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Best starter cow for family homestead

 
Dean Moriarty
Posts: 102
Location: Danville, KY (Zone 6b)
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My homestead is on 12 acres, with 8 acres of grazing pasture.  Currently it is understocked with just 5 sheep and 30 chickens. My plan is to increase my sheep stock, since I really enjoy raising them, but I also want to raise 1-2 cows at a time for beef for friends and family. 

So I'm looking for recommendations on what type of cattle to get - breed, sex, age, etc.  A couple of things about my farm:

- I'm in zone 6, central Kentucky
- My pasture has very good soil, but has been undergrazed for a long time and it shows when you see a whole lot more weeds than grass
- I've never raised cattle, soI want something simple and hardy
- I have a barn, but I plan to keep the animals out on pasture year round.  At most they'll have a roof on the roughest days of winter. 
- I have 3 automatic waterers installed (thanks to the NRCS), and the animals will be rotated through 7 paddocks across 8 acres. 

Any advice on getting my first cow is much appreciated.
 
Jack Edmondson
Posts: 233
Location: Central Texas zone 8a, 800 chill hours 28 blessed inches of rain
11
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I would recommend (and am considering for myself) Irish Dexter cattle.  They are a 'small' breed, but not a miniature.  They are a dual purpose breed, both milker and beef producer.  They are fairly docile and easily gentled.  They require less pasture (due to size) as well as less forage per pound than more traditional breeds, as reported by breeders.  The beef is considered slightly higher quality having a fuller more robust taste.  The milk is high in fat, good for butter and cheese production.  Finally, there is a decent market for club calves if you are near a FFA or 4H program.  The smaller size and gentleness make for an attractive option for a smaller person and feed cost are lower.

A few links:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/mini-cattle-zmaz80mazraw.aspx

http://www.dextercattle.org/adca/adca_about_dexters.html

The price you pay per calf will be slightly higher than other 'range stock' calves; but the value, especially on one or two animals, is the easy of handling and feeding.  You will pay anywhere currently from $600 to $2000 for a female depending on age and weight.  If you want to stay on the lower range, it will be a younger heifer; but that only means a few extra months on your pasture before she can be bred.  A bull or steer can be had for $400 to $1000, unless someone is selling genetics.  Then the price is going up; but breeding a show herd does not sound like your focus. 

To the rest of your question:  I would start with a steer if you are unsure of the commitment to cattle.  You can raise him to beef and process him.  If it worked well, buy a heifer calf (or two, you have more than enough rotational grazing space) and ask them to be 'exposed' by the breeder after purchase.  (Turn the heifers out with a bull when the time is right.)  Then you can have calves every year.  If you are processing for beef every year and not building a herd, you might even buy a bull, as long as he is not covering his own offspring. (bad genetics.)

If you are willing to plant a winter forage crop (a good idea for green manure, nitrogen, and cover crop) you could possibly graze all winter without supplement.  (I don't know how hard winters are in zone 6 Kentucky, but look into planting winter wheat, oats, turnips/radishes, or other winter crop in your fields.  Otherwise, as the article mentions, a couple of round bales per head and maybe some grain if you are milking would be the only thing they need other than pasture; and 8 acres should be plenty.
 
James Smartt
Posts: 25
Location: Ford, WA
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I too like the Dexters, they can also be used a a triple purpose breed as they are still used in some capacities as an Ox.  When we get ready to bring cattle in we are leaning towards the Devon, also a triple purpose breed, larger than the Dexters, but generally a calm and easy to work with breed (characteristics often found in triple purpose breeds).
 
Dean Moriarty
Posts: 102
Location: Danville, KY (Zone 6b)
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What is the best way to raise the Dexter cattle, long term?  Would I need a bull and and a cow, then raise (or sell) the offspring for meat while also getting milk?  I was never planning to have a bull, but since these are smaller I wonder if that's the sustainable and cost effective way to do this?  Or do people use AI?

With my Katahdin sheep I have a ram, but I can also make room for 15+ ewes so it's good use of the ram.  I was assuming that wouldn't be true for a bull, so along with their size and intimidation, was why I wasn't planning on having one.  But maybe with Dexters I could.  I don't know, what are you guys planning with your Dexters and Devons?
 
James Smartt
Posts: 25
Location: Ford, WA
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Both the Devons and the Dexters as I understand have fairly even tempered bulls (if raised correctly).  Bulls are like any other male livestock, they are only beneficial to have on hand if their breeding can offset the costs to maintain them.  We plan to have a minimum of 3 heifers before we attempt to keep a bull on the premises full time.  So the plan would be to either artificially inseminate or rent-a-bull  in the meantime.  That being said we ended up going just the opposite direction with our pigs, as we got a good deal on a Large Black boar piglet that we could not refuse, so we will now be adding an additional Sow each year until we have 3 or 4.
 
