Small-Scale Cattle Farming

This blog is a forum for those who keep small scale herds of any breed of cattle. Share your ideas, experiences, learnings and best practices from daily life raising and selling cattle.

As well as a place to posting photographs of your cattle, use this blog is a resource for asking questions and initiating discussions within the cattle community so we can learn, improve our herds and have fun!

There are many pleasures and rewards that go along with keeping a small herd of cattle.

Working with fewer animals can be easier than a large herd, and in a small herd, you get to know each cow personally. Some, especially bottle babies or difficult births, can reach pet status. Many small herds are a wonderful mix of animals, like a bag of skittles, while others focus on just one breed.

Small herds can bring a unique set of challenges to the farm. Large equipment expenses are harder to justify, and deciding on which cows stay or leave may cause more heart ache. Having enough pasture space to separate the bull from the cows when his job is done for the season can be a struggle, as is keeping young heifers separate from a bull until they are old enough to breed.

Mahalia and Aretha

These two heifers are doing great! The moo’ing and pacing has ended, and both girls run up to get their morning share of sweet grain and unrolled hay. Our oldest heifer in this herd is Hazel, who is half Angus and half Braunvieh, giving her an absolutely beautiful, chocolate colored coat. Hazel is the queen bee and will push the younger ones out of the way so she can eat their grain. Eventually, she will be moved in with the older cows. But until either that happens or the other heifers tighten up, we set out a few separate food bowls for the Mahalia, Aretha and my baby Willow.

Mahalia and Aretha eating their breakfast grain

When we unroll hay for this herd of young cows, we make sure to put down a few rows of hay, separated by a few feet. This gives the smaller heifers space to eat. The older, larger girls like to bump the roll on the tractor and rub their heads on the fresh bale, knocking off chunks before the tractor even sets down the bale. The morning line up of heifers has become interestingly predictable. Once the unrolling begins, the heifers who have been together the longest always eat on the first line, largest to smallest. In the next line of hay, Willow is able to get her share. And then at the end of a row, the two newest herd members, Mahalia and Aretha belly up to their hay bar.

Line up of the oldest heifers
Willow’s share
Mahalia and Aretha at the end of the hay line.

Creepin’ Heifers

In our Mountain Field, there are several cow, heifers and cow/calf pairs that we recently added to our herd. These cows are not at all familiar with corrals, alleyways and head gates and have been used to living life on the wild side. Since being integrated with our herd, most have begun to settle down. About a month ago, we managed to work them through the head chute, giving each of the ladies an ear tag, vaccine and pour-on worming.

Left to right: 2 nursing heifers, the orphan, expecting mama

In this new group are two cows and their heifer calves who are still nursing, a young orphaned heifer and an older heifer. Additionally, at least one of the mama’s is expecting a calf this spring. We had to catch these young girls to wean the two nursing ones and give the orphan more feed and care. Figuring out how a way to catch just the heifers and not their mama’s or the rest of our herd was a puzzle.

Creep gate made with MTO – Materials On Hand.

During a visit to our friend’s farm, we saw their creep gate setup that permits their calves free access to food while keeping the larger cows out. We fashioned a similar opening in the panel corral already set up in our Mountain field using MTO – Materials On Hand. For two days, the sweet grain we put in the trough would be licked clean in the morning but we never saw any calf go in. So the next evening, we hung the game camera to a panel and added more grain. The next morning, there were 210 photos on the camera – caught!

The two nursing heifers spent over an hour that night eating the grain, and then came back early in the morning to see if more had magically appeared. When they didn’t find more grain, they milled about and posed for some selfies, hahaha!

By the next day, these two girls ran into the corral after I added the grain, not caring at all that I was standing right there. We closed up the opening, backed our trailer up to the chute and moved these two into the adjacent field with Willow and six other calves.

In a day or two, these young heifers will settle down and become part of this new herd. Our remaining challenge is to catch the orphan heifer. She has had a rough life to date, no mama since too early an age and she has been the last cow in the herd pecking order. I left the corral creep gate setup in the field, and added a roll of hay along with the sweet field with hopes enticing her. Time will tell.

