One of the early dreams that Neal and I had for The Pony Draw was the ability to raise our own food including garden vegetables as well as humanely raised and processed meat. We knew that beef was a favorite staple in our diet, yet raising cattle was the most intimidating livestock venture we had imagined. After doing some research we learned that the financial feasibility of raising backyard beef was based on the ability to feed it at an economical price. Unless you could rely on your own grass pastures and/or hay supplies, raising beef in your backyard will cost you more than purchasing it in the grocery store due to the end customer price of hay and grain. For some folks the importance of having access to grass fed or even organic beef is important enough for them to take on the increased cost. We knew that this was not an option for our farm so if we were going to pursue cattle we would need to first secure our own source of pasture and hay. Luckily, quality pasture was already established through our work on the horse pastures which began in May of 2014 with the springing of Ozark bermudagrass over five acres of the farm. After considerable thought and planning, we invested significantly in the needed equipment and farm leases to begin working in the hay business. This has allowed us to not only supply for our own livestock, but also work towards additional farm income. We were not fully operationally until the end of the 2015 season, but we were still able to put up enough hay for all our own livestock as well as sell enough to cover the cost of field maintenance in preparation for 2016.In September of 2015 we purchased our first cows, two Dexter bull calves, from another North Carolina homesteader. We decided to go with the Dexter breed because of their smaller size and dual purpose (meat and milk) which makes them ideal for small farms and backyard operations. Plus the price was significantly lower than larger breeds and since we were not looking to raise beef for market we were not interested in producing more than what our family needed. Our current set up is one large grazing pasture with a smaller paddock that contains a 24′ x 24′ run-in shed that is split in half by a 10′ x 20′ chain link pen. The pen was gifted to us by a family in our church who was no longer using it.It has been extremely useful on the farm and when we brought our two Dexters home this was their enclosure during the weaning process. These guys had been nursing until the day we picked them up so it was going to be necessary to bottle feed them until they were eating solid food and their rumens were working properly. The rumen is the part of a cow’s digestive system that stores food that has been swallowed and regurgitates it in the form of cud which the cow chews again until it is broken down enough to move on down the line to the other three compartments (reticulum, omasum, and abomasum). This digestive mechanism allows the cow to consume large amounts of food during a grazing session, but not spend the energy digesting it until they can find a place safe from predators to relax or lay down. For calves who are still nursing, their food source (milk from the cow) bypasses the rumen entirely. You’ll know the rumen is working when the calf is consuming enough hay and/or grain while maintaining body condition and you see it chewing cud. This usually happens around four months of age. Our Dexters were only two months old when we got them so we bottle fed twice a day for two months slowly reducing the amount of milk as the four month point arrived. Shortly after weaning we decided to castrate one of the bull calves. This steer will be designated for processing in about a year’s time for our family’s beef supply. The other calf will remain a bull for future breeding purposes.
During this time we began discussion with another homesteader and a long-time friend living in Virginia. Her herd had produced a large number of heifer cows this year and she was interested in downsizing. On December 31st we made the three hour trip to her farm and brought back three Lowline Angus and Miniature Hertford cross heifers. Similar to the Dexter breed, Lowline and Mini Hertfords are smaller in size than their standard counterparts making them ideal for small farm herds. In this group of three we had two different age groups. Two of the heifers were long since weaned and well established on their own. The third was beginning the weaning process, but was still on her mother who our friend believed was not producing enough milk for the calf due to being an older cow. We prepared to bottle feed this little one when we got home.The extreme wet weather that had hung over the farm for the past two weeks kept us from driving our truck and trailer directly up to our sheltered pen where we would have liked to immediately place our new cows. In an effort to preserve the condition of our pasture we elected to back the trailer up to the gate of the paddock and allow the girls to have that space for their first night on the farm. Shortly, before bedtime we discovered that one of the older girls had made her way out of the fence and was taking a nighttime tour around the farm. Through the dark and the mud we guided her back into the paddock and secured the area of the fence we believed she had ducked through. Throughout the night all three girls bellowed and called for their Virginia herd with the little one particularly vocal as she called for her mother. It is a heartbreaking sound that will keep you awake at night. We woke up the next morning to a phone call from a neighbor letting us know he had just chased a white-faced cow back our way. We rushed outside only to find all three of the girls in the paddock. The youngest had clearly figured out what we had yet to discover. The week of dreary days had left our solar powered electric fence charger without any juice running through the fence. She knew it and was off on a hunt to find her mother. Once we realized what was going on we were able to lead the heifers into the pen with grain and hay. The two older girls were given pasture privilege again once the sunshine recharged the fence, but the youngest white-faced girl will need to remain in the pen until she has been emotionally weaned. She is already eating grain and hay as well as chewing cud so when she refused to nurse from the bottle we decided to let her have it her way and just keep an eye on her condition before we make changes to her current management.
Our set up allows us to place hay under the run-in shelter so that all the cows are meandering in and out keeping this little girl company during this process. The new girls have now also been introduced to our Dexters who are significantly smaller than them due to age. The ladies quickly let the boys know who was in charge though they began to move together as one herd in just a few short days.
Since all our our cows have been handled since birth at least to some degree they are relatively calm around people though not necessarily interested in interacting with you like a pet. For the purpose of safety this is a satisfying arrangement for both cow and human as these guys will likely reach 800 to 1000 pounds in adulthood and we want a healthy respect from these animals that keeps everyone safe. Even so it is still enjoyable to be able to put your hands on them and get to know them as individuals. The largest of the three girls enjoys having her head and ears scratched pretty often while both of the older two have enjoyed pushing around a five gallon bucket that I had taken into the pasture to sit on.
Now that our herd is in place our plan is to allow our Dexter bull to breed with these three heifers when they reach breeding age. The resulting offspring will be used to supply our family with meat as well as to trade with other homesteaders for needed goods and livestock. Approximately two additional acres of our farm has been designated for future cattle pasture and we are just waiting on the weather to cooperate to allow us to perform the final clearing steps, grass seeding, and fence installation.
What started out as just an idea and discussion one year ago has come full circle with our own complete homestead cattle herd. Planning and preparation helped make it successful while mistakes along the way turned into lessons.
Happy homesteading and God bless!