Jack Edmondson
Posts: 233
Location: Central Texas zone 8a, 800 chill hours 28 blessed inches of rain
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Dan,

These folks are in Eastern Kentucky.  Perhaps you should get their take on it.  http://hoperefugefarm.com/sale-barn

I am not a cattle breeder, yet; and don't have all the answers to your questions.  However, here is my opinion.  AI is expensive.  It is usually justified when breeding for top genetics and travel to the bull with your cow is prohibitive.  A bull is an expense to keep; but it is necessary for calf production.  For a small number of cows to service, there are other options.  You can make arrangements with a breeder near by to 'lease' a bull.  Kinda like AI, but no labs or vets.  Just have him do his job and go.  You can purchase a bull then butcher a bit later, although taste might be a lower quality than a steer or heifer.  Bulls might be had for the price of a steer, if you develop a rapport with a breeder and he understands you are not looking for confirmation or genetics, as you are raising beef for your table.  All ideas to consider.  Another thing to consider is 'sharing' a bull with a neighbor.  Two or three cows is not much 'work' for a bull.  If you had a neighbor or two, whom also wanted a Dexter Bull's service, split the price; and sell or butcher afterwards dividing the offset. 
 
Wes Hunter
Posts: 108
Location: Seymour, MO
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You could do a lot worse than Dexters, but take what you read about them (or any other breed) from associations with a grain of salt.  Despite their "triple-purpose" designation, finding a good milking cow isn't a given.  And because the Dexters are generally valuable (and seem to be priced independently of the market at large) there are a lot of sub-par genetics out there, the result of someone selling a bull or cow as a breeder that should only have been butchered, likely to someone who knew nothing about the breed apart from their supposed upsides and the fact that they could bring in some cash.  In short, buyer beware.

But, good cattle can be had.  Since you already know your way around sheep, cows should be a comparative breeze.  I'd suggest a small handful of older cows (say, 5 years old and up).  Buying them bred is a nice start.  If there are others in your area raising them, just rent a bull for two months or so each year to get them bred back.  (On that point, the breeds readily available in your area might be the best starting point.  Raise what other folks are raising, within reason.). It's not terrible to raise a bull for only a handful of cows (and with the grass you have available, I would suggest no more than 5), but personally I'd rather have another cow and just rent out a bull.  AI isn't the worst option, though there's an argument to be made for natural breeding (read Newman Turner).

Raising calves from your own cows should put you much further ahead financially than if you buy steers to fatten every year.  Two calves and she's paid for herself, most likely.

The meat is great.  We butcher our bull calves at 6 to 8 months for veal and have a great market for it.  Tasty stuff.  Beef, too, with somewhat smaller cuts.  I've milked a few, but after I got a taste milking Jerseys it was harder to justify milking the Dexters.  Of course, if my Dexters were actually dairy type, I might feel differently.  (Now my herd is about half and half.)

As for grazing, the Dexters seem content with coarser forage, which sounds like a good fit for your current situation.  Certainly not picky eaters.  For what it's worth, I figure I can just about graze 8 cows on 14 acres of grass year-round (southern Missouri) if I sell off the calf crop each year.  Of course weather (namely timing of the rains) has a huge impact, but in an 'average' year...

If you're happy with black, horned cows, you'll come out much further ahead than if you're set on silly trends and demand something red and polled.  Buying non-registered stock will probably save you money, provided they're good calves, but quality registered stock can sometimes be had at a deal.  The upside of registration is that the value tends to be considerably more, should you ever want to sell any.

You didn't ask, but I don't like the stationary waterers, as they concentrate manure in very small spots.  On hot days, the cows are prone to stand right by the watering point, resulting in manure distribution that is far from ideal.  Maybe bed the area with straw and spread it as needed?

 
Bethany Dutch
Posts: 164
Location: Colville, WA Zone 5b
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First thought when I read the title was "Get a Dexter!"

Not that I know, but I desperately want a milk cow and after years of research I settled on Dexters. They are perfect, for all the aforementioned reasons.

I will add, however, that one of the main things that sold me on Dexters was when I met some in person at the Mother Earth News fair a few years back. I was absolutely astonished at how mellow and placid the bull was, right smack dab in the middle of the thing (they weren't in a livestock barn, but in a small enclosure right in the middle of where people were walking). Loud noises, children running, and he didn't even care. I don't think I'll do a bull myself but I just know that if the bulls are like that, I'd get along well with a cow. High strung animals are not my thing.
 
Dave Dahlsrud
Posts: 453
Location: North-Central Idaho
23
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Galloway cattle might fit your bill pretty well also...I would mostly just stick with getting your feet wet with a couple commercial steers the first year though.  We run red devon, milking devon, and trying a jersey milker up here in Idaho, I think the key is just getting your hands on a nicely put together animal with a good temperament and going from there.  Most breeds will have an individual animal that will suit your needs so try to keep an open mind.  Don't try to reinvent the wheel if you don't have to...look at what works for the folks around you and start there.  Local animals will be well adapted to your environment and you should have an easier go of it.
 
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