Jules Moore has just started keeping cattle at her Gloucestershire smallholding
Jules Moore has just started keeping cattle at her Gloucestershire smallholdingOur cattle finally arrived in a heavy rainstorm, unflustered by their long journey and very happy to be guided to a field of fresh green grass. After much deliberation, we chose Shetlands, which were featured in my last article. It was a close call between them and the Devon Cattle, which are featured in this article. Both have a reputation for being docile, biddable and very hardy, but the Shetlands were that bit smaller, which appealed to a newcomer like me! Unlike the better known Dexters, who are a similar size, the Shetland is a rare breed, needing support to boost numbers. They were so successful when crossed with some of the more modern breeds that people stopped producing pure bred animals and nearly wiped the breed out. Luckily, numbers are picking up, though they are still very low.
A few facts We have bought four cattle, two are pregnant cows, nearly six years old (quite young for breeding animals, which can go on having calves well into their teens), one is a heifer (a female which has not calved) and the other a steer (a castrated male). The heifer and steer are nine months old, born within two days of each other. I have not seen Macdonald, the steer, feed from his mother, but Heather, the heifer, was feeding from her mother when she arrived, though I have not seen her do so lately. Both the cows have been polled (had their horns removed), which is a shame, as the breed looks much more distinctive with their horns, which are short and inward curving like a Viking helmet. The calves both have tiny sets of horns developing. A male calf, which is being kept for meat, has to be castrated as he will not be ready for butchering until he is about 2-2½ years old to get the very best from him, but he will be sexually mature well before then. The heifer will be mature enough to put to the bull when she is a year old, but may show signs of ‘bulling’ (being in season) from as young as three months old. Why get cattle?
We needed something to eat the grass, as there was more than the sheep could cope with and they were getting fat. We didn’t want more sheep, as they are quite time consuming, so we decided to look into getting cattle. We rotate our grazing to minimise the worm burden and maximisethe fertility of our grass/clover, which has no artificial fertiliser. This has worked rather too well and we have very fertile pasture! If the cattle are put onto the grass before the sheep, they will eat the long grass down and leave the sward at a shorter level, ideal for sheep. Also, the sheep and cattle have different intestinal worms, so they can follow each other onto pasture without a problem.
It is also important to calculate how many animals your land can take. The formula I was given many years ago, which is a useful starting point, is a cow and her calf (or eight sheep) on 1½ acres of land. The theory is that, if you multiply that up and rotate the land, you should have enough grass to make hay for the winter. You will, of course, need more land if you live on a cold, bleak hillside with sparse grazing. Also, there will be calves born every year, yet they can be two years old before they leave, so you have to allow for overlap. You never know, we might get a hot dry summer again as well, which will reduce the amount of grass available.
Choosing the Right Breed
When it comes to choosing a breed, we were advised to look at the many native breeds in this country. They are bred to be healthy, hardy, docile and adapted to our environment. Sadly, the modern, commercial breeds are bigger, milkier and faster growing, which suits the commercial market, but has put some of the native breeds on the “Watchlist” of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Whichever breed you choose, a pedigree animal will cost you quite a bit of money, more than sheep and pigs, but then cattle are much larger. It is very difficult to give definitive values but, depending on the breed, you will be paying either side of £1,000 if you buy a pedigree animal. You will get 200- 300kg of beef from a steer and a heifer in calf is a valuable commodity, so you should recoup some of your outgoings over time.
Also known as North Devons or Red Ruby, the Devon cattle are a popular established native breed, with a distinctive rich mahogany coloured coat. They are one of the oldest beef breeds in existence today. In fact, some authorities consider the Devon’s origin to be prehistoric. It should not be confused with the South Devon, which is larger, paler and predominantly a commercial animal.
They are well known for their placid temperament and ability to calve easily and be good mothers. A hardy breed in all climates, they have been very popular in hotter climates as well as in the UK. They produce excellent, early maturing meat from grass alone. A medium sized breed, an adult cow is 45-55 inches at the withers and weighs 600 to 750kg. There are two varieties, horned and naturally polled, although the horned variety are often polled, as the horns are very long. In the past, they have been bred for milk, but are now only produced for beef.
For more information, contact the breed society at www.redrubydevon.co.uk.
The most important piece of kit is a cattle crush. This is a holding pen for one animal at a time and is a legal requirement to aid the vet when your animals are TB tested. It is also useful for vaccinating and foot trimming. Around the crush, we have made a pen of cattle hurdles to lure them into for treatment.
You will also need a large water trough which can be connected to the mains.
Cattle drink a lot of water each day, particularly if they are lactating or eating hay rather than grass. Ours are located in the middle of each of our five acre fields to enable us to rotate the cattle and sheep round them using electric fence. A local farmer installed the pipework with a mole plough, which was incredibly quick and easy, and we built concrete bases for them to stand on. The only disadvantage was the walk to the middle of the field to break the ice in the cold weather!
As our cattle are quite small, we have improvised a hay feeder from one of the wheeled sheep hay racks. This is easy to move to avoid poaching up the ground. They also use some hook-on feed troughs that we already used for the sheep, which are hanging on the hurdles, to get them used to using the pen.
You may wish to provide a shelter for your cattle. This will depend on whether your animals are suitable for wintering out and the ability of your ground to cope with heavy cattle hooves in wet weather.
All these items are quite expensive new, but most can be found secondhand on ebay or at farm auctions. The only things we couldn’t find were the hurdles, but ours are large and sturdy and should last forever and the cattle have the shelter of the trees and hedges.Before You Buy
As with all livestock, there is the dreaded paperwork to contend with first. If you don’t already have a Holding (CPH) number, you need to contact DEFRA for one. Then you need to contact your local Animal Health Division for a Herd Number (You can’t use your pig herd number, but you can use your sheep flock number!) Then you need to contact the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS), who monitor all cattle movement.
They will issue you with stickers and details of their online registration service. All cattle have passports, like horses, and the stickers are put in the passports as a record of ownership. Finally, you will be contacted by another department of Animal Health (formerly the State Veterinary Service), who will give you details of TB testing in your area and will arrange to come and test your animals after they arrive. (All cattle are tested regularly for TB, with the frequencydepending on how bad the problem is in your area. Animals which test positive have to be slaughtered and, at present, the government compensates you for the loss). They will also have been tested before they are moved onto your holding.
Don’t forget, if you buy pedigree animals, to ask for all details of their pedigree and obtain their certificates (if appropriate). You should register with the breed society to notify them of the change of ownership and for a breed prefix for any subsequent births.