Raising cattle as part of your survival plan can vastly increase the beef and dairy yields on your prepper compound. But, raising cattle takes a lot of time, space, money, and knowledge.
Before venturing out to your first livestock auction, educate yourself about cattle husbandry to avoid an epic – and perhaps even deadly, failure.
We are blessed to live on a 56-acre secluded survival homestead. It took us nearly three very long years to find the right spot to relocate our tribe, but I am so glad we were able to find and put our self-reliance plan in motion before the SHTF.
Even though we have ample space for cattle, we did not purchase any our first year on the land. Why? We had a lot to learn about cattle husbandry, had to improve the condition of the pasture so it could support even a small herd during the winter, make what seemed like an enormous amount of fence and barn repairs.
If we would have skipped even one of those vital steps in the pre-cattle herd ownership process, we could have lost all of the money spent purchasing the livestock when they failed to thrive or escaped. We had a goat herd to supply us with dairy and meat, as well as chickens and ducks for eggs and protein, as well.
Before you can determine if cattle should be a part of your survival plan, you must decide what you want out of your herd and learn more about the various breeds to find the right fit to suit your needs.
Can You Keep Cattle On Small Homesteads?
You do not need to have a lot of land to own a few head of cattle, especially if you purchase a Dexter breed – miniature cattle. But, you do need to provide enough quality space for them to graze or have deep enough pockets (and again space) to buy enough hay to sustain the herd.
A “foundation” bovine is generally a good fit for a small homestead. This type of cow is between 2 and 5 years old and has already successfully bred one healthy calf.
Laws And Deed Restrictions
It would be highly unusual to not being allowed to raise cattle in rural areas. But do purchase a single cow before you double check any deed restrictions that exist on your land, as well as local farming laws.
Raising livestock, even small or medium livestock, in suburban areas can be problematic. In right to farm states, you will likely be able to at least keep a few hens in your backyard, but keeping even a miniature cow on a large lot might not be permissible.
• The general rule of thumb when it comes to standard cattle breeds is you need 2 acres per animal for grazing purposes.
• If your survival retreat is partially wooded, you can “grub” the woods or even fairly steep hillsides and turn the areas into additional pasture. Both trees and stumps will need to be removed, briars cut back, and the sod tilled and quality pasture-grade seed planted. This process typically takes up to two years to complete.
Possible Cattle Restrictions
• Number of cattle on a property – even a rural property
• Number of bulls on a property
• Distance fencing is from a road or property line
• Cattle access to a public waterway
• On-site butchering restrictions
• Make sure to work cattle emergencies into your prepping budget.
• If you do not have at least two natural sources of water on your survival retreat, planning for herd watering during a drought is even more of a priority.
• A cow can drink upwards of 20 gallons (75 liters) of water per day. The herd, like the rest of your livestock, will expect to quench their thirst even when their natural water sources are solid ice. Cracking ice to allow animals to water is both time-consuming and back-breaking labor. The more animals you have, the larger they are, the more physical labor will be required to care for them.
• Vet bills can be incredibly expensive. I have only ever once called a vet in all my many years of owning animals. I learned how to treat minor to fairly serious illnesses and injuries both by myself and naturally. But, if a serious incident happens, like calving problems, you must have the money in hand to pay a vet to come help save your animal – or risk losing your source of meat and dairy.
You won’t be able to call a vet during a SHTF scenario, so learn as much as you can now about common cattle emergencies, illnesses, and injuries then stockpile materials and cross-train members of your family accordingly.
Cows may look docile, but if one gets food aggressive or just generally is ill-tempered, it can crush a person, ram them into a fence – breaking ribs and potentially quite a few more bones in the process.
Never turn your back on the cattle and do not treat them as pets. Giving little treats to the herd should be done in their feed tubs and not by hand. Do not pet the cattle and teach them to seek your affection – or get mad if they do not get it.
There are some exceptions to this sound advice when dealing with dairy cows, because you need to gain their trust and keep them calm during the milking process – especially if you both are new to the chore.
Cows Come In Different Sizes?
Yes, they most certainly do – and some are far better suited for smaller or partially wooded survival retreats.
• Miniature Cattle – These animals were crossbred to intentionally create smaller bovines. The tiniest of bulls and small or dwarf cows were bred consistently. The runt of each herd of small cows bred in this manner were typically used to help create miniature cow breeds from standard breeds.
• Standard Breeds – Typically standard size cattle are at a minimum, 600 pounds. Some cows and bulls in this category can grow to weigh nearly 1,600 pounds.
• Guinea Cattle – These are another small breed. Due to usually a genetic mutation, cattle smaller than 600 pounds as adults are considered guineas and sometimes intentionally bred with other guineas to create livestock for small farms and homesteads.
Different Types of Cattle
When you say you want “cows” do you really know what you are asking for? Do not become the laughing stock of the livestock auction, or spend hundreds to thousands of dollars for an animal you do not really need or are capable of housing on your prepper retreat.
