Determine The Cattle You Need

What are you looking for in a cow?  Do you want beef or milk?  What breeds are common in your area?  Consider all of these questions before you ever start looking for cattle.  If you’ve never owned cattle before, I’d recommend planning on buying a commercial-beef-cross weaned heifer or a steer to begin with.  Many homesteaders dream of owning a dairy cow that can provide them with milk and a yearly steer for the freezer, but save that dream for the future when you’ve learned a little more about cows and taking care of them.

Also, if the idea of a special breed of cow appeals to you, hold off on that dream for a bit, too.  Registered cattle are a little more complicated than cross-bred cattle, and they will cost a bit more, too.  Crosses will be easier for you to learn on, for starters.


Cattle tend to be stocky with long, rectangular bodies. Beef cattle are more muscular; dairy cattle have a truer rectangular shape. Zebu cattle (Bos indicus) are called humped cattle; each specimen has a hump over its shoulders. The head is small relative to body size; it has a long, straight snout. Cattle have strong necks and prominent dewlaps. Other physical characteristics vary between breed, such as the position of the ears or length of their legs.

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Reality Check

One thing I want to mention is that raising cattle will probably not make you very much money.  In fact, you will be lucky if just you break even, most years.  Some homesteaders think of cattle as an investment that will pay them back in the years to come.  This is possible, but extremely unlikely for many, many years.

However, I love raising cattle and we don’t do it for the money.  We do enjoy improving our herd, and they do a valuable service in keeping our fields free of brush and trees.  We have been able to raise our own beef.  But, it’s not significantly cheaper than grocery store beef, although the quality is much better.

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Weight and height vary greatly between domestic cattle breeds. Some weigh more than 3,000 pounds. Females of the Canadienne dairy breed reach 1,000 to 1,100 pounds. Charolais bulls reach 2,000 to more than 2,500 pounds; cows range from 1,250 to more than 2,000 pounds. At 2 years old, Belgian blue bulls average just over 1,700 pounds and around 53 inches tall, while females of the same age average just over 1,100 pounds. The preferred weight of a mature Dexter bull, a smaller breed, is less than 1,000 pounds; preferred height is 38 to 44 inches at the shoulder; a 3-year-old female Dexter should be 3 feet to 3 1/2 feet at the shoulder and she should weigh less than 750 pounds.

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We also own a milk cows.  We enjoy milking and handling our cows every day.  However, the milk-cow project has been much more of a money hole than the beef-cow project.  My husband teases me about our eight-dollar-per-gallon milk.  Good dairy cows are pricey; they are also fragile and it seems that we’ve had more than our fair share of bad luck with dairy cows.

I don’t say this to discourage you from getting into cattle.  I’m just explaining the realities of cattle farming.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that cattle, beef or dairy, will pay their own way or make you money for a few years.  By the time you invest in the infrastructure for cattle and buy the animals, it will take quite a while to get that money back.  And if you have to buy winter hay, it will take longer still.

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Color varies widely among breeds. Devons have a deep reddish-brown color. Holsteins have the characteristic “cow print” of black and white. Dutch Belteds are black with a distinct white belt around the belly. Other breeds have color variations from one specimen to another. Brahman, for example, range from light grey to almost black. Some specimens are reddish.

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Prepare Your Property for New Cattle

Things like fencing, pasture renovation, and water need to be fully considered before you ever put the first cow on the property.  For many homesteaders, the animals are the most exciting part, but don’t put the cart before the horse, or in this case the cow before the pasture.

First, check out the quality of your fields.  While cows can and will eat some weeds, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because it’s green a cow will eat it.  A field full of pigweed, broom sedge, blackberry briars, and thistle will starve a cow.  There may be some grass under all those weeds, but the cow will have to work mighty hard to be fed.  For cattle, you need sunny fields with grasses and legumes.

First, check out the quality of your fields.  While cows can and will eat some weeds, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because it’s green a cow will eat it.  A field full of pigweed, broom sedge, blackberry briars, and thistle will starve a cow.  There may be some grass under all those weeds, but the cow will have to work mighty hard to be fed.  For cattle, you need sunny fields with grasses and legumes.

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Vision and Hearing

Cattle are prey species. Their eyes are located on the sides of their heads, allowing them to capture movement around them. But they take longer to focus on specific objects. Their excellent peripheral vision creates a panorama effect on their sides. Their hearing tends to be sensitive to high-pitched noises, dairy breeds moreso than beef breeds.

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Decide on a Budget for Buying Cattle

Much of what you pay for a cow will be out of your control; the market is what it is.  However, be sure to budget for at least two cows if you don’t have any other livestock.  Cattle are herd creatures and your cow(s) will become lonely and probably quite annoying if she doesn’t have company in the field.

