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Baby Steps Before a Cow

 
gardener
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Obviously the best way to learn how to deal with a cow is to get a cow. That being said, for someone who wants to start learning the skills and patterns that will help them before getting a cow, I wanted to see if people with experience can make recommendations.

One reason for why someone wouldn't get the cow right away, but still wants the skills is either someone who hesitates to have such a large and productive animal until they feel a little more secure in their own abilities. Another reason could be simply knowing that your current location lacks the proper space to allow a for a happy and healthy cow, but still wanting to learn what you'll need to jump right in once you have the space. I have also known people whose significant other might need to dip their toes in slowly before they'd be willing to open up to larger animals.

So either in terms of animals or even just skill builders, what sort of means would someone suggest for getting yourself ready for the day when you do get a full cow? I suspect goats aren't really a good choice since the nature of goats makes them difficult to keep penned in despite being milking animals. I also feel like miniature cattle probably aren't the right choice in preparing for a larger cow since I am led to understand they have difficult births.

Anyway, I await the wisdom of those who've had far more experience than I as to how to best answer this question.
 
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Find a mentor. Someone who has already been down the road and is willing to hold your hand and answer your questions along the way.  Hopefully you can get them to come and check out your facilities and make recommendations for improvement.  Yes, your questions will be stupid - but mistakes made by not asking them will be stupider.  

Get yourself cow already.  They are awesome!
 
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First of all, I think it’s great that you want to get a cow, or cows. And it’a great that you want to learn as much as possible, even before you have the room for it!

A few thoughts come to mind. These apply to keeping a family milk cow more than to beef cows.

One very important aspect is the commitment that is required. A cow needs some sort of care every single day, and that will take more time and resources than feeding some chickens, for example. It will tie you to the place in a way that no other creature might.

Starting with goats, if you wanted to get goats anyway, is not a bad way to do it. I started that way myself. In my opinion, goats and cows can complement each other in certain functions. Cows are doing best on good pasture, with some browsing, and goats are really doing best with the majority of their diet being browsing, and some pasture. One can kerp goats on only good pasture, but I have yet to see a milking cow doing well by eating mostly leaves and tree bark. Their rumens need the long stemmed grassy forage to function properly.

The ideal situation for someone that wants to learn is if they can find a friend or relative or neighboor that keeps cows, and offer to help. I know that this is probably rare, though.

Reading all the books there are out there about keeping a family cow is also good. That would help a person get familiarized with all the things that are involved with it.

Reading blogs of other people, and asking questions in forums is also good. People that keep cows are almost always willing to help, I’ve told many people, if they get a cow, I am willing to teach them everything I know.

I’ll come back with more thoughts, I gotta go and feed the hungry beasts for now.

I’ll leave you with this picture of a few hours old calf I had born a few days ago.
3816F7AF-B054-4BD8-B544-E97B4D220B9F.jpeg
[Thumbnail for 3816F7AF-B054-4BD8-B544-E97B4D220B9F.jpeg]
 
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Before getting a cow, a person might work on building soil health and growing a pasture of good quality grass.

Read books on how to raise a calf. Books on how to milk a cow, if that is the type of cattle you are planning on.  Can someone learn to milk a cow from a book, I don't know.

Get a calf and learn to raise a cow, together.

Great question!
 
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My wife and I built up confidence watching Justin Rhodes and Greg Judy consistently for a couple years. Once we were at a place we could finally have cows, we took the plunge and have zero regrets.
Hair sheep are a good way to slowly warm up to cows and learn how to graze, especially if you are trying to learn rotational grazing.
 
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D. Logan wrote:Obviously the best way to learn how to deal with a cow is to get a cow.



I'd disagree with the premise ... its certainly a way, and perhaps the most thorough but I'm not sure its the best!  I'd say borrowing a cow, hanging out with someone with cows to learn how they manage (handle & feed) the beasties.  The closer they are to a) your location and b) your preferred style of management (organic? grass fed? rotating pasture? etc) the better.

I'm deeply regretting that moment 4 years ago when an assortment of people told me that you can get the cows and then "just" build the infrastructure.  That advice was not appropriate for my situation, so make sure you understand your situation, limits, etc.
 
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I got my first cows last year. Here are a couple suggestions for someone to consider before getting a cow.

I do not recommend getting "a cow". They are social animals and don't do well alone. Get at least one more and have a pair or preferably three, or have a cow in with some goats or other social animals. Before bringing cows onto a farm, I suggest having a perimeter fence around your property. I use electric twine and do rotational grazing, and my perimeter fence has saved my bacon more than a few times. Electric twine works and works well, but sometimes a deer touches it and runs through it in the middle of the night and brings it down, allowing the cows to walk out. The perimeter fence was also my saving grace the day I brought my 3 heifers home, as they ran through the electric twine and roamed my farm for nearly two weeks, and thankfully they didn't roam any further and damage my neighbors row crops or do cause some other trouble.