• A bull is an adult male bovine. He is used solely for breeding and not meat – unless a long-term disaster forces you to butcher the bull. Bulls generally live a long life, making their meat quite tough. Bulls are referred to as sires once they are two years old. A bull will typically reach at least half of its mature weight by the time it is 14 months old.
• A single bull is capable of breeding up to 30 cows in a single year.
• Usually bulls are placed in a pen or pasture to breed for only about 40 days and then they are separated from the cows to allow them all to rest. Overly taxing the animals could lead to major health problems, aborted calves, or even death.
I would never recommend a cattle newbie buy a bull. That can make sustaining a herd on a survival retreat quite difficult. Now, you can buy bull semen to impregnate your cows, but that will not likely be an option after the SHTF.
Try to find a nearby homesteader or farmer to rent stud services from now to establish a connection that could be vital during a long-term disaster. Once you are a more seasoned cattle keeper, then it could be time to invest in a bull.
Bulls are hard to handle, should not be allowed to freely roam with the cows year round, and can be difficult to keep in a pasture that has not fortified substantially.
• A cow is a mature bovine that has had a calf at least once. A cow will have far wider hips and a thicker belly than bulls or steers regardless of whether or not they are dairy or beef cows. It typically takes two years for a cow to be large enough to hit butcher weight. Wintering them over will require a mild climate if they are going to survive on pasture (ample pasture) or the stockpiling of a significant amount of hay.
• Cows should never be bred until they are at least 15 months old and weigh a minimum of 600 pounds – unless they are guineas or miniature bovines.
• A cow’s gestation period is about nine and a half months – 285 days.
• Cows can breed year round but the bulk of calves are born from February to May.
Learn how to estimate a cow’s age before purchasing the animal. You do not want an old cow because the meat will be tough or she could be past mating age and therefore not produce adequate milk. Once a dairy cow is no longer able to reproduce, she is most often butchered and her meat ground up for hamburger.
A steer an adult castrated male. This type of cattle is almost exclusively raised for beef, it really has no other purpose since it can no longer reproduce. Steers are not usually aggressive like bulls. Just like cows, it generally takes two years for a steer to hit butcher weight.
A heifer is a young female bovine that has not yet had a calf. It is typically less expensive to buy a heifer than a just recently matured cow. Because a heifer has not yet calved, she will have a less rounded body than a oow and slimmer hips.
A calf can be either a male or female bovine. Once the animal is no longer nursing, it is referred to as a “weaner.” When a weaner is at least 12 months old, it is referred to as a yearling.
Calves are usually weaned around 7 months old. Placing the cow and the calf in separate pens or pastures, but allowing them to still see and touch each other through a fence will greatly reduce both separation anxiety for the animals and LOUD and sad moaning from them both. Cow moaning would definitely not be a good thing when OPSEC is a priority.
Once the calf is weaned the cow must be milked to continue her production of milk.
There are two different types of cattle – beef and dairy. Now, you can get milk and beef from any cow, some breeds are better suited to their respective tasks and will give you a better return on your investment in both quality and quantity.
Beef cattle breeds boast a more muscular carcass and therefore offer a greater amount and quality of meat that a dairy cow. Beef cattle is typically more stocky, have no visible hip or ribs showing, and boast a flat back.
Cows of this type generally have larger udders and feature a boney look to their bodies.
Dual or Multi-Purpose Cattle
This type of cattle will likely be the best option for a survival homestead. You get nearly the best of both worlds when a multi-purpose breed is purchased.
Dual or multi-purpose cattle may not offer as much meat as beef cattle, but the meat is still of a good quality. The milk production on a dual or multi-purpose breed of cattle will be less than a dairy cow, but will still offer more milk that a miniature bovine or goat will.
Heritage breeds of any type of livestock are always my favorite type to add to our survival homestead. These largely endangered breeds were the original breeds of their respective species.
Factory farms have cross-bred nearly all of the heritage breeds to garner their superior genes – and then pumped them full of all kinds of medications and confined them into small spaces to quickly increase their bulk and get them to market.
Heritage breeds will likely never grow as quickly of perhaps even as large as the cattle that provide grocery store meat – but that’s o.k. The benefit of heritage breeds is their natural adaptability to the environment, from both a parasite and weather standpoint.
They are generally substantially hardy creatures that have not had their natural instincts bred out of them, allowing them to find food and shelter far easier on their own.
Cattle Raising Basics
• Cattle must be able to graze on quality pasture to meet their dietary needs or be fed hay.
• An average mature bovine eats about 24 pounds of hay per day.
• Cattle can consume up to 4 percent of their body weight on a daily basis.
• A lactating cow will eat approximately 2 percent more feed on a daily basis.
• All stock feed can be fed to cattle to help supplement the roughage their diet requires. The all stock feed should have both a high fiber and a high protein count.
• Cracked corn be be mixed in the with the all stock feed to further enhance the diet of the herd.
• Cattle feed is generally sold in three different varieties: block feed, pellets, and sweet feed.
