Raising Beef Cattle: The Complete Guide

Beef is one of the most popular meats consumed in the United States, if not the most popular. And beef, of course, comes from cows. Whether you want to have a family cow or two to keep your freezer packed with super high-quality meat, or you want to start a viable business with beef cattle, there is a whole lot to learn about housing, raising, and caring for them.

Shorthorns cows in the field
a few Shorthorns cows beef cattle in the field

If you didn’t grow up in the business of raising cows it can be really intimidating, but the concepts are simple and easily learned by anyone.

Raising cattle for beef can be rewarding and profitable, but there’s a lot to learn. Get started on the right hoof with this guide.

Main Things To Keep In Mind

Raising beef cattle starts with getting your hands on enough land to keep cows on, and any facilities, if needed, to house them, then, picking the right breed for your local climate and your specific goals.

With a breed in mind, you’ll need to purchase calves or mature cows to properly find your herd. Congrats! You are a cattle owner.

If breeding to increase number, you’ll need to learn about best breeding practices. Helping your cows grow and thrive entails providing a balanced diet, including carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, along with fresh water. Regular veterinary check-ups and vaccinations are also crucial to ensure their health.

But in the end, beef cows are destined to become beef, and you must understand how to slaughter them, process their carcasses, and butcher the meat to make the delicious foods we all know and love. And, then, the process repeats!

What I Learned Raising Beef Cattle on My Homestead (so far)

Slaughtering Tools and Skills

Slaughtering and processing beef cows yourself, you’re going to need a variety of specific tools and the skills to employ them.

Bear in mind at all times that hygiene and safety are paramount at all steps of the process: Knowing how to properly clean and sanitize your tools and work area is essential to prevent contamination and outbreaks of devastating disease.

Slaughtering begins with dispatching the cow. For this, a captive bolt pistol, sometimes called a bolt stunner or bolt gun, is employed at contact distance. A powerful firearm may also be used for at-home humane killing.

Once the cow is down, a very sharp knife is used to slit the major veins and arteries in the neck, a process called exsanguination, to ensure death and prepare the carcass for initial processing.

You’ll also need a hoist and gambrel for hanging and moving the carcass, allowing gravity to assist in the bleeding and butchering processes.

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For the actual butchering work you’ll need a good set of knives, including a skinning knife, boning knife, and butcher knife. A meat saw or hacksaw is also needed to cut through bone and a stout cleaver is helpful in some cases.

Consider a meat grinder if you plan to make your own ground beef or sausages, but this is optional depending on your and your customer preferences.

In terms of fundamental skills, an understanding of bovine anatomy is crucial. You must know where to cut to avoid damaging the internal organs for cleaning and also to maximize the amount of usable meat.

Classes are available from universities and other organizations and agencies in most towns, and you can always ask an experienced processor, butcher, or fellow cattle owner to show you the ropes.

And I want to impress upon you that this is where the rubber meets the road for raising beef cattle: killing, bleeding, hanging, gutting, cleaning, and processing a cow is bloody, disgusting, hard work that demands a strong stomach, a steady hand, and relentless attention to detail at all phases. It isn’t for everyone!

Is Raising Beef Cattle Profitable?

Yes, when done right. Raising beef cattle can indeed be profitable, highly profitable, but it requires lots of know-how, hard work, careful planning, and business sense. Outside of owning a family cow or two, it is a major endeavor.

And profitability depends on tons of different factors, not all of them in your control: the cost of feeding and caring for the cows, market factors affecting beef, processing, transport, regulations, the price of calves, location, and a whole lot more.

The average wholesale price of beef, at press time, is right at $4 a pound, but your profits could be higher or lower depending on a whole lot of things.

I should also note that while raising cattle can definitely be profitable and reliably so, they aren’t necessarily the most profitable type of livestock!

How Much Land Do I Need?

One thing all cows need is lots of room to live and, sometimes, graze. The amount of land you’ll need to raise cattle is, as a rule of thumb, about 1 ½ to 2 acres per cow-calf pair for grazing.

