As Philip and I get closer to making the move to the homestead permanent, it’s time to secure the resources we need to get the farm off the ground successfully. Since attending the lectures of Shawn and Beth Dougherty at Homesteaders of America in 2022, we are workings towards the goal of producing not only our own food resources on the farm but also the food resources needed for our animals. Dairy animals are the only animals on the farm, that can convert grass and hay into a protein-rich food source that can help sustain the entire farm. While I had already been advocating for a cow on the farm, this moved her into a position of royalty! Still, we had to tackle an important question. How do you choose cattle for the homestead: a dairy cow VS a beef cow?
Understanding Cattle Terms
Cattle are typically referred to as cows. Let’s review common cattle terms that may influence your choices when purchasing types of cattle. The scientific species is Bos taurus belonging to the family Bovidae,
- Cow: Female cattle who have given birth to a calf
- Heifer: Female cattle that have not given birth to a calf
- Calf: General term for baby cattle, either male or female
- Bull: Male cattle that are intact (not castrated) and capable of reproduction
- Steer: Male cattle that are castrated
Dairy Cow VS Beef Cow
When choosing cattle the first step is to understand your goal for owning a cow. Different types of cattle are built for different goals. A typical dairy cow will have a slight build, as their energy goes into milk production. Dairy cows typically have a high milk yield. Beef cows are a bulky type of cattle, build for meat production. Just like their dairy counterparts, they give milk, however, their output and butter fat quantity may be lower than dairy cows.
Dairy cattle are raised and bred specifically for the production of milk. They are known for their large udders and slight build. Often people think they look boney. Cows produce milk after the birth of their calves. The milk is intended to sustain their young, however, dairy producers are able to produce large amounts of milk that can be used for human consumption. The average dairy cow can produce up to 8 gallons of milk a day! There are six main dairy breeds of cattle known for their dairy production, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey, and Milking Shorthorn.
On the homestead, many dairy farmers practice calf sharing. Calf sharing is a means of managing large amounts of milk. At night, the farmers typically separate the calves from their mothers. In the morning, the farmers milk the cow to supply the milk needs of the family. After the family has enough milk, the farmers return the calf to its mother. The calf will nurse for the rest of the day until separated again at night.
In the dairy farming industry, farmers practice early separation of the calves from their mothers. Farmers typically feed the calves powdered milk supplements. They use 100% of the milk for human consumption. They raise female calves to replace adult dairy herds. Cows on commercial farms are milked for only a few years before slaughtered for beef. A much shorter time span than their counterparts on small farms. Dairy steers are sold to veal farms or as beef.
Beef breeds of cattle are known for their high-quality beef. These stocky animals are known for their muscular, broad body type and short necks. The carcass traits that are preferred in quality beef are flavorful meat that is well-marbled. Grass-fed and grass-finished cattle grow to size in about 28 months, while grass-fed and grain-finished cattle can be ready in about 16 months.
While there are many beef breeds of cattle, the most common beef cattle breeds are Black Angus, Red Angus, and Herefords. In the beef industry, farmers raise beef calves with their mothers. They wean the calves at around 7 months old. The common practice in the commercial beef industry is to raise the calves on grass and then move the cattle to feed lots to increase their size more quickly by feeding grain.
Homesteaders raise beef similarly. The debate between grass-finished and grain-finished cattle is a common topic. Some of it comes down to personal preference, as the finishing choice will have a direct result on the flavor of the food products.
Another Option: Dual Purpose Breeds
On the homestead, some farmers are lucky enough to have enough grazing land that they can raise both a dairy cow and still raise beef cattle specifically for the purpose of filling the freezer. Still, they face the challenge of using the surplus created by both types of cattle. For example, homesteaders commonly raise Jersey cows, which on average produce 6 gallons of milk a day. A 1200-pound steer can produce approximately 500 pounds of wrapped meat! Dual-purpose cattle are a good option for homesteads because they fulfill both purposes but at a more manageable scale on both counts.
Many heritage breeds are considered dual-purpose cattle. Shorthorns, Highland, Red Poll Cows, Brown Swiss, and Dexters are a few examples of this type of cattle. Dual-purpose cattle are more common in Europe than they are in the United States.
Modern farming has made it more conducive for small farms to keep cattle. Through modern methods of breeding by artificial insemination, small farms no longer need to keep breeding adults on the farm to sustain the family milk cow. While cattle are herd animals and will certainly benefit from multiple animals, small farms can keep fewer cattle to meet their family’s needs.
Our Choice: The Cattle Herd at Kowalski Mountain
At Kowalski Mountain, since the majority of the land is wooded, we have limited grazing land. As empty nesters, we have lower food needs now that our kids have grown up. We also desire to make our farm as self-sustaining as it possibly can be. When it comes to the question of dairy cow VS beef cow, we are choosing a dual-purpose breed. We have decided to keep Dexters on our farm. Dexter cattle are a heritage breed listed on the Livestock Conservancy List as a recovering breed.
Dexter cattle are small, standing only 40 inches tall and weighing about 900 pounds. They are solidly built cattle with shorter legs. Known for their gentle temperament and excellent mothering abilities.
Dexters produce 1 1/2 gallons to 2 gallons of milk a day. A far cry from 6 to 8 gallons! Ten gallons of milk a week seems a bit more manageable! However, we will need to balance our needs for dairy products with the needs of the farm for protein-rich milk. Like a dairy cow, Dexters can be fed for milk production. Increased grain consumption can help Dexters produce more milk. On our farm, we are wanting to raise grass-fed animals. Dexters are foragers. Making them a good choice for the homestead with that goal.
Dexter milk has about 4.1% butter fat. Comparatively it’s not as high as a Jersey cow who’s butter fat is about 5.36%. However the milk is rich enough to be able to produce the dairy products that we want to make.
A Dexter steer will dress out to about 800 pounds in less than 2 years. The net meat in the freezer is about 300 pounds. Dexter red meat is said to be flavored how beef used to taste. It has rich beef flavor with good marbling. Some of the world’s greatest chefs prefer Dexter beef!
Meet Prince! Our Young Bull
We have committed to purchasing our very first bull. Allow me to introduce Prince!
Resources for Kids
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.