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What if I only want to keep 2-3 cows? Is that dumb?

2163 Views 11 Replies 11 Participants Last post by  tiffanysgallery
Hello again!
We made our big move and now reside in Western South Dakota instead of smelly city we were living in on the east coast, yay!

We're in planning mode for converting our home to a homestead and while cows are definitely a good 18 months away for us, we're working on research now.

We're in zone 4b, so super cold in the winters, though not consistently. One day it will be a high of -13 and the next day it will be in the 30's, but we get some serious extremes at 5700 feet. I've found lots of good information for over-wintering and shelter for herds of cows (10-15+), but I can't see us every having more than 3 at any given time realistically. Does that change our shelter requirements? The importance of ventilation has been drilled into me, but I'm wondering if our smaller number of cows would mean they don't share nearly as much heat as a larger herd, meaning I need to have a more enclosed space or (hopefully not) a heat source in the barn.

Anyone doing anything similar or have any advice? Oh, one other thing, we're really arid and dry, so wet winters are awfully rare....damp is rarely a problem

Thanks v much!
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The biggest need for a heat source will be to keep their water in liquid form.
They won't need heat in their shelter as long as it is well bedded, dry, and draft free.
If they get cold they will huddle together or lay in the deep bedding to preserve body heat.

If you're going to be milking you may want some heat for yourself.
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The things that I find important is for them to have as much room as possible. Keep them out on a pasture if you have one. With the ability to get out of the wind. Fully enclosed buildings can be a place for disease to grow.
Cows produce a lot of moisture in their excrement. Being in tight quarters turns their enclosure into a swamp, even in arid climates.
The other part of keeping cattle in the winter is to make sure that you are feeding them as much as they will clean up each day. Overfeeding is wasteful but underfeeding can be deadly. This amount can change. An example is if you have a storm coming throw them a couple more forks of hay.
Generally, keep open water, and loose mineral available to them at all times. Feed a high quality grass hay. A cow that is being milked of course will need more high protein in there daily ration. Don't feed any more than she will clean up by the time you next come to feed. A cow gets her heat from the fermentation of the feed in her stomach. If she is having to metabolize fat for heat it takes more energy to keep her warm and you don't want that.
A cows back is like a barometer. The more rounded it is, the more miserable they are. Look for things like your cattle not laying down. Making noise all day. Those are signs that she is uncomfortable. A good sign is for her is to have frost on her back in the early morning before the sun. It means that she is well insulated. I will say that they will be chastising you if you are late to feed.
It isn't unusual for my cows to be laying comfortably out in the wind, chewing cud, after eating for the last 6 hours. When they start to feel uncomfortable they'll get up and move down into the trees, out of the wind. Many times you will see these cows quietly standing perpendicular to the rising sun, absorbing the warmth.
If a cow doesn't come up when you come to feed, don't let it go. Check it out. You may find that she just didn't want to get up yet. Look for things like her having fresh poop directly behind her rear end. It means that she has been there for a long time and you may want to get her to stand to see if she is ok. She may have just slept in late. But always take the time to check.
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Thanks a lot CIW and Bearfootfarm! We have a nice, large, 2-sided lean-to on our barn which is out of the wind which I think might work with some extra work on it. Plus it could easily be opened up into a pasture area. Thanks for the advice
What makes 2,3 cows a pain is getting them bred. When we had that few, we hauled to a friend's who used excellent bulls and turned them in with his herd for breeding season. It isn't worth owning a bull for so few and AI has its own set of challenges. You don't get as good of conception rates from artificially synchronizing them as natural heat, but good luck finding an AI tech to come out 3 times for one cow each.
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Many a small homestead operated with just a cow and a calf. In Ireland, where land was scarce, it led to the development of the little Dexter cattle, so the feed requirements were even less.

I would try to change your 2-sided run-in to a 3 sided one, to break the wind better. Maybe even put a gate acros the front so they could be penned up when the snow is drifting. When snow covers your fences the cattle can drift, too.
By no means dumb.

I'm on the other side of your state in fact. You must be up in the hills to be at the higher elevations.

I have 4 dairy cows right now. Started with just one. Only have an old 12' diameter grain bin that I use as a lean to for shelter. As others have said, keep it as dry as you can, feed well. They'll be just fine. Don't sweat it.

Have fun.
Numbers and what you can handle or are comfortable with are up to you and no one else. My neighbor had a maximum # of 5 any given year. He raised them and took a couple for butchering every year and rotated in a few more.
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Definitely not dumb. If you have enough to provide your needs and keep them healthy you're a successful homesteader! Best of luck to you in your cattle endeavors.
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I have a friend near by that keeps three cows each year, i think they raise them up and slaughter them and get new little ones in the spring? Works out well for them.
The neighbor farmers are retired....He is in bad shape.
His GF of 40 years (long story) keeps an old momma cow.....and does all the work.....and take care of him.
Both in their 70's

Then buys one or two calves, at the auction to butcher in the fall.....for themselves and kids.
She kinda mothers the calves....and they keep the brush in the woods pretty well under control.

Those allows them to keep their USDA Farm number for tax reasons.....Am farm licenses on vehicles.
It may matter what kind and what you're going to use them for, raised and fattened for market or breeding...

You'll need adequate shelter for wind; wind and rain for young calves. Open shelter is better than closed. Heat's not generated by how many cows but comes from their digestion and winter feed. Cow's don't like to be packed in a shelter, they like their personal space, thus sq ft may dictate how many cows, and adequate space for their needs and yours, but nothing too big. Be careful of slush and mud, and the yuck that comes out their butts, which can quickly build up in a shelter, why some cows are shipped out before winter.

Hope this is helpful, a lot of good answers already!
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