However, if you’re planning to raise your cattle on a smaller scale or if you’re able to supplement their diet with hay or other feeds, you might be able to get by with less land. Less supplemental food or less nutritious forage means you will need more land per head.

a Guernsey cow in the field
a Guernsey cow in the field

Grazing and Pasture Management

One of the trickiest things to learn about raising and keeping beef cows is proper pasture management practices.

As mentioned, ideally, each cow and cow-calf pair will have anywhere from 1 ½ to 2 acres for grazing, but that isn’t all there is to know:

You should also plan to rotate your cattle between pastures to allow the grass to recover and to prevent overgrazing.

The most fundamental element of good pasture management is to maintain an appropriate stocking density to avoid overgrazing. It’s not just about having enough space for each cow; it’s about using that space, as a resource, wisely.

A simple rule of thumb in this regard is to “take half, leave half.” This type of rotational usage means you should allow your cattle to eat around half of the available forage, leaving the rest to regrow and reestablish itself. Remember that plants depend on neighboring and nearby plants, to a degree, when germinating and growing, so you’ll enjoy better efficiency, more nutritious forage, and better biodiversity if you keep your cows from “clear-cutting” an entire pasture.

One simple way to start with this type of pasture management is by dividing each permanent pasture into smaller sections using polywire, or electric fencing. You don’t necessarily need to invest in traditional and expensive fencing systems to partition your land!

This not only helps maintain the health of your pastures over time- an important consideration for efficiency on your part- but it also ensures there’s always something for your cattle to eat.

Be sure, too, to keep an eye out for weeds and other novel plants that might spring up. If you notice them encroaching on your pastures, it’s likely a sign that you need better weed- and plant-control measures.

Weeds can take over when pastures are not properly managed, reducing the availability of nutritious forage for your cattle, and there are many, many kinds of plants out there which are sickening, dangerous, or lethal to cows.

Lastly, you have to track and maintain pasture quality. Monitoring and testing your pastures can help ensure that cow nutritional intake and production of forages are correctly balanced.

Try to walk each pasture, or each section of a pasture, at least every 14 days, and make notes as needed. This will help you spot and correlate issues with lack or unwholesome forage before it turns into major problems for your cows- and for you!

What’s the Best Cattle Breed to Raise for Beef?

Choosing the right breed of cattle can make or break your operation- and maybe even your sanity! There are many cow breeds to consider, some more suitable for beef than others, and each breed comes with its own pros and cons.

Breed-variable factors to consider include growth rate, feed efficiency, carcass quality, and adaptability to your local climate and conditions. Picking a breed that is suboptimal for your location will make your life a lot harder than it has to be.

A few of the most popular and consistently desirable beef breeds include:

  • Charolais,
  • Shorthorn,
  • Simmental,
  • Black Angus,
  • Red Angus,
  • Limousin,
  • Salers,
  • and Tarentaise.

However, which is truly the “best” breed for you will ultimately depend on you making the right choice after an analysis of your circumstances and goals.

Cows can live from 15 to 20 years if healthy and not slaughtered. Once again, this can vary somewhat based on the cow’s breed. If left unslaughtered, expect any of your cows to live well into its teenage years or beyond!

Housing and Facilities for Beef Cattle

Housing your cattle is another key aspect of raising them. Sure, it looks like cows are content to stand or lay in a field all day and all night, contentedly, but they need shelter from weather and enclosures so they don’t wander off. And they will, otherwise.

Your cows should have a secure holding to put them in first arrive, so you can check them over for any injuries or signs of illness and quarantine them if needed.

Around the entirety of your property, good fencing will be necessary to keep the beasts where they are supposed to be and out of trouble.

Depending on your local climate and the breed of your cattle, you might also need to provide shelter from harsh weather conditions in the form of a barn, windbreak, or stalls.

