There are many reasons farmers, ranchers and homesteaders choose cows as their livestock. Raising cattle for beef, for milk, or for both are great reasons. There are agri-tourism benefits as well to some of the smaller breeds. Plus they’re just plain good for the land as well! Despite what mainstream media is telling us now a days.
Raising cattle for beef is a big undertaking, mainly because cows are large herd animals. I hear many small farmers and homesteaders talk about pigs, goats and sheep because they are more manageable in size and less intimidating.
But there’s nothing like fresh, homegrown beef. And there’s nothing like a herd of cows, not for us anyways. Of course that’s my opinion as a cattle producer so let’s break down how to raise cattle for beef.
On our operation we have a suckler herd. A what?? That’s just a fancy way of saying that our main herd is made up of mostly mama cows and their calves. We let the mama take care of the calves until they’re about 6-8 months old. We do this for many reasons, the number one being that we believe that’s the way God intended and it is whats best for both calves and cows.
How many cows should you have?
That’s depends on a lot of factors. First, how much land do you have? How much money do you have to invest in the cows and for hay/grain purchases? For a small homestead or farm, 2-3 mama cows would be a nice starter herd size. They would give you 2-3 calves each year that you would either sell, raise for beef or keep to grow your herd.
Do I need a bull?
Your cows need to have babies somehow so this is an important factor. Unless you have cows as pets or minis and breeding isn’t your goal but if you’re raising cows for beef then you need calves every year. Right now we have 12 mamas so we keep a bull in with them. If we only had 2-3 then I might consider artificially inseminating them or just leasing a bull for a few months. This also depends on how comfortable you are with them as bulls can be more aggressive. Our bull is very docile but I still don’t trust him and I never let the kids in the field with him. My husband pets him regularly which I think is good for him and keeps him use to us but I’m leaving that job to him!
I’ve got cows, now what?
So you’ve decided how many cows and what to do about reproduction. Now you take care of them! Make sure they always have plenty of fresh water, grass and hay when needed. We don’t supplement any grain to our main herd but depending on where you live you might need to.
Once your mama cows calve, you need to keep an eye on them. Check them over daily, making sure they look healthy and the calves are drinking milk. We check our cows daily, sometimes multiple times, even when they aren’t calving but we pay special attention when they have new babies. Trust their instincts, mama cows are smart and they know what they’re doing (most of the time!) I think its important to get to know your cows and your overall herd environment that way when something is wrong or off you’ll know pretty quickly by their behavior.
When you choose to wean your calves you’ll need a way to separate them from the mamas. We have working pens that we can bring them into and separate. This is also the time we tag and deworm if needed. This is also where walking around your cows daily and getting them used to you is super helpful because wild cows are so hard to work with in pens. It’s MUCH easier if they are calm and comfortable around you. If you need help with this process ask around for help, you may be able to hire some cowboys to do it for you the first time as well, depending where you live.
Raising Cows for Beef
The calves have weaned and you made it through a noisy couple of days! That can be hard the first time but if you’ve left them with their mamas for 6-8 months, rest assured, they are old enough to be separated and you let them have a good amount of time together. Those mamas need to put some weight back on and get themselves ready for a new calf in a few months.
After our calves chill out for a week or two and get used to being together in their own new little herd, then I start them on grain. We do a combination of grass and grain fed beef. So I start them very small and work our way up to higher rations. I aim to finish them in 4-6 months, depends on the time of year, how quickly they start gaining weight and what butcher dates are available.
I would rather grow them a little slower and more healthy than dump unlimited grain into them for 100 days and ship them off. My goal is healthy, nutritious beef that is also a healthy, happy lifestyle for the cows.
You’ll want to call your butcher quite a few months out. Start asking family and friends early on who they use and why they like them. I’ve seen some very questionable butchers and this is not something you want to skimp on, especially if you have customers picking up their beef at the butcher.
The butcher will tell you how to drop them off on your appointed date. They will also work with you and your customers to determine how it will be processed. For instance you will choose what cuts you’re getting and how you want it packaged. Most butchers are very good at walking you through this process, I also wrote an article on How to Buy Beef Directly From a Farmer and I go into some more detail there as well.
The butcher will give you a date for pickup, bring coolers. It will be frozen for you. Then put it away in your freezer and enjoy for many months to come! If you’ve sold some of the beef, put that money right back into your herd.
Raising cows for beef is the best way we have found as small farmers to make a profit on our farm. We’ve had our herd for 2 years and we are now seeing some real profits from beef sales that goes right back into our herd in the form of feed or improving pastures. Also I want to mention here that keeping good records and accounting is important to know how much you are putting into your cows and how much you are getting out them if you’re selling beef. I think I will write an article on that next!
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below! I love talking about cows and am happy to answer any questions.