Rearing cattle is a lot of hard work but a rewarding experience. It takes a fair bit of knowledge in nutritional, physiological, reproductive and metabolic aspects of these domestic animals.
Feeding the Critters
Cattle are herbivores, which means they eat plants or any kind of plant matter that they eat themselves or is harvested, stored then fed to them. This can be in the form of or based of grasses, forbs and legumes. These plants are fed as hay, silage or grain, or can be harvested by the cattle themselves as pasture. Most cattle are let out to pasture from late spring to early fall and fed hay and/or silage during the winter months. Some areas are quite mild enough to allow cattle to graze on pastures all year round.
Physiological needs of cattle affect their nutritional demands. For instance, a lactating cow requires a greater quantity and quality of feed than dry cows do. Growing cattle need less protein as they get older; the young, just weaned calves have a protein requirement of around 16%, whereas yearling cattle have a protein requirement of around 12%. By the time they reach feedlot stage, they have a protein requirement ranging around 8 to 10%. The minimum protein requirement for all cattle is 8%.
As far as cows are concerned, their protein requirements are different. A rule of thumb to figure is 7% protein requirements in mid gestation, 9% in late gestation, and 11% at calving and start of lactation. A cow’s peak nutritional requirements occurs later in lactation–at 2 to 3 months post-partum.
With all the numbers above, you need to allocate and figure your feed sources according to the animals’ physiological and reproductive requirements. Lactating cows need to put a lot of energy into producing milk and for themselves, which is why they have higher requirements than calves or dry cows or even bulls. Figure that all bovines have a maintenance requirement of consuming 2.5% of their body weight per day.
Knowing the diseases and illnesses that are common in your area is a great help to better caring and raising of them. There are many, many diseases associated with cattle, some of them being the following:
- Bovine Viral Diarrhea
- Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis
- Bovine Respiratory Disease
- Red Water Disease
- Milk Fever
- Hardware Disease
- Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy
- Food and Mouth Disease
- Fescue Toxicity
- Grass/Winter Tetany
Note that many diseases can be non-treatable, or even have no vaccinations available for them. Others are metabolic, anti-quality factor diseases, or sexually-transmitted diseases. Some diseases are more prone to affect certain types of livestock than others. For instance, milk fever and ketosis are more likely to affect dairy cattle than beef cattle. There are also a number of diseases where a veterinarian’s expertise is needed in order to save the animal.
Whatever diseases are common in your area or for your animals, make sure that you are aware of them and understand which ones you can vaccinate for and which ones can be prevented simply by common-sense management practices.
Hormones–Are they Necessary?
In my personal opinion, not if they’re absolutely necessary. Growth hormone promotants are only there for producers to use to give their cattle greater growth and feed efficiency, and is only used in cattle that are raised to be later slaughtered for beef. Some people believe that cattle are “constantly pumped” with hormones or are “fed hormones” or all cattle are given hormones in some point of their lives. All of these are not true. Hormones are only administered after the time when they’ve become ineffective, which is a period of around 100 days after application. They cannot be fed because they are rendered unusuable once in the stomach. The only site that hormones are injected are in the ears. Lastly, only most feeder/stocker cattle are administered hormones, and majority of United States’ conventionally-raised dairy cows. But bulls, beef cows, replacement heifers and young calves are not given hormones because it is not necessary.
It is really up to the producer to use hormones in their cattle. It is neither right nor wrong if you choose to use or not use growth hormone promotants in your feeder/stocker cattle.
If you’re into breeding cattle, it’s important to know some things about bovine reproduction. Cattle are not monogamous animals, they are polygamous. This means that one bull can be used to breed around 25 to 50 cows per breeding season, depending on pasture size and proximity of the cows to be bred. Young bulls will breed less cows than mature bulls due to their inexperience–as virgin bulls this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Expect a yearling bull to breed around 10 to 20 cows per breeding season. However, young bulls can breed more cows if the breeding season is longer than benchmark, which is around 45 to 60 days long.
A cow’s estrous period lasts an average of 21 days in length. Her estrus period (also known as the time she’s “in heat”) lasts an average of 24 hours. This is the same with heifers. A heifer can be expected to be ready for breeding by the time she is around 15 months of age. The time she reaches puberty, though differs depending on her genetics and breeding. Some heifers can reach puberty as early as 5 to 6 months of age; others won’t until they’re over 18 months of age. You can expect the latter age of puberty from Brahman heifers, the former from Jersey heifers. Even some beef heifers of Angus, Murray Grey or Gelbvieh often will reach puberty at an early age.
The gestation period for a cow is an average of 285 days in length, or 9.5 months long. Actual gestation length differs with breed, just like with age of puberty above. Gestation is another word for length of pregnancy, the time when a calf is growing in the cow’s uterus and she shows no signs of estrus.
