One goal of the homesteading lifestyle is to live as independently as possible, providing for oneself and one’s family. Owning a few cattle can further that goal, since a cow or two can provide meat, milk, and lawn mowing.
Some homesteaders are intimidated at the prospect of spending several thousand dollars on animals that are quite large and have their own unique needs. Don’t get me wrong, it is quite an investment and it is a huge step for any homesteader. However, the process of buying a cow or two doesn’t need to be so scary.
Determine Cattle Your Needs
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.
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.
I also own a milk cow. I enjoy milking and handling my cow 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.
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.
Also, check your fencing. If you bought your property already fenced, don’t assume that the fencing is intact. Cows will find the one hole in your fence, and it usually happens when you’re all dressed up and headed to a wedding or a funeral.
Look at your barns and outbuildings, particularly if you live in an area that sees subzero temperatures and copious precipitation in the winter. You may need to build a shed or shelter for cattle if you live in a place like this. For many parts of the United States, though, a good windbreak will be sufficient in the winter.
Be sure that you can provide plenty of water in the summer and winter. Cows drink an astonishing amount of water, even when it’s cold.
Also, remember that cattle eat a tremendous amount of forage. What seems like a lot of grass may not feed as many cattle as you expect, especially during the dry season. Check with your local extension agent to determine how many animals per acre you can stock on your property.
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 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.
Examine the Cattle Buying Market
Take a few weeks to check out the prices for cows in your area. Look at Craigslist and the prices at the sale barns to get an idea of what is a fair price for a weaned cow, a yearling, a fully-grown cow, and a bred cow. This is the best way to get to know what the going rate for cattle is. Some farmers price their cattle higher and expect you to dicker with them. However, don’t waste the farmer’s time if you really can’t offer close to what they are asking for. Wait and save your money until you can afford what you really want.
As in most homesteading projects, you should plan to start small. Don’t plan on buying a whole herd of cattle. If you’re going to make some rookie mistakes (and you will make them), you will want to make them with two or three animals rather than thirty. Not only is the investment smaller, but many beginners’ errors can be easily rectified in a handful of animals. Fixing a problem with a few dozen can be much more difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.
Starting small doesn’t mean that you should buy a few bottle calves right off the bat. Raising bottle babies can be a fun, rewarding experience. However, the calves are frequently quite fragile. It’s often difficult to find calves that are healthy and strong, and a calf that struggles to stay healthy may never grow to its full potential. We’ve had just as many calves that needed intensive nursing and care as we’ve had ones who were easy to raise. It’s quite a gamble and you want your first experience with cows to be as easy as possible. At any rate, by the time you pay for the bottle calf, milk replacer, calf starter, and high-quality hay, you probably would have been better off to just buy a weaned calf, which is what I recommend for beginners.
Weaned calves are usually about six months old. By this point, their immune systems are fairly well developed. They are able to eat grass and hay and live away from their mamas. You will have time to get used to caring for the cows before they need to be bred, something that will need to happen around the time they are fifteen months of age. They are also smaller than a full-grown cow and quite a bit less intimidating.
If you can find a weaned heifer or two and a steer from a healthy, reputable herd, that is a great place to start your own herd of cattle. After you’ve gotten the hang of caring for them, you may want to add one or two bred cows. Take your time and be patient as you build your herd. For your first calving season, you probably only want to have to deal with a few cows, and you won’t want to have to handle a bull until you’ve got significant experience with cows.
Do Your Homework When Buying Cattle
Before you buy, try to learn about what makes a good cow. For both beef and dairy animals, there are some commonalities. They should be bright-eyed and just look fairly content. You can tell a lot about a cow from looking her in the eye. She should be interested in what is going on around her, but she shouldn’t be so nervous that she’s dancing, sprinting away from you, or charging you.
Cows will be a bit nervous around new people, particularly younger heifers. But if she’s trying to destroy the fencing or hurt herself in an effort to flee your presence, you probably want to pass on her. Wild cattle are a pain in the neck to handle, and while you may be hopeful that you can calm her, you don’t want this to be your first experience with cattle.
Ask about the age of the cow. Young cows should look young. Ask if the heifer has been around a bull. If she’s between 7-12 months old, you want that answer to be no. You don’t want to risk that she’s pregnant. Young cows can have trouble calving if they’re too young, and they need to expend most of their energy into growing their own bodies rather than supporting a pregnancy.
