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.

The Whole Fleet

We built our recent chicken tractors after those of Joel Salatin.  The term Chicken Tractor, as near as I can tell, is something Andy Lee gave us.  In Pastured Poultry Profits Mr. Salatin describes a 10x12x2 structure that is lightweight and fairly easy to move.  We built ours as 12x8x2 but otherwise the original tractor is quite similar.  We built it out of scrap material we had laying around.  What could be better?  …or heavier?

That thing is a tank.  It has all kinds of bracing and is made with heavy steel siding rather than the prescribed aluminum.  But, it works.  When we were designing the second tractor we went with fewer braces and lighter steel.  The result was better but not great.

It may not look a lot different but it is a lot lighter.  I was bitten by the bug.  I built a third chicken tractor to see how light I could make it.  Further, I built the third to address a serious issue, heat.  I left the sides off entirely so the wind could blow through and keep things cool inside.

It worked remarkably well.  It is light but won’t blow away in 50 mph March winds.  It stays much cooler than the other two tractors.  But there is a problem.   This spring I have lost zero chickens in the other tractors but I have lost four in this one.  Four.  For those of you playing the home game, that’s a big number.  There appears to be something about that open side that stresses the birds.  I now have a tarp covering the South side of the tractor as it is light, portable, inexpensive and temporary.

That takes us to the fourth tractor design, a radical departure from what we have seen so far.

This tractor is the cheapest to build, the fastest to build and the most versatile.  I took one side off for the winter and raised 6 hogs in it.  I could imagine putting weaner pigs in one and moving it daily like they were chickens until they were big enough to escape, though I suppose one could wrap the interior with electric fencing to keep the pigs from rooting out.  I could also imagine using it for a calf shed or a hoop house.  The point is, it’s multi-purpose infrastructure.  We see these as the future of our fleet.

All four tractors use Plasson bell drinkers that are gravity-fed from a bucket.  We use 4″ PVC pipe cut in half lengthwise as a feeder.

Take a moment to imagine your perfect chicken tractor before you build it.  After you build it, take notes on what you would like to do differently.  Don’t be afraid to break from the norm.  By your third or fourth tractor you may have something that fits your organization’s goals.  Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm says before long you’ll end up with a whole fence row of what you thought was the perfect chicken tractor design.