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Discussion Starter #1
I run a small grass fed sheep flock. I'm in my second year of shepherding. I've read "Small-Scale Livestock Farming" and "Keeping a Family Cow" as well as a number of minor articles. I've toyed with the idea of oxen, but not sure I have the additional time it takes to do the training and keep them in working condition. I know that book learning only scratches the surface and I still count as a total newb.

Plan A was to someday keep 2-4 steers in with my sheep for personal use and stick to sheep for my commercial flock. I've only got 17 fence-able acres, so I can do better with smaller livestock and the extra per-head handling costs over a larger animal that needs more feed/pasture. I'd not gotten there yet because I'm trying to take one thing at a time and do it well before taking on more.

However, I've had a disagreement with my hay man, and can't find a reliable replacement, leaving me with 10 acres in need of some more intensive management than it has been getting, which is not quite big enough to really justify getting my own hay equipment. (I do have a small sickle bar for pasture management, and have a flail mower on order, but those work best in combo with livestock.) I'm thinking that cattle fence is cheaper and more mobile than good sheep fence, but I have to consider all the additional one-time costs and learning curve of having another species, especially such a large one, on the farm.

Things I know I'll need:
  • Portable Fencing
  • Portable (solar) charger
  • Water system, including a large trough and a tank for hauling water back to the rear field. (Don't see the point in running pipe if I'm going to be rotating them around properly.)
  • Mineral system, probably just a big block or bucket
  • Headgate for medical handling
  • Larger versions of all medical/docking equipment I have for the sheep
  • More forage based training treats
  • Lots more hay every winter, probably for a month longer than I confine the sheep because the sheep won't damage the field much when damp in the spring.
  • Barn space (already have) for winter (our snow drifts can get solid up over our fences, I find it better to confine animals indoors rather than in a dry lot in such weather)
  • Livestock trailer for going to the butcher. (Back of the pickup isn't going to cut it any more.)

Things I'm wondering about:
  • What am I forgetting?
  • How daft is this plan?
  • If not entirely daft, how many head to start with?
  • To meet my grass fed customer demand, do I have to get started this winter with bred cows, or should I just do conventional beef my first year? I know my current customers will pay more for grass finished, I'm more likely to make a profit *if* I don't run into calving issues.
  • Dairy breeds might be easier to handle for a newbie, but beef breeds have my marketing done for me... Which way to go?
  • How to find a good AI guy if I start breeding...
 

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Once we had our fences and systems in place we raised a few head of cattle for our own consumption before we raised any to sell to friends and family. The last thing I wanted to do was sell beef that was not what I had hoped it would be. We did a combination with them being finished on grass but supplemented with a few pounds (3-4lbs.) of grain but nothing near a full-feedlot ration. We found our best beef was from those cattle that we alllowed the time for them to develop. Best if luck. Something else to consider would be to simply buy a dozen head or so of feeders in early spring and then sell in the fall. You would be able to manage the grass during the growing season but not have to feed or maintain thru the winter. There are plenty of folks who do that around here.
 

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Discussion Starter #3
I do want to try older beef. At the personal use level I was thinking buy two, eat one for a couple years. I want to try four year beef at least once, but probably can't make money doing that commercially. Our current vendor only does baby beef.
 

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We do intensive grazing with our Dexters, in a climate similar to yours (Michigan). It sounds like you're on the right track with what you'll need, with the only exception being that if you really want to make good use of your pasture you'll want to have the water be able to be moved frequently, so you can confine your cows using simple pig tail step ins and a single polywire in smaller areas, moved frequently.

We like the Dexters because we find ONE buyer for the steer, no need to coordinate several people looking for 1/2 or 1/4 of an animal at the time they're ready for butcher. It is even more important to have this if you grass finish, because you have a limited window of time that you can do it successfully.

Also, we've had much better success with grass finishing on Dexter steers that carry the chondrodysplasia dwarf gene. They keep their condition better, and put on fat somewhat earlier than the non-carrier Dexters. The non-carrier Dexter steers we usually designate as grain supplemented for our customers that prefer that type of finish.
 

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Discussion Starter #5
I'm thinking moderate intensity management, moving once or twice a week. We tried a daily movement system with our ram and it did not work for us. Twice a week is doable if I can move it solo, which I have seen two systems for doing. (One system uses a reel to set up and take down whole lines, another uses some slack in the line slack line and has room to move one pole at a time with the wire still on it.) Do you just disconnect the charger while moving it and hope the cattle are not too smart?
 

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Discussion Starter #6
I am on a waiting list for Dexter steers from a grass fed dairy. I'd inquired before my hay plans fell apart, so we had not discussed volume.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
Arn't there health problems with carrying two copies of chondrodysplasia? I thought the breed was moving away from that.
 

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I'm in Western NY and run Dexters with my hair sheep. They get along fine, but all my cows are dehorned or polled, I wouldn't take the risk of running horned cattle with the sheep, accidents can and do happen. Just something for you to mull over.
If you need help finding Dexter steers when you are ready, I will be happy to help put you in touch with breeders in our State.

Carol K
 

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Forgot to add. Your sheep fence will work for your cows, or add some polywire and step in posts.
I would try two dexter steers as a start, you will have them approx two years, so you will find out if you enjoy them, or not.
Think about the age of the steers you buy, you want them to be finished after their second summer going into that fall. So a steer born in Spring or early summer would work well for you, so yes you could buy weaned steers now, if you were ready.
I would certainly suggest a headgate, but a hinged gate to pin them works at a push to start with.
Your mineral for cows has copper in it, you will need a system to feed the cow mineral that the sheep can't get to.
Go for it when you have your fence sorted, Dexters are fun!

Carol K
 

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Discussion Starter #12
I'm in Western NY and run Dexters with my hair sheep. They get along fine, but all my cows are dehorned or polled, I wouldn't take the risk of running horned cattle with the sheep, accidents can and do happen. Just something for you to mull over.
If you need help finding Dexter steers when you are ready, I will be happy to help put you in touch with breeders in our State.

Carol K
I am in touch with a Dexter dairy in the finger lakes, on their waiting list for steers. I have no idea how much stock they have, probably not enough to do my field justice given they didn't even know for sure when they might have some.

Hubby is really pushing for me to expand sheep enterprise instead of doing cattle next year. If I factor in getting a livestock trailer and headgate then more fence sounds less expensive than it did.
 
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