Raising Beef on a Small Homestead – Part 1, by K.R.

Raising beef cattle may be outside the comfort zone of many Survival Blog readers, but it doesn’t need to be. At least that is what my wife and I found out. Doing so on a small, manageable scale has significantly upgraded our level of land management, food preparation, and enjoyment. Now we can’t imaging our high altitude (6,500 feet) American Redoubt retreat without full freezers of steaks, roasts, and burgers, all the nutritious compost we could ever hope for, and our two Highland cows roaming our mountainous 20 acres.

Many might say that, “I’ve never raised livestock and want to start with something small,” or, “I don’t have enough land and equipment,” so they don’t even try to raise cattle. As it turns out, the skills needed to raise beef aren’t any more difficult than growing a garden or deciding which firearms are the best ones for defense of a ranch or homestead. You can do what we describe here with just a few acres and no expensive farming equipment.

Why Beef?

The first question most people ask is, “Why beef? Why not goats or chickens, or something smaller than I am? Good question. Goats and chickens are good ideas in the right setting. We decided against them and made the move to beef for a number of reasons. First, we needed a robust protein source, and we like the taste of beef; and if you raise the right kind, it can be as high in Omega-3 fats and low in the “bad” fats as chicken. Secondly, goats and chickens do not do well where we are because of predators. We have bountiful ermine and foxes that take chickens, and mountain lions that take goats.

The cattle we chose have a positive overall impact on our land by increasing grass density and removing weeds, and they produce a high enough volume of manure that meets our garden needs. Finally, having large livestock roam most of our land qualifies us for a property tax break in our state that effectively pays for purchasing and feeding our cattle. We chose beef because it was the option that met our land, garden, taste, and financial needs.

Which Breed Works on Your Homestead?

The second question that needs to be asked is, “Which breed works best for my situation?” The breed you pick needs to meet your needs within your land quality, location, type of fences, and level of commitment. For us, Highland Cattle have been ideal for our location, small scale size, taste, and relatively low level of expertise and commitment. We live in the transition zone between black bear and grizzly bear habitats, but they haven’t seemed to have bothered our hearty, horned Highland cattle. We also have the type of land that is not very fertile, and can easily plagued by weeds. The Highland cattle can have a positive impact on those two points on all of the land we allow them to roam. So Highland cattle have been a good choice for us.

Highland cattle are ideally suited for the small homestead in the American Redoubt. They have been herded by small-scale farmers for over 1,000 years in the rough Scottish Highlands because they can be used for pulling, milking, and beef, and are extremely durable. They thrive on poor fodder, calve on their own, tolerate bitter cold winters, protect themselves from predators, and are docile enough to handle “on the ground”. As it turns out, their meat is very low fat, and their diverse diet allows them to produce more Omega-3 fatty acids–very beneficial for promoting low cholesterol in their human predators; and they taste very good, too.

The other breed that I might recommend are the Dexters, which occupied a similar historical niche as Highlands, but in the small scale farms in Ireland. We’ve never raised Dexters, but a friend has for the last five years and is very happy with them. Like Highlands, they are multipurpose and manageable on foot. Highlands are notoriously accustomed to cold winters, which we have in abundance; but Dexters are less expensive to purchase. However, do your research; there may be other breeds that are well adapted to your area that may be a better choice for you.

Getting Started

To raise beef on a small-scale homestead, you need land, fencing, water, and food. Be sure that you have all of these four items set up before bringing cattle on site. Also, you might want to check with your state agricultural agent for any advice, although this article give you much more than we could get from our local agent. Once you get these logistics in place, search for a source for the breed you would like to raise. If you don’t have a trailer, no problem; a lot of sellers are willing to deliver for a fee.

The first thing to do is designate a small portion of your land that is close to a water source (that you can access during the winter), close to where you anticipate storing hay, and put a sturdy fence around it. Put gates in directions that you anticipate using for grazing. This central coral can be expanded using electric fencing, or you can build permanent fencing adjacent as you develop grazing zones. Once your water and hay is available, you’re ready to pick up your livestock.

