I have been on a lot of cattle operations, have personally managed or assisted with managing three different ones, and have extensively researched cattle production. One theme that I see is that often the basic needs and purposes of cattle gets overlooked. People get focused on one technique or fascinated with one aspect and lose sight of the big picture.
The first thing you need to ask yourself when raising cattle: Why? What is the purpose of the cow on your farm. Start simple: What is the cow going to provide the farm? Is it for business to make money, or for a hobby? Do you need to make a farm payment with the calves, or is just getting to see them in the field satisfaction enough? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions as long as you define what is going to work for you on your operation.
On my operation, at the most basic level, a cow provides me with one live calf per year. It doesn’t matter if its small birth weight, does not push the scales down the farthest, or hurts your eyes to look at. If she puts a calf in the weaning pen every year, she earned her keep.
The next thing you look at is what are you going to do with said calf? Will it be retained on the farm as a bull or heifer? Will it be slaughtered and direct marketed? Will it be registered and sold for breeding stock? Will it be sold for beef at the sale barn? There are numerous marketing options, and different traits and characteristics benefit each market better. Once you determine your market then you can further define your breed selection criteria.
Finally, the requirements to carry a cow through a production year are very basic, and often overlooked:
A cow will drink on average 20 gallons of water per day. The cleaner water you can provide the better your overall herd health will become. Good water sources include:
• A trough with city, well, or spring water (this is my preferred option.)
• A clean pond (a mud hole is not a water source.)
• A Stream (Preferably with controlled access to prevent bank erosion)
• A Spring (Fenced out with a catch basin for the cows to drink out of.)
Keep in mind that a water source must be dependable. If it goes dry in the summer, make sure you have a good backup plan.
The most economical cattle feed source is grass that is harvested by the cow. Good old-fashioned grazing. Moving cattle increases grazing efficiency and reduces erosion, but the basic starting point is one field of grass that will contain cattle. It is not feasible to graze year-round in most places, so hay and feed are used as supplements in the winter.
Very few places can free range cattle. The best fence is whatever you can afford that will let you sleep comfortably at night. Keep in mind that you will need some method for harvesting your calf crop (a catch pen and/or working facility.)
If you provide adequate food and water and can keep the cows off the neighbor, you can raise cattle. It is easy to get so focused on one aspect that you forget the basics. Moving cattle increases efficiency, but if you forget the food aspect and do not provide enough grass what have you gained? It doesn’t matter how much feed you give them if their only water source is a shallow muddy disease-ridden pond. What good are calves if you can’t get them up and market them?
I understand that you could continue down the rabbit hole with the thousands of other details that we all put in to a successful cattle operation, but my point is this: Don’t lose sight of the basics. Use some good common sense and observation and you will be a successful rancher.