In fact, most cows need to wait until they are at least two years old before they have their first calf. Since a cow’s pregnancy lasts for 9 months, this means that they shouldn’t be bred until 15 months of age. Even just 3 or 4 months of growth in a heifer can mean the difference between an easy calving and a healthy, strong, good-sized calf and a difficult calving and small calf. Cows generally start coming into heat, or ovulating, when they are around a year old, but it can begin sooner. Our Angus heifers start having reliable heats when they are around 9 or 10 months old. However, other breeds, especially dairy breeds like Jerseys, may come into heat earlier than that. A good farmer will try to keep young heifers away from bulls from the time that they are weaned around 6 months of age until they are bred, usually around 15 months of age.
Also, if you’re buying from a farm, take a gander at the farm atmosphere in general. If the place is well tended and clean-ish, chances are that the farmer is pretty good about caring for his animals. However, if the animals are standing in filth, (exceptions made for monsoon season when every barnyard becomes a mudhole) flies are everywhere, and trash is piled up, you may want to pass. You could get a good animal, but then again, this kind of farmer may not be the most conscientious about animal care.
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.
- 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.
This pdf from the Alabama Extension service goes into great detail about what makes a good beef animal.
This pdf from Mississippi State University explains in detail what a good dairy cow should look like.
Where to Buy Cattle
The absolute worst place to buy cattle is at a livestock auction. This is where farmers go to sell their cull animals, and when the cows are run through the ring, you have no clue about where they came from, what their general health status is, or what diseases they may be carrying. Of course, there are many fine animals sold at auction every day. The problem, though, with many auctions is that you can’t tell from looking at the cow whether she is sound, healthy, and strong. You just can’t know and it’s a gamble of hundreds of dollars.
Another decent place to buy cattle from is from farmers who advertise online. Places like Craigslist are full of ads where farmers are trying sell their cows. One nice thing about this format is that you can frequently text or email the question that you have for the farmer, and he can respond when it’s convenient for him. Try to be concise and not bombard him with texts and emails. If you call someone, be respectful of their time. Ask the questions that you have and listen carefully to the answers. But don’t expect him to advise you on building your herd.
However, when buying from total strangers, use caution. You don’t know these people. Even if they seem nice, they may not be completely honest. Bring a cattle-wise friend along to make sure that you get a good deal. Also, if the cows have large, round stickers on their bodies or sticky areas of adhesive on their coats, you may want to pass. Sometimes people will buy cattle at auction and try to resale them at a profit. Those stickers are the tip-off that the cattle came from the auction.
The best place to buy cattle is from a reputable farmer in your area. Ask farming friends or the local agricultural extension agent for recommendations. You may pay more for cattle purchased this way, but you may save yourself some headaches when dealing with a person whose reputation is on the line with every sale.
Take Your Time
Don’t get in a hurry as you search for cattle. Take your time and enjoy the process. If you get in a rush and don’t think the process over, you may end up buying cattle that bring you more frustration than pleasure. If you tend to be impulsive, you may want to go by and look at cattle before you bring the livestock trailer along. This will give you a chance really think over the decision. Most homesteaders don’t have money to waste on a poor decision, so take your time. If you have a bad feeling about something, let the opportunity go by. Any time I’ve rushed into a cow-buying decision, ignoring the voice that said, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea…” I’ve regretted it.
Bringing Home Your New Cattle
If you don’t have a way to transport the cattle home, you will need to ask the farmer if he delivers and what his price is for that.
When you get home, you’ll probably want to go ahead and vaccinate the cattle for the diseases that are common in your area. Even if they were vaccinated in the past, it won’t hurt them to do it again, and that way that you make sure that they are protected.
Cattle don’t like change, so if you can buy the same brand of feed from the original owner, that will help them adjust to the change. They may act nervous for a few days until they settle in. Keep a close eye on them for a week or two since they may be encountering viruses that they’ve never dealt with before, and they may get sick.
If a cow stops eating for a day or two, begins breathing heavily, or shows other signs of illness, call the vet right away. There’s no reason for an animal to suffer and many medicines can make the animal more comfortable until the virus runs its course. Additionally, it’s very easy for a respiratory illness to become pneumonia in young cattle especially. So be proactive with your cattle’s health.
For the first week or two, you may want to keep the cattle in a smaller pen. Get in the habit of taking them a little treat around the same time each day, such as grain or alfalfa cubes. This will help you round them up when you need them because they will begin to associate you with snacks. Figure out a good cattle call and call them to the trough when you feed them. Any sound will do, ringing a bell, honking your car horn, or even playing an instrument.
Remember that you don’t have to buy the very best cattle to have good animals on your farm. Educate yourself before you take your money out of the bank and you won’t get snookered as you add cattle to your homestead.