Don’t make the mistake of buying a “bargain” cow that you see listed on Craigslist.  If someone is selling cattle at significantly below market prices, there’s probably a reason, and it’s probably not because they are kind-hearted and generous.  Most likely, there is some sort of problem with the cow and they need to get rid of her at bargain-basement prices.  You (very likely) will not win in this situation.  You are buying someone else’s headache and will probably end up paying the difference in price at the veterinarian as you try to resolve the issues with the cow.

The only exception to this rule is when a particular area is suffering from a severe drought.  If you are from out of the area, you may be able to buy a good cow who is a little underfed for less than you might expect to pay in normal times.  However, as a general rule, with cattle, as with everything else in the world, you get what you pay for.

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Herbivores, cattle feed primarily on grasses and stems. To pull up grass or a plant, a bovine twists its tongue around the plant and cuts it off with its bottom teeth. In place of upper incisors, A bovine has “dental pads” ideal for grinding coarse grasses and other plant materials. The bovine is a ruminant, possessing a four-chambered stomach. The four chambers are the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum. Food first goes through the rumen and reticulum, where bacteria help break it down into cud, a substance cattle regurgitate and chew again. Then the food goes through the omasum and into the abomasum. This digestive process can take 70 to 100 hours.

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What Makes a Good Cow?

Of course, for your first few animals, you’re not looking for a show-quality cow.  However, you do want one that is healthy.  Here are a few characteristics of a healthy animal:

  • Eyes:  The eyes should be bright and clear.  Avoid buying a cow with a mucus discharge around the eyes.  This may indicate pinkeye.
  • Nose:  Likewise, avoid animals that have copious mucus coming from their noses.  A few beads of moisture on the nose is fine, but the cow or calf shouldn’t be snotty.
  • Breathing:  Animals should breathe normally.  Panting is normal on warm days but the animals shouldn’t be constantly coughing.  Some coughing may be normal if the farmer is feeding powdery feed or dusty hay.
  • Gender
  • Conformation:  Male animals should look masculine; females should look feminine.  Avoid buying cows that look “manly.”  They may be less fertile or even infertile.  Steers should have both testicles removed.  If one is present, you can have a vet remove it, but keep that in mind as you bargain for price.
  • Coat:  The coat of a healthy animal should be smooth.  In winter, it’s normal for the coat to be thicker and fuller, but the animal should not have bald spots.
  • Udder:  The best cows should have four quarters that are fairly similar in size.  A cow with one “dead” quarter can still produce plenty of milk for her calf.  However, if you plan on marketing fresh milk at some point, you may not want a three-quartered cow.  Also, keep in mind that a three-quartered cow may have had mastitis in the past and may be at risk for it in the future.  A dead quarter isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for most homesteaders, but it may be a factor that you keep in mind as you talk to the farmer.  Dairy cows should have well-formed udders that are nicely suspended from the body.  Avoid beef or dairy cows with poor udder suspension.  Additionally, make sure that the dairy cow has teats that will work with your desired milking setup.  Some dairy animals have teats that are too small to milk by hand.  If you don’t have a machine, don’t buy a cow if you can’t wrap three or four fingers around the teats.  Weaned heifers should have small undeveloped udders with little teats, half the size of your pinky finger.
  • Body:  Beef animals, both cows and steers, should be beefy.  They should have well-developed muscles in the shoulders and legs.  Their legs should be sturdy, well-balanced, and straight.  Both beef and dairy cows should have straight backs that are not swayed.  Dairy cows will be much slimmer than beef animals, but they shouldn’t look like walking skeletons.  They too should have straight, strong legs and move smoothly as they walk.
  • Disposition:  Avoid any animal that seems crazy, mean, or wild.  Beef cows are generally more flighty than dairy animals, but they shouldn’t bolt if you or the farmer walks quietly among them.  Disposition is especially important for dairy animals that you will be handling on a daily basis.
  • The best way to determine what makes a good cow is to look at lots of them.  Look at lots of pictures of cows, both show cows and non-show cows, and start to determine what commonalities the best cows have.  If you have a farming neighbor, talk to him and ask him to show you his best cows.  Another good way of educating yourself is to take classes that many agricultural extension agencies offer.

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After the birth, the cow will generally produce milk for ten months before they are given a period of rest of about two months before the next calf is born. The period when a cow produces milk is called a ‘lactation’, during which the average UK dairy cow of the Holstein Friesian breed produces 7900 litres of milk. Nowadays cows are kept for three to four of these lactation periods after which they are generally culled and their meat is processed. Dairy cows in the UK generally live to an age of about six years.

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