Even in the most comfortable places, remember that their comfort and happiness will play a part in how fast they grow! Happy cows tend to be more productive and profitable cows.

What Sorts of Fences and Other Things are Needed to Contain Cows?

Barbed wire fencing is common and effective, but can cause injury. High-tensile wire and electric fencing are safer and still highly effective at keeping cattle contained.

The height of any cattle fence should be about 4 ½ feet high to prevent cows from jumping over. Yes, they can jump, and they jump pretty high and far!

If using spaced fencing, gaps must be no more than 12 inches apart to prevent cattle from squeezing through. Gates should be sturdy and secure, yet easy to open and close for access as needed.

Cattle guards, special dugouts that allow vehicles and human crossings while halting cattle, are a good option for high-traffic access points.

Reinforce corners and gate areas, as these are points of major stress on your fences which will be tested when cows lean on them to scratch.

What Age of Cow is Best for Beef?

Generally, beef cattle are slaughtered between 18 months and 2 years old.

Once adequately aged, they’ve reached their optimal weight (maximizing yield and/or profit) and their meat is tender and very flavorful. Young calves are also slaughtered and sold as veal, coveted for their delicate flavor and tenderness.

As always, the determined, optimum age depends on all sorts of factors, including breed, diet, growth rate, business goals, market considerations, etc.

How Often Should a Beef Cow Birth a Calf?

For maximum production (considering the health of the mother), a beef cow should give birth to a calf every 12 months. This requires careful management and adherence to a strict timetable!

After a typical 283-day gestation period, a cow will be ready to breed again in just a month and a half, but rushing things might lead to complications.

Conservative owners prefer to wait about 3 months, 90 days, to rebreed postpartum. This also ensures that the new calves will be born about the same time next year.

Ideally, a calf will be born between the months of February and May. Summertime births are also fairly common, but try to time impregnation so that cows won’t give birth in the winter.

To maintain this yearly calving interval, cows must be monitored and cared for diligently, given plenty of high-quality food, rest, and medical checkups as needed.

Strict adherence to good breeding practices is the only way to keep your beef herd productive, so ignore them at your own peril!

Health Care and Disease Prevention is Critical

Speaking of staying productive, keeping your cows free of disease and injury is “udderly” critical for a successful herd. This means regular inspections, veterinary check-ups, vaccinations, and prompt treatment of injury and any signs of illness.

As with all livestock, disease outbreaks can devastate your herd and greatly hamper productivity and quality even if there are no resulting deaths.

Worse yet, local outbreaks have a way of infecting whole counties, sometimes entire states or regions, so “firebreaking” against contagion is an ethical duty to your fellow cattlemen.

And don’t underestimate the importance of good nutrition to maintaining strong immune systems in your animals. Prevention, as ever, is always better than cure! No matter what, stay proactive about protecting your herd’s health.

What are Common Cattle Diseases to Be Aware Of?

On the topic of health care, you, as their owner, must become aware of common diseases that can affect your herd. Proper and early identification of symptoms can save lives, herds, and businesses.

One of the most common cow ailments, mastitis is a painful infection of the udder, with symptoms including swelling, redness, and abnormal milk or loss of production. Afflicted cows often have udders that are hot to the touch.

Foot-and-mouth disease is a fairly common and highly contagious disease that can devastate a herd in short order. Look for symptoms like drooling, sudden loss of appetite, lameness, and odd sores on the mouth and feet.

Another dreaded cattle ailments is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as “mad cow disease”.

Invariably fatal and totally incurable, this neurological disease is rare, and even scarier due to its potential to spread to humans. It has a very, very long dormancy and incubation time, and so often strikes without obvious warning.

Symptoms include irregular gait, aggression, grinding teeth, pacing, weight loss, and increased ear infections.

Other common ailments include:

  • bloat,
  • white muscle disease,
  • foot rot,
  • lumpy skin disease,
  • and calf diphtheria.