• Creep feeding is a practice engaged in when separating a calf from its mother. The creep feed is not intended to replace the cow’s milk but to supplement it to begin the weaning process while maintaining a proper diet and strong bones.
• Cattle, like most varieties of livestock, should be given salt and minerals (either loose or in block form) to round out their diet.
• Cows will need additional mineral supplementation before giving birth and while lactating.
• It is always a good idea to add extra minerals to a bulls diet during the mating season.
Cows do not need to live in a barn, and rarely do. But, they need at least a lean-to of some type to protect them from the elements.
Keeping the cattle out of sight and secure will surely be a priority during a SHTF scenario. When buying cattle, keep barn space in mind. Keeping or building a large open stall to house the cattle at night, locking all of the animals inside and even putting a guard on the barn, may help you keep your meat and dairy sources right where they belong.
Cattle cannot be kept inside only an electric fence. Cattle cannot be kept only inside a barbed wire fence. Usually, cattle cannot even be kept inside only a wood fence.
How do you keep the dang things in, then? You must either use metal cattle panels mounts to sturdy metal or thick wood posts that have been sunk at least 2 and half feet down in concrete, or go the combo fencing route.
Most cattle owners go the combo route because it is far less expensive than using all cattle panels to create a pasture perimeter fence. Wood fencing with at least one line of electric fence that sticks out about five inches on the inside of the fence to keep the herd off of the wood.
If the cattle frequently push against the wood fence to scratch their hides, which they love to do, it will weaken, and ultimately crack and create an escape route the herd will immediately take advantage of – the grass being greener, and all.
Barbed wire fencing can also be used to keep the herd away from the wood fencing, but it is not usually as effective as the little jolt of electricity stemming from a solar charger.
Cattle Buying Tips
1. The fall is typically the best time to buy cattle. Prices to tend to drop because farmers and breeders do not want to endure the expense or extra work of wintering them over.
2. Search for “grade cows” they are not fancy purebreds but their meat and/or milk will nearly always still be of fine quality. You are not searching for a show cow here, you just want a healthy animal to help put food on the table for your family.
3. Try to purchase the herd members for a local farmer, livestock auctions are no place for newbie cattle owners. You will have little to any time to inspect the animal before the auction, will not be able to view the breeders that created it, and will have to simply take the word of the seller about its health and antibiotic or other medication use.
Even if a vet inspection accompanies the animal, the type used for livestock auctions are rarely, if ever, comprehensive or involve blood testing.
4. A healthy and sturdy bovine should have strong legs and eet, able to easily stand and move under its own bulk, have legs that are evenly proportioned for the animal’s frame, and slightly recessed at the back hock.
5. All cows, and dairy cows in particular, should have wide pin bones.
6. Check both the udder and the teats of dairy cows closely. A cow with a medium-sized and not a large udder usually is a steady and strong milk producer.
The udder should never hang lower than the joints on the hock joint and should be pliable yet firmly attached if the ligament in the vulva region is healthy. Teats should be spaced evenly and point right down to the ground and not be angled.
Top Cattle Breeds For Survival
1. Chianina – Sturdy and heavy dual-purpose breed.
2. Brahman – Beef cattle that are regarded as both docile and smart.
3. Brown Swiss – A preferred dairy cattle breed than can produce up to 9 gallons of milk with a 4 percent butterfat content, per day.
4. Hereford – One of, if not the, best beef producing cattle breed in the country – quality meat and a lot of it.
5. Simmental – A multi-purpose cattle breed that is a steady and consistent producer of milk and meat and strong enough to even be used for agriculture drafting chores.
6. Dexter – These miniature bovines are another multi-purpose option that are especially suites to newbie keepers and small homesteads. Dexter cows can give up to 3 gallons of milk per day, on average.
7. Jersey – This is a small standard breed that is highly regarded as a quality milk producer. Jersey milk also boast a a high butterfat content. They are known as a non-aggressive breed.
8. Guernsey – This breed could be ideal for a large survival homestead. Guernseys can weigh up to 1,200 pounds on average and routinely give about 7 gallons of milk per day. They mature quickly and tend to repeatedly produce healthy calves.
9. Angus – These are one of the top meat producers as well. They are not really a multi-purpose but do produce a nice quality of milk, as well.
10. Lowline Angus – This miniature cattle breed is well suited to both a small homestead and intense heat. Cows generally grow to hit 42 inches tall. The cows are great milkers and attentive mothers to their calves. Being of an Angus cross-breeding endeavor, they also produce top grade beef and are lauded for their gently disposition.
Cows never seem to be at the top of any list for suggested survival livestock. Why? Because they are large and eat a whole lot. This does not mean you should mark them off your list, but instead find the right breed and the proper herd number your prepper retreat can handle when buying hay and feed is no longer possible.
Butchering a cow is no more difficult than butchering a deer or a goat, but it will take both more time to complete and require more space to store the preserved beef.
Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, ‘Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out’, Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.