones can also be the ones that don’t ignore you but go back to what they were doing before you disrupted them can also be considered friendly. Even those that come running towards you when they see you–can be considered friendly, especially if you know them well enough to know when they come running like that it’s to get fed, and not as to create a stampede! Cattle that get high-strung, high-headed and make a run for it every time you are around are ones that should be culled–cattle should keep their respective distance from you, but not go so far as to try jumping over the fence to get away from you! Sometimes these types of animals can be trained to be calmer around people, but there are times when this can be more vain than rewarding. Some cattle just can’t be tamed and remain “wild.”
Breeding, Calving, Weaning, Growing…
Though not applicable to backgrounding/stockering and feedlot operations, knowing the basics about breeding, calving and weaning is important. The gestation period of a cow or heifer averages around 285 days or just over 9 months. A cow or heifer as a 50% chance of giving birth to a bull calf or heifer calf when not bred via sexed semen (artificial insemination or natural service). Calves on cows can be weaned when they are around 6 to 10 months old. Dairy calves are taken away from their dams a day or two (sometimes less) after birth, but aren’t weaned off the bottle until they’re around 3 to 4 months old. Estrous period for cows and heifers is 21 days long and estrus or heat lasts 18 to 24 hours long. Majority of heifers are ready to be bred by the time they are around 15 months old. A bull is ready to breed by the time he’s 12 months of age. Age of maturity for most cattle is around 3 to 4 years of age.
Calving and breeding periods will coincide, and the optimum length should be around 45 to 60 days. There is plenty of debate what time of year it is best to calve out cows, however a cow can be bred–and thus calve–at any time of the year. A cow can be bred either naturally–via a bull–or artificially–called artificial insemination via AI gun and semen straw.
Once the calf comes, the milk follows. The first milk a cow produces for her calf is called colostrum. After 48 hours she starts producing “normal” milk. Her highest nutritional requirements occur from late pregnancy to the third month of lactation. Her lowest is when she is dry and in her second trimester of pregnancy. Calves, once weaned, though, have different nutritional requirements–as they get older, protein requirements decrease.
Know What to Feed Them
Not all ranches and farms feed their cattle the same thing. This is probably where the greatest variations in how cattle are raised begins, and something which I can only cover briefly here. Essentially there are five types of feedstuffs that are fed to cattle: hay, silage, grain, alternative feeds, and pasture. The latter isn’t exactly fed to cattle, but rather cattle are set to feed themselves. However, with the former four, each farm and ranch varies in how much and what of each is fed to their animals.
All dairy farms need to feed their dairy cows a mixed ration–called a TMR or Total Mixed Ration–of high-quality hay, silage and grain to meet their cows’ nutritional requirements in protein, energy, calcium and phosphorus levels. The majority of hay fed to dairy cattle is comprised of alfalfa or clover and grasses like orchard grass and timothy. Silage–which is chopped up and fermented feed–is often of corn, since it has higher nutritional quality than barley or wheat. The grain portion of the TMR ration can be corn, barley or wheat, depending on what is more suitably grown in the area where the dairy farm is located.
As for beef farms, rations for cattle varies much more greatly than on your average dairy farms. There are three main enterprises involved in beef farming: cow-calf, backgrounding/stocker, and feedlot. The lowest-quality rations are given to cow-calf operations, and the highest-quality to feedlots. Cows on cow-calf operations often have no problem subsisting off of grass and hay, though some producers like to feed them grain and/or silage during the winter months. Backgrounding/stocker operations need to feed their calves so that they grow, so pasture, silage and good-quality hay is often fed. Feedlots finish cattle for slaughter, so an 85% grain-based “hot” ration is needed. The other 15% is comprised of roughage like silage.
All cattle need to be fed clean water and have access to mineral at all times. Beef producers feed their mineral to their cattle free-choice, sometimes mixed in with the feed. Dairy producers tend to have these minerals mixed in with the feed.
Where Are You Getting Your Feed From?
That’s a big question to ask yourself if you intend on starting your own cattle farm. Basically you have two choices: Make your own, or purchase it. If you make your own, you need your own equipment and the time to make the feed. You may need the extra labour if it’s required, depending on what type of feed you’re making. Making your own feed may bite into your profits because it means more money spent on fuel and maintenance/repair costs. Purchasing feed has its risks too. Though you don’t near half the machinery required for making your own feed, you still need a place to store it and risk the feed you’re getting to be not as good quality feed as you want it to be. There may be health risks associated with the feed you purchase–the hay you get may have bits of metal or garbage in it, or the feed you purchased from your feed store may be contaminated with something that will kill your animals.
