Cattle Breeds for the Small Farm

Discover five cattle breeds that make great dual- and triple purpose livestock for your small farm.

Highland

Highland cattle have a distinct look and high-quality beef.

Photo by Ottmar Bierwagen

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One of the most exciting things about living on your own farm is being able to have your own livestock. Taking pride in watching your animals grow up healthy and well cared for, and the satisfaction of producing your own milk, meat, wool or other necessities, are unique pleasures of farm life.

Cattle can be one of the most rewarding livestock to have on the farm. If you are starting a new farmstead venture, or if you’ve been thinking of adding a few head of cattle to your existing farm, here are several things to keep in mind, along with five breeds worth considering.

Climate

Cattle can be relatively easy to keep. They don’t require lavish barns and expensive feed, as long as their basic needs for shelter and nutrition are met. If you live in a climate that tends to be more extreme on either end of the weather spectrum, you’ll need to take this into consideration when choosing breed.

Many breeds of cattle started out as “landraces,” or groups of animals that developed certain traits based on the geography and environment in which they lived and to which they adapted. The diversity found among cattle ensures that there are breeds for most every environment, and a breed known to thrive in the heat and humidity of the south may not perform as well in rugged, cooler northern climates.

Breeding

One major factor to consider is if you plan to raise calves each year. Will you want to keep a bull for natural breeding, or go with artificial insemination (AI)? Having a bull to service your cows is, at least in theory, easier. The bull knows when the cows come into heat, and he will take care of business with no input on your part. But for a small farm without a lot of acreage, having a bull may not be practical. If you want calves at a certain time every year, the bull will have to be kept separate until the appropriate breeding time. This requires good fencing and a well-behaved bull. Letting the bull run with the cow herd year-round is an option, but you lose control over calving times.

Many breeds, especially some of the heritage breeds, are known for having males that are tractable and easy to handle. A good reputable breeder will go out of her way to help you chose a bull that will be as safe as possible, but any intact male deserves respect.

Artificial insemination is not as tricky or complicated as it may seem, but it requires careful observation and planning. Your vet can work with you to plan and synchronize estrus in your herd. If they do not perform AI themselves, they can point you to a trained technician. You will also need to have some way to restrain your cows for the procedure.

While synchronizing your cows and hiring someone to inseminate them will cost some money up front, it will likely be less than the expense of keeping a bull of your own. The down side is that even the best AI technician will not guarantee a 100-percent conception rate.

Consider the pros and cons of each and determine which will be best for your needs. If you choose AI, you can often purchase semen from breed associations or from private breeders. Also, if one method doesn’t work as well as you had hoped, you can always go another route the next year.

Herd goals

The other thing to consider, of course, is what your ultimate goal is for your herd, whether it be one cow or 100. A small-scale dairy operation will require cows that produce more milk than the daily gallon or two for a homesteader.

A couple sides of beef in the freezer just for your family won’t require a large, fast-growing calf or a large number of animals.

Fortunately for us, there is a wide variety of cattle breeds to choose from for the small farmstead. Some excel as beef producers, some are known for milk production, and a handful can “do it all.” These are the dual- or triple-purpose breeds.

Milking Shorthorn

At one time the Shorthorn was the most widely recognized breed in agriculture and one of the first to become a true breed. One of the most famous Shorthorns in history is the Durham Ox. In 1806 at 10 years of age, he weighed in at 3,500 pounds. This drew much attention from those hoping to capitalize on meat and milk production.

The Shorthorn was initially brought to the United States in the late 1700s, and remained predominantly in the Ohio and Kentucky area until the late 1800s when the breed’s popularity spread throughout the rest of the country.

The Shorthorn has always been considered a triple-purpose breed – for beef, dairy and draft power. However, some choose this breed primarily for meat production while others select for milk production. This division was reflected when the breed association split into two groups in the early 1900s: Beef Shorthorn or Shorthorn for beef production, and Milking Shorthorn.

Known for low-input, grass-based dairy production, efforts have been generated to locate and preserve the unimproved Milking Shorthorn. They thrive in pasture-based dairy systems, and even though the focus is on dairy, they still produce high-quality beef. They are a medium to large cow with females weighing between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds, and bulls up to 2,000 pounds.

They can produce upwards of 13,000 pounds of milk during each lactation, and the milk is a respectable 3.3 percent protein and 3.6 percent butterfat.

Milking Shorthorns are known for their docile disposition and tractability, making this the breed of choice for oxen production in organizations like Tiller’s International.