If you plan to use a pond as a drinking water source for cows, I suggest fencing the pond out except for a small triangle going out into the water. This allows them to stand at the bank and take a drink without them going into the pond. If they have free access to a pond, during hot summer days they'll walk out into the water to cool off, and pee & poop in the pond. At a minimum, it results in high parasite load.

I suggest selecting for a gentle breed, buying from a breeder and avoiding the sale barn. Sale barn cows are, usually, there for a reason, and sometimes one of those reasons is their crazy and the farmer doesn't want to deal with them anymore. It's impossible to know what one is getting at a sale barn with examples including but not limited too temperament, inability to breed, ability to breed but no mothering traits and rejects calves, etc. Most breeders do a good job breeding and selecting or culling for traits such as temperament and unassisted calving as examples.

I think the term "miniature" can mean different things to different people. There are technical specifications to define miniature (see chart), but sometimes people call "micro miniature" cattle miniature. Miniatures can calve on their own when bred with other small framed stock. My Murray Grey beef cattle fall in the "mid size miniature" range. Challenges can arise when trying to increase frame size through breeding. One example I'd like to note about miniatures are Jersey's. The original Jersey breed from Jersey Island off the coast of England is a small framed cow falling in the 36"-42" hip height size. Perhaps some of us have seen towering Jerseys on dairy farms, and think those are the standard and the mini's were bred from that. It's the other way around, and the large framed Jersey's were bred over decades for commercial production from the original small stock. Hope this all helps!

 
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James, based on your graphic, do you know which dairy cattle breeds fall into the miniature and micro breeds?
 
James Freyr
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Carla Burke wrote:James, based on your graphic, do you know which dairy cattle breeds fall into the miniature and micro breeds?



I can think of two that fall into the miniature size category, Miniature Jersey and Dexters. While the Jerseys are considered dairy animals, when butchered they make delicious meat, but there may not be much yield. Dairy animals tend to not put on the muscle mass that dual purpose or beef breeds do. Dairy cows can appear skinny or even bony depending on who is asked but in actuality can be in prime health. Dexters are considered a dual purpose breed, for dairy and beef. I imagine that, through breeding selection, there could be both Jerseys and Dexters out there in the world that qualify as a micro mini.
 
Carla Burke
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Thank you, James! We had a wonderful, sweet-tempered Jersey, when I was a kid. With 6 kids in the house, plus a constant flow of friends and cousins, aunts and uncles, and making tons of ice cream, we still couldn't keep up with her milk, and had to sell several gallons per week. But she was, by no means, a mini, much less a micro. Now, there are only 2 of us, and I'm trying to decide whether it would be worth it. But, I think we have a lot that needs to come first, so 'thinking' is probably all I'll be doing for another year or two.
 
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Liv Smith wrote:The ideal situation for someone that wants to learn is if they can find a friend or relative or neighbor that keeps cows, and offer to help. I know that this is probably rare, though.

I second this. Learning alongside someone who knows what they are doing and cares for the animals the same way you do (or aspire to) is an excellent learning experience.

I volunteered every other weekend for a year at a nearby alpaca ranch knowing next to nothing about caring for herd animals. By the time the year was done, I was trimming hooves and teeth with confidence, sheared the animal's fiber by hand, witnessed a new mother give birth, and could answer visitors' questions unsupervised on Farm Day. Oh, and I scooped a lot of poop. :)

After that experience, I'm confident I could pick up on routine care for the same kind of animals. And all I had to pay for regarding the training was travel expenses (for me that meant only gas money, since I stayed with relatives not far from the ranch). My assumption is the same practice can be valuable regarding cows and likely other farm animals.
 
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I was thinking of getting a Mini Jersey. I am fairly certain it won't get depressed because my neighbor has beef cattle right next to my pasture.

I'm giving myself 5 years to prepare, and plan to do housed chickens and pigs using the Korean Natural Farming methods before I jump into dairy animals. But I'll build the barn to accommodate 2 cows as well as 4 pigs and 24 egg hens.

I've already dipped in my toes with free range chickens and rotationally grazed chickens.
 
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Don't skim by the poster who mentioned finding a mentor of like mind. I know a nice family who are 3rd generation dairy farmers... but I would not ask them for advice because they run their farm in a way that I would not want to do (dairy cows kept in the barn most of the time, calves removed from mother at birth, etc). They also run a couple hundred cows. So not only are they setup more conventionally, but they are also at a scale that I am not. I have asked many people for advice on gardening. And I have gotten a lot of good advice... but only if it is done in the same way they do it. When to apply fertilizer only matters if you fertilize. Where you get woodchips for mulch only matters if you are trying to keep it organic... or if you are using mulch in your garden at all. Whether buying or learning, it is so important to find someone raising animals as close to the way you want to raise them as possible.
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