Machinery Needed On a Cattle Farm
You can literally have as little as only a couple pieces of machinery to as many as to make any agricultural machinery retailer business proud. I’ve known a couple cattle producers that only have a few pieces of equipment: a hay-hauler truck, a livestock trailer, and a four-wheeler ATV. A lot of other producers can get by just fine with a good tractor with a front-end loader, a baler, haybine or mower, a good truck, a livestock trailer, and the choice between using the four-wheeler ATV (I prefer to call a “quad”) or a good cow horse. Many other cattle farmers need to have a lot more machinery than that: two to three tractors, a combine-harvester, several pieces of tillage machinery (disc, plow, cultivator, flexi-coil harrows, harrows, etc.), a few swathers, a few grain trucks, several grain augers, a forage harvester, a baler, a haybine, the list goes on. What type and how much of machinery you think you need to have (try not to think of it as “want”) on your cattle farm will affect your bottom line and how you raise your animals.
Think of it this way: If you want to graze your cattle on pasture all year round, there will be a point in time where you will realize that the machinery you want isn’t necessarily the same pieces of machinery you will need!!
Every producer of every cattle farm should take account of their finances–purchases, loans, utility bills, fuel bills, fertilizer bills, feed purchases, veterinary bills, repair/maintenance payments, rent payments/income, cattle sales, feed sales, and other things that affect the operations of your farm. From there you can do the evaluation to see if you are losing money, just breaking even or actually making a little money from your farm. It can also tell you where you are weakest or strongest, and what choices you should consider if you wish to increase income levels to your business. Making and maintaining a business plan can help a lot here too.
Sheltering Your Cattle
Shelter isn’t as big an importance, though a simple lean-to shed or a stand of trees will suffice for most. Dairy cattle need to be kept confined to a barn during the winter months. This may not be so in areas where they don’t experience as extreme, frigid or snowy winters as much of North America has. If they don’t have much shelter, they need to compensate for the lack of warmth by eating more feed so that they can stay warm. This is also true with thin beef cows.
Herd Health and Signs of Illness or Disease
Most herds need to keep up to date with their vaccinations every year, depending on the age and gender of the animals as well as where you are farming them. In most areas of the USA and Canada, vaccinating for diseases such as Blackleg (with Clostridia sp. related bacteria), Bovine Viral Diarrhea, Bovine Respiratory Disease Virus complex and others is very important. Leptospirosis vaccinations for heifers and trichomoniasis vaccinations for young bulls are also important for a breeding herd. Some areas require vaccinations against Anthrax as well. Check with your local large-animal veterinarian for what types of diseases you need to vaccinate your animals for.
Check your herd regularly for signs of illness or disease. The most obvious symptoms I’ve found with the cattle we had were listlessness or lethargic activity–calves that normally should be interested in food are not, they are either slow to get up or wanting to lay down and rest instead of get up and eat. Other signs include lameness, dull eyes, loss of body condition, hairless patches, kicking at the belly, coughing, snotty nose, too many abortions in your herd to be considered normal, or anything unusual about the animal’s behaviour or parts of its anatomy, ranging from the udder or scrotum to the eyes. Be cautious that one symptom you see may be a sign of a much bigger problem.
Where You Get Livestock, You Will Get Deadstock
As the Circle of Life goes around and around, you cannot expect any one of your animals, young and old alike, to live forever. You will get cattle that will die on you, unexpectedly or otherwise. That is just something to expect on every livestock farm or ranch. It is hard for every producer to have an animal die on them, but that’s just a part of life. Many people who are generations removed from farm life do not understand this, but as someone who wants to get into cattle or any kind of livestock business this is a hard fact you must learn or else you’re not going to last very long in it.
What you do with those dead animals depends on local laws. Some ranches are so big and vast that it’s no problem to drag a carcass out to the middle of a pasture and let the scavengers take care of it. Other areas require such carcasses to be immediately buried or burned or have a livestock-rendering truck come to take them away for you. Some people who have grown attached to a particular cow or bull, prized or not, choose to bury that animal just like someone would bury a pet dog or cat that was a part of the family for years.