Once the basic logistics are taken care of, give some thought to your overall plan. Will you keep cattle year-round, or just during the summer to graze your land? Will you purchase steers (castrated males), heifers (virgin females), or bred cows (pregnant females)? Where will these cattle come from? How long will you keep them before harvesting? Will you breed your heifers? If so, will you own bulls or use artificial insemination? Will you use all your meet, or will you sell some? Not all these questions need to be answered right away, but you should be developing your operation with an eye to the answers of these questions.

For example, someone new to livestock might just pick up a couple steers in the spring, have them graze through the summer, then butcher and put them in the freezer in the fall. That would minimize a lot of costs, such as winter hay purchases.

We made the decision of keeping two head year-round, all for our own use. We found people who would sell us steers, heifers, and one bred cow. In general, we’re attempting to keep our operation as simple as possible, so we simply keep the cattle about two years, then harvest them for our own use. Our current heifer is a nice specimen, so we’re thinking of having her artificially inseminated, which isn’t as complicated as it sounds as long as there is someone nearby who performs this service. We’ve been tempted to expand, but we have made the conscious decision to be successful at a small scale that produces ample meat for the two of us only, rather risk expanding unsuccessfully.

Fencing, Grazing, and Land Management

Most people use treated posts with 4-5 strands of barbed wire, with the top wire about 42 inches high. However, in our situation, some of our land has very shallow soil on top of bedrock, so driving in a post is not possible. We use two different types of fences that our suited to our situation. We have plenty of wood, so log “buck and rail” for the perimeter, and for permanent corals and pastures. The log “bucks” are a log triangle that sits on top of the ground, which then holds up the horizontal log rails. (The fence becomes a reservoir of dried, burnable firewood, that we can use in the direst of circumstances.) Then, to establish temporary grazing zones within our perimeter, we set up two strands of electric tape, powered by a solar power source.
Some people might say, “Oh, those poor cows. They’re going to have to suffer electric shocks in order to stay in their grazing area.” The electric tape and solar chargers used nowadays give off very little current and low voltages. In fact, you or I can easily grab hold of the charged electric tape and only feel a little tingling. But it drives the cows nuts. It really is more of a psychological barrier than an actual physical barrier– but it works wonderfully, and it is portable, easy to set up, and doesn’t break the bank.

For our two Highlands, who typically do not challenge fences as much as larger breeds, such as Angus, we set up a winter pen and a 1-acre pasture with buck-and-rail fencing. This permanent zone then has gates that open up to other parts of our land. Then we set up 1-2 acre grazing zones connected to those gates. Then we alternate the cattle between our permanent grazing pasture and one or the other of these grazing zones–spending about two weeks in each area. By moving them from area to area, the grass continues to grow during the season, and we get much more feed from our land, without it getting overgrazed or denuded. Be smart; watch your cows graze, and notice when the grass seems to be a uniform, short height; that is the time to move them to the next grazing area. If you wait until the ground becomes dusty and the vegetation is pulverized into the ground, then you’ve waited to long and it will take a while for that land to recover.

Moving the cattle from field to field is a fun task. Spend time with them, so they know you and recognize your voice. Eventually, you learn how to move slowly and predictably so that they don’t treat you as a predator; and you learn where to walk to gently herd them from one place to another. In our case, they come when we call; but it takes a while to get to that point. In the meantime, be cautious–but not fearful. Remember, they’re bigger than you are and can inflict a lot of damage on you if you’re careless.

The cattle will reduce your weeds if you don’t allow them to overgraze an area. If they overgraze, the denuded dirt can be easily invaded by opportunistic weeds. But under normal conditions, whatever weeds the cattle don’t eat are more easily spotted for you to take them out. The grass becomes more dense and eventually outcompetes the weeds, and the overall field health improves significantly. It has taken a couple years, but we are very pleased with the improved look of the land, and find it easier to walk on and enjoy.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)