Finding Perfect Cows

The search is on.  I am beginning the process of hiring as many as five full-time employees.  Applicants must be female, young and fertile.  Good physical condition is a must and they must maintain that condition while eating grass and living outside.  I’ll be looking at hair quality (but not color), length of legs, size of belly and fatness of rump on all applicants.  If things go as planned, after 10-12 years of healthy reproduction and the applicant has deposited approximately 250,000 pounds of manure the applicant be slaughtered, butchered and eaten.  I’ll explain the full qualifications below.

These aren’t criteria I have whipped up from my own experience or imagination.  I am working to distill what I have learned from studying books on grazing cattle.  Feel free to disagree.  You aren’t disagreeing with me.  I found information on selecting cattle for your herd in five cattle books I treasure:

Comeback Farms by Greg Judy
Ranching Full-Time on Three Hours a Day by Cody Holmes
How to Not Go Broke Ranching by Walt Davis
Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin
Grass-Fed Cattle by Julius Ruechel

I feel all 5 of these will stand the test of time…meaning I’ll still be looking up things in them in 10-15 years.  My copies of each are worn and heavily bookmarked.  I have read most of the modern texts concerning cattle.  That means I have read a lot of junk.  I feel this list represents the best of what is out there currently.  I think it is worth reading so many opinions because Proverbs 15:22 says

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.

I’ll add to the list Success on the Small Farm by Haydn Pearson.  Though not a cattle book, it’s a classic in every sense of the word.  It contains some sound advice about herd management as well as little nuggets of wisdom on anything you want to know about.  Further, my copy is loaded with notes, underlining and little newspaper clippings pasted in by a man named Gerhard Richert who bought the book originally in 1946.

Finally, I’m going to focus on cows.  Not bulls.  I’m not selecting bulls at this time.  I’m selecting cows…preferably heifers.  The main points are get quality stock that will thrive on feed you can source on farm.  Measure your success by their fertility and how infrequently you have to call the vet.  But, don’t take my word for it.  Let’s hit the books!

Only one book in my pile gives specific recommendations for starting a new herd.

Click on image for source

Greg Judy begins on page 234 with a bullet point from his mentor, Ian Mitchell-Innes:

Buy two young heifers for the price of one bred cow.  Graze these heifers through your management system and keep the ones that perform well, sell the ones that don’t.

He goes into more detail in the next chapter on page 246:

So where does a person find some grass-genetic cattle?
The most economical method would be to attend local cow sales and look for small frame cows.  These smaller frame cows will always be cheaper to buy than the monster cows that all the mainstream producers want.

…When you’re looking for these smaller frame cows, watch for cows that have a big gut for lots of grass capacity.  Most cows today have had all the gut capacity bred out of them.

Pearson describes making a profitable dairy at some length in Chapter 10: Small Farm Dairy (a chapter Mr. Reichert seems to have skipped).  He makes three main points.

For the beginning farmer who likes cattle, this is the one most essential point: Get quality stock.

He drives this home with an illustration I’ll share in the next post and goes on to say you should grow your own feed and find a good market for your products.  For now it suffices that Mr. Pearson wants the reader to buy quality stock, not whatever is cheap.

Click on image for source

All authors seem to agree that you want a smaller than industry standard cow, topping out around 1,000-1,200 pounds.  Holmes suggests 950 would be better as:

Smaller cows eat less grass.  It makes a lot more sense to have a herd of 950-lb. cows weaning off 450-lb calves on grass than 1,500-lb. cows weaning off 575-lb calves running on a  creep feeder.

Click on image for source

Salatin is unconcerned with breed.  He is concerned about animal performance on grass.  At this point in the discussion he really only weighs in on those two points.  Animals vary widely within breeds so you can’t rely on breed alone and most of the modern cattle genetics are geared toward an animal that’s at a disadvantage on pasture.

Davis suggests you buy local cattle in Chapter 14: Adapted Animals.

Different breeds are differently adapted to different climates.  Even within a breed, regional changes require adaptation.  He begins by discussing resistance to local parasites and diseases then goes on.

Radical changes in climate and elevation severely stress animals with the greatest effects occurring when animals go from cold to hot climates, from low humidity to high, and from high elevation to low.  Differences in mineral content of forages also play a role in how soon and how well animals adapt to a new area.  In many phosphorus-deficient areas, the local shrubs have considerably higher phosphorus content than the grasses; local animals learn to browse the shrubs and cope fairly well, but animals new to the areas that don’t have a history of browsing are at a severe disadvantage.

It is more than likely that part of the adaptation process relates to the rumen microorganism populations adapting to local conditions. [and later still discussing gut flora…] it would be illogical to think that these organisms do not develop genetic traits that make them better adapted to the local conditions found in soil and forage.

As usual, buy local.  Even if you can’t find grazing genetic stock locally, you might be better off buying animals from your own region.

Ruechel adds to the pile by suggesting the list above plus a few more.