Guernsey

The Guernsey originated on the Isle of Guernsey, located in the English Channel between southern England and France. There are many stories of how the Guernsey came to be on the island, with the most famous being that monks brought them in 960 A.D. when ordered by Robert Duke of Normandy to cultivate the land.

The breed was first imported to the United States in the early 1800s and was extremely popular as a “house cow” due to the richness of its cream. For many years, the Golden Guernsey brand carried Guernsey milk and butter products famous for the unique golden hue. The milk’s color is due to the high content of beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A.

Guernseys continue to produce excellent-quality milk on grass-based dairy systems, and their high butterfat milk is wonderful for artisan dairy products. Average milk production is around 13,000 pounds of high quality milk containing between 4.5 and 5 percent butterfat and 3.2 to 3.7 percent protein.

Guernseys have a gentle disposition and are able to adapt to many environments, making them an ideal cow for a small-scale farm. It is considered a medium to large breed, with cows weighing around 1,400 pounds and bulls up to 2,000 pounds.

Milking Devon

One of the oldest purebreds in the world, the Milking Devon traces its ancestry back to the cattle of the southwestern peninsula of England, the Devonshire area, hence the name. Noted for their hardiness yet active, nimble and easy to handle, they were an easy choice for a 1623 voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. A bull and three heifers made the trip from England to the American colonies and formed the Milking Devon breed we know today. The breed is now extinct in England.

Valued for its ability to produce lean meat and rich milk, Devon cattle were also prized as oxen, and were widely regarded as some of the finest draft animals in the world. By the early 1900s, though, the Devon was rarely found outside of New England, where it was still heavily favored for its production qualities and draft power. In the 1950s, the original breed organization split into two groups, the Beef Devon and Milking Devon associations.

The Milking Devon is known for its ability to produce good quality beef and milk on marginal forage, and is a breed known as an easy keeper. Their milk is around 4 percent butterfat. Cows will average around 1,100 pounds and bulls around 1,600 pounds, their smaller size being suitable for farms with less acreage. They are intelligent cattle, docile, and respond well to quiet handling.

Highland

The picturesque Highland cow evokes images of its native Scotland and the rugged region from which it hails. Shaggy coated and thrifty, the Highland is a breed shaped by its environment and geographic isolation rather than intentional selection by humans. The Scottish Highlands have been home to these cattle for hundreds of years, and this isolation has led to a very distinct and unique breed.

As a result, Highland cattle are hardy and long-lived, have a good reproduction rate, and make good mothers. Their shaggy double coat gives them an advantage in cold climates, but they’re adaptable enough to live in warm areas by shedding a lot of their extra inner coat while keeping their shaggy appearance.

Highland beef is known for its tender, flavorful and marbled characteristics.

Cattle are efficient grazers, and do well on pasture-based systems. They are also known for their willingness to eat less-than-desirable forage such as forbs and weeds, and they have been used in projects to reclaim grasslands.

The Highland is one of the few pure breeds of cattle that have had no outside blood introduced, making it a unique genetic resource. They are a medium-sized breed, cows weighing between 900 and 1,300 pounds, and bulls up to 2,000 pounds. They come in a variety of colors, including white, black, red, dun and brindle.

The breed is known for its docility, a result of its long history of close contact with humans. Animals with poor dispositions were eliminated quickly. Highland calves are small but vigorous, and dystocia, or calving difficulty, is rarely a problem. Even bulls are generally quiet and laid back.

Red Poll

The Red Poll is a dual-purpose breed from England and was developed in the early 1800s. It’s named after its dark red color and the fact that it is naturally polled, or without horns. Red Poll cattle were brought to the U.S. in the 1880s and quickly became valued for their efficient dairy production and longevity.

Although selected for both meat and dairy purposes, they have been especially prized for their quality of beef in the U.S. since the 1960s. They excel in producing beef in pasture-based systems, and though calves are born small, they grow quickly.

Crossbreeding represents a danger to the breed, though, as the Red Poll risks being lost to commercial herd owners who want to capitalize on the breed’s vigor. Red Poll need to be maintained in purebred herds as well. They are noted for their docility and even temperament, and like most cattle, respond well to gentle, consistent handling. Cows average around 1,200 pounds, and bulls 1,800 pounds. They are an early maturing breed, and can produce a choice carcass at about 14 months of age.

A variety of additional breeds with unique and wonderful traits exist that do well on the small homestead. Before looking for breeds though, take a close look at what you hope to accomplish with cattle on your farm. Evaluate your facilities, the time and energy you have to invest, and your goals. After taking stock of your situation, choosing a breed can be a great adventure and lead to years of enjoyable cattle production.


By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper, by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. She has learned to manage all sorts of livestock at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas.