10 Cows, 6 Heifers, 2 Steers, 60 Acres

So you read the title, right? OK. So. That’s my little herd. We are growing. We are adding to our numbers each year and things are moving along. Someone recently asked me to clarify that I really only have 13 animals out on pasture for my remaining 30 acres of stockpile. But let’s remove the numbers for just a second.

I have enough pasture remaining to enable my cows to make it to April if I supplement their grazing with hay.

Do the numbers matter?

1. It’s all about me.
What if I just went out and bought 40 cows? I have 60 acres, I live in Illinois. Shouldn’t be a big deal, right? Well, it is a big deal. Remember, I’m a transplant from the city. Yes, I own my family farm but the generation before me packed up and left. My dad worked at a coal mine, took me fishing and played catch with me in our ranch-style suburban home. I had a model train and a pile of legos. How many of those 40 cows would I kill? I would just be scrambling to keep up out there. So I started with two. (Actually I started with chickens but…) Each year I add to the numbers. Each year Julie and I increase our knowledge, our ability, our understanding, our eye and we move forward. Hopefully we will graduate from cow college in 20 years but right now we still have everything to learn.

Also, don’t overlook the costs involved in 40 cows, hay for 40 cows (cause our grass won’t cut it…more in a bit), and time for 40 cows. I have a job. I have a good job. But I don’t have that kind of cash just laying around.

2. It’s all about the grass.
My pastures are pretty poor, really. I have forests of goldenrod, forests of thorny things and pure stands of fescue. Not enough shade. Not enough water. Not what you want for 40 cows. 40 cows, supplemented with hay on pasture year round, would do a tremendous amount of work trampling my goldenrod and moving my pastures forward but that’s not leveraging our strengths. That’s ignoring…or foolishly running roughshod over our weaknesses. It was interesting to watch our pastures recover this year. I have a bare, compacted, south-facing slope by the house that was almost a pure stand of clover this year. What will it do next year? The east 40 was almost entirely devoid of clover except where dad planted it. What happens this coming year? Forages are changing on the farm, some of them intentionally so but it takes time. I could fill the farm with cows and may still be able to manage it with time but the base forage just isn’t here. The temptation would be to simplify feeding hay to my 40 cows by bringing them to the lot each day. Then I would be back where I started. Sigh.


3. Wrong cow, right job.
My genetics are not in place yet. I have a few prospects that we have high hopes for but we aren’t there. I need a small cow (nope) that does well on grass alone (nope). Ideally she would give milk for 90 days then dry up on her own. She would re-breed quickly and easily, fatten on nothing at all and would last 14-20 years leaving 12-18 calves in her wake. One of her sons would be retained as a sire for the next herd of the future. But that’s not what I have. I have cows that will probably come up open in a year or two and that will be that. Then what? Buy in more of the same? Breed to a devon bull?


As I learn more, as my soil health improves and pasture diversity increases and as my herd changes more toward our grazing ideal I won’t need 30 acres for 13 cows. But right now I do and mostly because of item #1. Grass grows. Cows eat. I’m the weak link. But I’m working on it. Let’s revisit that King Ranch quote from a few days ago because I think it’s appropriate here. Keep in mind, the numbers they list are for an organization that knows what they are doing, ranching on cheap land in a tropical paradise.

Unlike most manufacturing, the ranching business is a slow start-up. It takes years to bring raw land to a good grass yield and to breed up a herd to the point of turning off quality and quantity beef. Though the company operated seven years, it was only in the last six months that it generated its first net profit, $600.

I think this fits under the thinking that one should simply start…and start small. You don’t know what you don’t know and it takes years to find out. And I didn’t even touch on marketing. What would I do with 40 calves? At this point, my marketing reach is insufficient. So…grow as you go. But go. Don’t say no. I mean it, there so! Marvin K. Mooney.

BTW, this post is entirely academic. The cows are on deep bedding this week as it is particularly cold out. I have had to learn we can’t outwinter the jerseys and it really is easier to keep the team together than to split the jerseys off from the shorthorns and…ugh. Water. Freezes.

10 thoughts on “10 Cows, 6 Heifers, 2 Steers, 60 Acres

  1. Looks like you’re having some self doubt creeping in today. Remember; growth for the sack of growth is called cancer. Permaculture Voices linked your “raising meat birds” blog today on their Facebook page. It’s one of my favorites. Maybe that will give you a little smile?….. 😉

    • Doc,
      I don’t know about self-doubt. I am where I am and I know why I am here. I could have more cows but I’m not ready for that. My pastures aren’t ready for that. Things take time and that’s cool. I have enough pasture for my cows. The 30-acre-ness of it is a reflection of pasture health…of the farm’s current carrying capacity. I’m not feeling sorry for myself, I’m stating where we are. And I’m glad to be here.

    • High temp on Wednesday is forecasted to be 7. Yesterday was 37 at 8 in the morning but the wind was up and the temperature fell all day. It was a good day to bring the cows off pasture. Kids will be inside a lot this week and will probably be sleeping downstairs. I mean to say, everybody will be grumpy and the water troughs will freeze.

  2. Good post I wondered how many head you currently had/your starting point of winter carrying capacity. Oh wait I just remembered we need to add to this “Before” picture – your land feeds (via hay at least? maybe pasture too?) your dad’s horses too in the winter right? How many horses does he have and are they light or heavy horses (draft horses that would eat more).

    I got a good comfy seat for reading your blog to watch history in its making over the yrs as your farm improves under your stewardship – your 200th anniv in 20 yrs is going to be awesome! . 🙂

    A “what came first the chicken or the egg” Q – who returned to the farm first you or your dad?

    • Well, dad and I are Jordans. It’s mom’s family’s farm. Land prices crashed in the mid-’80’s and they had a chance to buy some ground next door from Peabody Coal. This was ground grandpa had farmed for a long time and he got the option, passed it to dad. Dad lost his job in ’93 so they decided to sell our house in Faraway and move here. No chicken or egg, just necessity.

    • Dad’s horses have 5 acres of their own. They eat hay year-round. Two of them are more ornery than horse. I don’t dare turn my back on the mare. They are all grade horses. Maybe not. Maybe dad would take exception to that. I feel fairly comfortable saying they are just pets though.

      • Ornery? Way to go HFS – you all but called your dad’s horses mules but this could be a win-win situation for us 😉 Mules are actually pretty cool they are smart and have the fortitude of a starting farmer – they are prepared to work hard and wait 6 –8 yrs for results, which often frustrates their people and gives them a bad name. To some horse owners this comment may be insulting though so you just may have provoked your dad enough to either brag about his mules if he has any, or write us a damage control post on the good nature of his horses, number and how much hay from your farm they eat. We haven’t heard from him for a long time – since the hay wagon rebuilds I think – see what you can do lol 🙂

  3. I am loving these very informative posts, and also the real world stuff of keeping them all together in the deep bed pack now that harsh winter is here. I was working on developing a hardy parasite resistant dairy goat, a custom landrace kind of thing over about 8 years, but you know—goats are cute, but unbelieveably obnoxious! I have exited that idea! Gonna try Highlands this year as our first cattle. I will be so fascinated to watch as you develop your custom breed!

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