Weaned without a Moo

On September 1, 2018, a cow delivered a pair of healthy, decent sized twin heifers. As sometimes happens, the mama cow accepted one of the calves and left the other to her own defenses. Without intervention, the calf would not have survived the night. I had been out of town that day and arrived back to my farm late that evening knowing this small calf had a tough fight ahead of her.

That first feeding was a bottle of cow colostrum. By now the calf was pretty weak and only sucked a few sips from the bottle, so I tube fed her the rest. The next day, she took more cow replacement milk from the bottle and I was started to have hope she might survive. But the effects of her rough start in life lingered and on day three she stopped eating. I tube fed her electrolytes twice over the next few days, and finally she perked up.

This tiny (for a calf), super cute heifer had a strong will to live. A typical angus calf weighs anywhere from 60-100 lbs at birth, depending on many factors especially breed.. As a twin and with her rough start, this calf weighed only about 40lbs. Towards the end of her first week of life, she began eating 2-3 times a day and had seemed to turn the corner. Although she was still not completely out of danger, I named her Willow.

Willow survived one more scare during her third week of life when scours set in. Scours is a general term for calf diarrhea, and is caused by bacteria in the intestines. A calf weakened by a stressed birth is especially vulnerable. Again, I consulted my friend who had experience saving calves, and she recommended a dose of antibiotics. Within a day, that shot of antibiotics started clearing up the scours and Willow began to feel better. I was her surrogate mama with the blue makeshift udder, and this small calf followed me all around the farm.

Every day, I mixed up batches of Land-o-Lakes Cows Match powdered milk for Willow. Since she was my first “bucket baby”, getting the right amount of milk for each feeding took me a while to master. Some days, I had to go back and make more, while other days a lot was wasted. Eventually, we settled into a routine of two daily feedings, morning and evening. She had a stall in the barn where she spent the nights with feeders of sweet calf grain and water available to her.

Twice every day for 5 months, I mixed buckets of milk in my kitchen for Willow. On the few days when I was out of town, my farm sitter Bev took over the feeding duties. Willow would stand at the barn door at feeding time, moo’ing and pacing until the blue bucket was placed on the hook. As she grew, the amount of milk increased. When calves nurse, they head butt their mama’s udders to make the milk flow. Soon the small blue bucket was not big enough to hold the milk, especially through the head butts. Willow wore milk on her head after each feeding. At 6 weeks old, Willow was drinking 16 cups of milk at each feeding, and needed a bigger bucket. I bought a larger blue bucket, drilled a hole near the bottom for the nipple/check valve and it worked great!

Bev and Willow
Maeve and Willow

As the months passed, Willow grew tall and strong. She graduated from living in the barn to being in the field with our herd of young spring heifers. I had to convert her from being my calf to becoming a cow, because weaning time was approaching. The advice I received on when to wean a calf ranged from 6 weeks (from an old farmer) to four months (from a friend and my vet). Angus cow mamas will typically wean their own calves between 6-7 months old. By January 1, Willow was 4 months old, weighed about 350lbs and would now run to the rolled out hay after her bucket breakfast.

I had a half bag of powdered milk left so decided to begin weaning by cutting her feedings down to once a day in the mornings. Luckily, after a couple of evenings looking for me, she quickly adjusted to only getting her blue bucket in the mornings. After two weeks of once a day feedings, I reduced the amount of milk by half, from 16 cups down to 8 cups. Then a week before the bag of powdered milk was gone, I began putting down a pan of grain for Willow as soon as she finished drinking.

Yesterday on Willow’s 5 month birthday, there was no powdered milk left in the bag. No blue bucket appeared on the post hook that morning. I expected the worse, that she would follow me around the field looking for the blue bucket udder, then stand by the fence moo’ing sadly as I left the field. But there was none of that! She ate a large portion of grain, and then hurried to the newly rolled out hay along with the other heifers. Willow weaned without even a moo!

Frosty Fur and Whiskers

Frosty Heifers

The morning temperature yesterday at feeding was 12deg and today just 6deg. Both mornings, the sky was clear blue and the sun just beginning to rise over the tree tops to shine on the fields. Fortunately, there was almost no wind, unlike yesterday afternoon when it was howling. Getting up and out to feed and check on the farm is something I look forward to, especially during the winter months. The cattle deal much better with the cold snowy weather than with either the hot, humid, buggy summer days or the cold, wet rainy days of late fall.