Again, early diagnosis is key. Keep a look out and contact your vet if you notice any changes in behavior, appetite, or physical appearance that you cannot figure out quickly.

Calf Management, Nutrition, and Care Practices

The arrival of a new calf or calves is always a busy and exciting but sometimes tumultuous time for cattle owners. Caring for your calves properly from the moment they’re born is critical not just for their survival and growth, but also for your own success.

The first 72 hours after birth are often the most crucial and precarious, and calves should be watched closely for any signs of distress or illness. Early, correct, intervention can be lifesaving.

Calves will subsist entirely on their mom’s milk, of course, for the early part of their existence but can be weaned as early as 6 weeks of age. You should ideally wean your calves from milk at anywhere from 6 to 10 months of age depending on the breed and your objectives.

As another rule of thumb, when they tip the scales between 450 and 700 pounds, you can gradually introduce them to pasture grazing. Good calf management practices can set the foundation for a healthy, productive herd.

Safety Around Cows

While cows are thought of as gentle, docile, and even dumb animals, human safety should always be a top priority when working around them. Cows are huge, heavy, and shockingly athletic, and even a cursory collision can entail major injuries, to say nothing of a deliberate attack!

You must always approach cows from the front or side so they can see you coming easily; avoid surprising or startling them. Surprising a cow might lead to a kick, headbutt, or charge and major injury.

And hopefully you don’t need me to tell you this, but you must never, ever, be in the vicinity of a bull without a barricade between you and it, or even an agitated cow!

Likewise, when working in close quarters with cows, avoid sudden movements or loud noises that could spook them. If a cow does become agitated, try to calm it but be ready to give it space and time to calm down.

Never try to force a distressed cow to do what you want as this can easily go out of control and, trust me, they are way, way stronger than you are.

Domestic cattle are, statistically, one of the deadliest animals in the world, so take this seriously! And also remember that cows are herd animals, and if one of them gets spooked, the others are likely to respond in kind.

Should You Have Bulls and Cows for Raising Beef?

Owning a bull ensures that you can breed your cows on your own terms, which can be more cost-effective in the long run.

However, this can easily be offset by the “pain in the ass tax”: bulls are far more challenging to handle compared to female cows due to their greater size and strength, a temperament that ranges from “surly” to “murderous,” and the fact that they require more space and food.

Keeping only cows and buying calves to raise for beef is a simpler option, but has logistical challenges of its own.

This approach eliminates the need to manage breeding and allows you to focus solely on raising the calves for beef. Weigh the pros and cons of each approach and consider what works best for your resources, skills, and goals.

Should You Make Beef Cows Wear Bells?

Cow bells do serve a practical purpose. They can help you locate your cows, especially in hilly or wooded pastures. However, if your cattle are in a small, easily visible pasture, bells may not be necessary and can become annoying to people and animals due to the constant noise.

If you have a large property or if your cows are in an area with lots of cover, bells can be beneficial, but you might also be well served by a high-tech alternative in the form of GPS locator collars.

Do keep in mind that not all cows tolerate bells or collars well. Most can learn to, but some just cannot stand them. Some may be bothered by the feel or the weight around their necks.

Marketing and Selling

If your efforts in raising cows aren’t just a hobby or for your own family’s subsistence, you must learn the ins and outs of the beef market.

This entails building relationships with local butchers, restaurants, farmers’ markets, and more, as well as wholesalers.

Learning to showcase the quality and consistency of your beef and the methods you employ when raising them will attract customers and, more importantly, repeat customers who are willing to pay a good price, even a premium, for delicious, high-quality beef.

What is the Best Age to Sell Beef Calves?

Selling calves “on the hoof” to other cattle owners or, sometimes, end customers is another income stream for your operation. Typically, beef calves get sold when they’re between 6 and 10 months old.

At this age, they’re usually weaned and developed enough to make them a safe purchase with a minimum of fuss. However, you must always keep an eye on local market trends for calves as this will significantly impact your strategy.

beef cattle pin image

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