Posted on | May 1, 2009 | 4 Comments
I have received many phone calls over the years from people wanting to discuss owning bovines, raising a calf or other questions. It has been great to talk you all. I would like to share with you a list of questions I suggest you ask yourself if you don’t have experience owning large animals. Answer these questions honestly, and they will help guide you to a decision of whether or not you are ready to own a large animal.
1. Do you own enough land? Cows are very tough on the land; a few acres of land with a few cows can be a big mess in short order. At the bare minimum, you can expect a single cow to devour 3-5 acres of pasture during the summer season. Of course, every area is different, and whether you’re in a wet or dry area of the country will make a huge difference. Ask your local Department of Agriculture to get specifics for your area.
2. Do you have a reliable hay source? Whether you purchase feed or put up your own, you must be sure you have enough. There is nothing worse than having to look for feed in the spring if you run short!
3. Do you have a shelter for the animal? My recommendation is to have at least a 3-sided shed that is on dry ground for protection during inclimate weather, no matter where you live. I have found this to be more than adeqate for the Randall Linebacks for the winter here in Northern Vermont. It provides shade on hot days too. Cows have shows remarkable determination when it comes to their “home base”; there are countless stories of cows refusing to leave (and stay out of) their barn during a barn fire. Always remember that the cow barn is their safe place!
4. Do you have an adequate water source? Cows can drink an amazing amount of fresh water! A lactating a cow can consume as much as 40 gallons a day. For the fresh cow (right after calving), we bring warm water for her to drink. I have seen some drink as much as 25 gallons in a short amount of time. This is calming, and helps to take up space in a cow’s gut to avoid a displaced abomasum. So water is very important. Also consider that in colder climates, you’ll have frozen water to deal with every day for months. Hauling water from your home is an option, but from experience I can tell you that carrying five gallons of warm water at least twice a day, every day, all winter long, can be a drag!
5. Are you prepared to deal with the other end… waste? There is a LOT! A single cow can easily produce as much as 35 pounds of urine and 65 pounds at least of manure each day. So if you have just 2 cows, that’s 36 tons of manure in a year to get rid of! So having a plan for disposal, whether a big compost pile or fields to spread it on, is important.
6. Do you have access to a large animal vet? No matter how sure of yourself you are, or how skillful you are with animals, there will always be occasions when a veterinarian is needed. I do most of the vet work for the farm here, which holds about 140 cows, heifers, and calves, but many times the vet will be called for an emergency. Some of the drugs used for the care and health of your cows are only available from the vet. Vaccinations for healthy cattle are necessary as well, and some states may even require it if the animal (or animal products) are to enter the food chain. Check with your state veterinarian.
7. Do you plan on milking your cow for your own use? Ok, this is a biggie for many of you. If you want a homestead cow, a rare breed animal could be right for you. A rare breed cow is typically a multi-purpose animal (used for milk, horsepower and/or beef) and will give less milk than a dairy breed. If you were to have a Holstein or a Jersey as your family cow, be prepared for a lot of milk, as they will produce around 10 gallons of milk per day during their peak milk production at 60 to 90 days. That’s a lot of hand-milking, and a lot of milk to process and consume by one family. A Randall Lineback, on the other hand, will (in my experience) produce around 4 gallons a day at her peak, which is still a lot but managable. Learning to milk properly is a art form in itself. Cleaning procedure is very important (the cow and your milking machine or container). Learning to identify mastitis is also very important for the safety and health of your family and the cow.
8. How are you going to breed her? A cow kept for milking will need to be bred each year. Will you use artificial insemination? If so, you or someone else will need to have a semen tank available to hold the frozen semen. You will also need to learn to breed the cows or have a breeding service do the insemination. Do you have a source for semen of the breed you want to have? Will you own a bull? This requires alot of care, as bulls will need to be isolated from the ladies at times and will require strong fences too. Never turn your back on a mature bull; dairy bulls are notoriously unpredictable especially as they get older, so be careful if keeping a bull is your chosen method. Just think, how would your neighbor feel about having a 2000-lb. bull in their yard if he were to get out of the fence? And how would you catch him again?
9. Do you have reliable feed and supplement sources? Many people have told me they’ve heard that heritage breeds can survive on poor quality forage and pasture. While it’s true most cows would survive, they would be much healthier, happier and more productive on high quality forage and pasture. I strongly believe in providing trace mineral salt blocks and some small amount of protein, energy, and mineral supplements during a cow’s peak stress times. Whether you use kelp or conventional sources, cows need this stuff. For example, here in northern New England, the land is very low in some trace minerals including vitamin E. This one trace vitamin can be very helpful for the reproductive health of the animal. So check with your Ag Department and find out what you should be looking out for in your area.
10. Do you have a babysitter? Once your cow starts milking, she will need to be milked daily and on a schedule. If you want to take off for a weekend or a few days, you will need someone reliable to take over while you’re gone.
If you answered “yes” to all of those questions, ask yourself this: Do you really want to care for a 1000 lb. 3-year-old that, with the proper care, may live for 20 years? If so… you need to have a cow. They are loveable, fun, entertaining, a lot of work, and sometimes completely crazy but will provide a wonderful service to your family. There is nothing like having fresh milk, cheese, butter and other dairy delectables made by you and your new boss, the cow.
A special word about rare breeds: When you own an animal of an endangered historic breed, you have a responsibility not only to the animal you own, but also to the breed. The decisions you make about your animal concerning breeding and husbandry may well affect the breed’s survival and its genetic diversity. It is very important that you don’t lose sight of this.