On page 23 he says replacement heifers and cows should be

feminine in appearance.  [and later…]  She and her daughters should cycle for the first time at ten months and conceive at fourteen months.

On pages 24 and 25 Ruechel lists bullet points of things to look for in a replacement heifer.  These include details the other authors skipped: wide mouth, well developed udder, short, slick shiny hair.  The bullet points are detailed, less abrupt and inspire fewer giggles than Judy’s choice of words on page 249 of Comeback Farms:

The cows should have a big old butt on them.  This is a feminine trait.  It gives them more room to calve.  A cow needs a big butt.

All kidding aside, between Ruechel’s bullet points and Judy’s entertaining list you get a nice checklist of traits to pay attention to.  Judy even suggests linear measurement as detailed by Jans Bonsma.  I’ll leave the reader to research that.

So.  I need to buy quality local heifers of small frame and feminine appearance.  These should come from cows that cycled early and often.  Once I get those heifers I need to get rid of the underachievers.  I’ll detail that process in the next article.

Be sure to check out the books I listed above.  If I could only pick one out of the pile I suspect it would be Comeback Farms by Greg Judy though I do appreciate the wealth of experience brought by Davis.

Please comment with your cattle buying criteria or any additional book recommendations.

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6 thoughts on “Finding Perfect Cows

  1. We’ve got many of the same books and it sound like you and I are looking for the same traits in our employees… I can only hope that a good number of the motley crew I ended up with from this past summer’s Great Devon Rescue exhibit enough of our desired characteristics to earn the right to stay another year or more. Several of the big Texas girls (From Preston Carlton ranch) are too large-framed for my tastes, but we’ll see if they have any other redeeming qualities. Grass-fed cow perfection is a set of qualities – all you have mentioned and a couple more – that I may be years getting to. My challenge will be making wise culling choices. Unfortunately, the previous owner kept no production records so I am starting from scratch, and have no past history to refer to on any of them. I’m giving them all a fair chance though, before handing out the pink slips…

    I also have well-worn copies of Joel’s book and Julius’ as well. I’ve attended workshops led by Cody Holmes and Greg Judy, and follow their ideas closely. I’ve also studied some under Gearld Fry, who is a wealth of knowledge about genetics, conformation, and choosing successful breeders. We are right to focus on the ladies. I can always purchase semen, and hope to grow my own herd bull at some point, but the girls are key. Feminine, deep girth, wide butt, big grass-tearing mouth, and robust. I wish you luck in your search!

    • Thanks. It’s that comment from Pearson that is the hardest. Buy quality. Ugh. I get the feeling I’m going to look at a lot of cows. Or go Judy’s route and sit at a lot of sale barns…looking at a lot of cows.

  2. Are you going to breed from them? It seems to me the quality requirement depends on that – to start out with, you probably could just go with the general characteristics you mentioned at the top of the post. I am most definitely not experienced with cattle, though we raised beef throughout my childhood – my Dad always looked for a square, blocky build to the calf, straight back, strong, shorter legs. He didn’t worry too much about breed – here on the Island we were pretty much locked into Angus/Hereford/Holstein mixes for beef anyway. The cattle he got always did well on pasture and hay (we didn’t feed them anything else), but that was the late 60’s and early 70’s. If you’re going to breed from them, and the concentration on heifers suggests this, then I suspect that “quality” might be something to bear in mind.
    I’ve read two of the books on your list – Comeback Farm and Salad Bar Beef, not the others. Both seem very practical, and are written from a starting with nothing perspective, which is helpful for the vast majority of it. If I had a classic to suggest, it would be George Henderson “The Farming Ladder” written in the 1940’s, in England – like Pearson’s book, it’s about mixed farming, not about cattle or pasturing in particular, but Eliot Coleman mentions it as a must read in his bibliographies, and I would support his opinion.

    • And that seems to be the consensus. Just get a variety of heifers that generally conform and keep the ones that work, breeding to proven bulls that conform and appear to work until I can close the herd and …well…keep the ones that work. But we’re heading into the next post’s territory here.

      Thanks for the book recommendation.

      • Hi, I was just browsing and found your site. Great blog. We to are in the process of culling our big conventional black angus cows for smaller framed grass phenotype cattle. We found most cattle in our area were just too corn influenced and big to finish on grass. We are in eastern Indiana and ended up purchasing red angus heifers from a Pharo Cattle Co. cooperator in northeastern Oklahoma. A little far away but they are fescue tolerate and have never been given chemical wormer. I suggest checking Pharos classified page on their site or contact Bill Roberts at 12 stones grassland beef if you havent found anything yet. If you do find grass phenotype cattle in the Illinois-Indiana area please let me know where if you can. We need to purchase another group this year also.Thanks

        • You should get in touch with Darby Simpson of Simpson Family Farm. He’s near you and is looking for the same cows. Maybe you can buy more together and get a better deal.

          You might also consider David Hall of Ozark Hill Genetics. Red angus, build to perform on fescue and a little closer to home.

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