Once the calf is born, either by herself or by your assistance (if it was needed), the cow produces “first milk” called colostrum, which cotains crucial immunoglobins and antibodies that the calf needs for its health. After 24 to 72 hours the colostrum milk turns to “normal” milk. The calf is raised on its milk, and slowly introduced on the forage that its mother eats on its own until weaning time, which is around 6 to 10 months post-partum (after giving birth).
The cow ideally should be bred 80 to 90 days post-partum, though a lot of other producers prefer to have their cows bred a month sooner–which is around 45 to 60 days post-partum. A cow should begin to display normal estrus activity at least 18 to 30 days after calving. Breeding period should be 45 to 60 days long.
All of these numbers may seem daunting, but their necessary to know when timing breeding, calving and weaning, as well as making culling decisions in your cowherd.
Culling Your Animals
If you are raising a breeding herd, no matter if it’s dairy or beef, you need to sell certain animals that will potentially bring down your herd further if you didn’t sell them and replace them with the next generation of better breeding stock. Quite frankly, if you choose to keep both the old and new animals, you will be facing major over-stocking issues. Thus culling, or taking out unproductive inferior-quality animals out of your herd solves these issues. Certain culling criteria to consider are:
- Open (non-pregnant) cows. If some cows or heifers remain open after a certain breeding period, they should be sold.
- Temperament or Disposition. Cows or heifers with bad temperament–flighty or aggressive–should not be kept around. Same thing goes with bulls.
- Conformation. Feet and leg conformation need to be of importance in your cow herd, especially if they need to be travelling a fair distance every day. Any animals with lameness issues should be gone. Udder and teat size is also important: cows need to have tight, square udders and small teats. A calf cannot latch onto a large, coke-bottle-sized teat because it is just too big for its mouth. Other things to consider are pelvic size, depth of rib, heart girth, length of body, depth of the hind quarters, and uniformity throughout. Bulls must also have excellent conformation in order to be keepers in a cow herd.
- Milking ability. Though not as much of an importance in beef herds as in dairy herds, if a beef cow isn’t producing enough milk for her calf she needs to go.
- Mothering ability. If a cow or heifer will not accept her calf or does not provide the care for it, she must go. You can give her one chance, but if she fails the second time she needs to go.
- Health. A cow that is affected with a non-ambulatory and non-food-safety-issue disease like Johne’s Disease or BVD should be culled, as these diseases are non-treatable, the latter easily spread throughout the herd. Cows with cancer-eye should also be culled.
- Poor performance. Cows that raise poor or below-average quality calves need to be culled. Below-quality calves result from poor milking ability, poor health, or poor genetics.
- Prolapse. Cows that experience vaginal prolapse need to be culled because it is a genetic condition that repeats on their daughters. As a result, the cow’s daughters should also be culled.
- Mouth. Majority of cows that have no teeth or have their molars worn down to their gums cannot subsist well on the same feed fed to other cows with teeth.
- Age. Most cows should be culled on the above criteria, not age as well. As long as they are in good shape, produce good calves and still have good teeth, they can still stay in the herd as long as possible.
Depending on your operation, you can have shelter available ranging from treed areas or windbreak panels to lean-to sheds or one-sided pole barns. Cattle can also be kept in buildings like utility barns like what most dairy barns are comprised of. Majority of beef cattle don’t need to be housed in barns; dairy cattle are though, even though they also don’t need to be. It’s more of a matter of convenience that they’re confined to barns than out on pastures.
Selling and Buying Cattle
You have several means to buy and sell cattle: through dispersal sales, the auction mart, or direct. Most cattle are purchased in $/lb or a certain amount per hundred weight (as $/cwt). Prices change week to week and differ from one auction location to the other. Purebred cattle are sold and bought differently, based on physical and genetic quality, not in dollars per pound. Prices for a prized purebred cow can go as high as $50,000 or more. Even bulls can go over that amount, some up to or over $100,000.
To start a cow herd, you don’t need the most expensive cows or the most expensive bull. Just look for cows that are good quality to start with and go from there. If you’re backgrounding cattle instead, calves that are healthy and in good quality are good to go for.
When it’s time to sell, sell them where you think is the best place to sell. It can be a matter of convenience or a matter of how much money you want to get for them. Don’t sell your cow herd via dispersal sales if you don’t intend on selling all or most of your animals. Sell via auction barn for your culls and calves. Direct can be useful if you intend on selling the meat from your animals directly to customers. Note that it takes a lot of marketing to be able to do that successfully.
Whether you’re managing a small herd, or operating a large one, it is useful to know anything about cattle should it come to some importance. Everything from reproduction to health is crucial to know when raising cattle, no matter what you raise or how you raise them.