I love to see the cattle with their frosty fur and crispy whiskers on these cold mornings. The younger heifers are full of energy, dancing around while we pour grain into the trough and unroll hay in the field. Standing, or laying in the trough, is a power move when there is stiff competition for the sweet grain.

Fair share?

The grown ladies are more mellow. They are happy to see the new bale added in the hay ring, and will rub their heads on the hay to help unroll it from the tractor. Bella and Patty run the herd, and are always first to rub the bale and eat the hay. Young Lucy and Scarlet had the best whiskers this morning.

Lucy’s Whiskers
Scarlet’s Whiskers

Our two senior ladies, Old Lucy and Gilley, move a lot slower more like cold molasses. On these frigid mornings, we unroll a line of hay close to where those two cows are standing, so they don’t have to expend too much energy getting to breakfast. Old Lucy is on the far right of this picture of the main herd. She is a hereford/milk cow mix and is probably at least 15 years old. Gilley is 10 years old and like most of the cows, is expecting a calf this spring. Old Lucy has the year off from calving.

Old Lucy (on the far right)

How many cattle are in a small-scale herd?

So how many cattle are in a small-scale herd?  To me, a small-scale herd is defined more by the experience than a number of cattle.  If you raise cattle for fun or as part of other farm projects or even as a hobby, and someday hope to just break even on cash flow, then consider your herd small-scale.  On the other hand, if you are feeding your family and making mortgage payments based solely on cattle proceeds, then you have grown beyond the small-scale size.

The size of a cattle herd is often characterized by the number of mama cows, not the total number of cattle.  The reason being that the mama cows are the one constant in your herd.  The bull may be around for a season or a few years, but is inevitably replaced to refresh the bloodlines.  Steers are sold soon after weaning, as are any heifers not being kept as a breeding mama.  The core of your herd, the breeding mama cows, define the size of your operation.

Our herd at TurkeyCrest Farm has a total of 22 mama cows, 10 of which are still heifers.  One of the hardest aspects of managing our herd is deciding which cows to keep and which to sell.  We have a few criteria that each heifer has to pass before being eligible to become a herd cow.  The first is a calm and engaging temperament.  Any heifer that is crazy in the alleyway and head chute is not a keeper. Another factor is confirmation and being a good mama.  We like a medium framed cow with a good udder who easily calves and readily brings her new calf to the herd.  We are also partial to Red Angus and Charlois/Red Angus mix, although we have a Baldy and a couple of Black Angus cows.

Above all, we have fun raising our cattle and managing the herd!

Farm feeding first, human’s breakfast last

From December through March or April, mornings on the farm start with feeding the animals. Willow, our bucket calf, eats first while the tractor is warming up.

Next to eat are the heifers and steer, our youngsters from last spring. We unroll hay for them each morning, and set a bale in the feeder when a storm is in the forecast.

In the mountains field, our main herd of mamas, who are all expecting calves this spring, get their breakfast next. We keep two hay rings there and usually unroll a bit of hay so the cows can spread out and feed.

Of course, Sammy and the goats are waiting for their kibble, the hens are clucking for some scratch grains with mealworms and Sundance is anxious to move into the front and his hay filled barn run-in. I use heated water bowls during the extended cold spells but none them are very large, so all have to be refilled twice a day.

And then finally, the humans get to eat. One of our favorite winter breakfast meals are grits with eggs, topped with crumbled bacon. Yum!

Calf coats

Two years ago, one of our heifers, Josie, gave birth in the middle of the night during a March snow storm. At daybreak, we found her calf in the field near death. After calling a friend for advice, we ran to the local farm store and bought a calf coat. I wrapped the calf up, loaded him into the bucket of the tractor and drove him to the barn, with mama following close behind. After 12 hours wrapped in the coat, lying in a warm and dry barn with his mama and a tube feeding of colostrum, the calf started to gain strength.

Josie was a willing mama, but having her in the head gate made holding baby up easier. These weak calves tend to have trouble standing on their front feet. After a day or so of assistance, the calf was able to stand and nurse normally on his own.

After this experience, I keep a calf coat on hand for early spring or late winter births. The extra warmth of the coat can make all of the difference in saving a calf born in cold, wet weather.