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Cattle Care

If you're interested in owning a few cows, there are some important things to know that will help keep your pastures and cattle as healthy as possible.

First, be sure to start small, especially if you have a small piece of property. Overstocking cattle is bound to lead to a long list of issues that you'll find yourself dealing with later on.

Don't allow yourself to think that cows are low maintenance. You might picture them wandering independently across an open range, but that practice is not consistent with raising healthy and productive cattle.

Rotate the pastures

Instead, the establishment of a good rotational pasture system should be step one. This on-and-off grazing arrangement will give your pastures much-needed recovery time, and will increase animal production per acre by 25% to 30%.

Jim Russell, professor of animal science at Iowa State University, says a good rotational system will also improve the efficiency of your cattle's forage utilization. "Every day they are out there grazing, the amount and quality of forage decreases. If one wants to go for increasing animal production for a grass-based dairy or beef situation, I would think somewhere in the ballpark of moving them daily or even twice a day using 24 or more paddocks," Russell advises.

Having two dozen paddocks is not always feasible, particularly if you don't have a large amount of property. But Russell says even six to eight paddocks work well for a beef cow herd. Even a little bit of rotation will help keep your pastures and your cattle in comparatively good health.

Be prepared to alter your rotation schedule when the seasons begin to change. The growth rates of your pastures will adjust with the weather, meaning cows should be moved more often in the spring when grass is growing rapidly. In late spring and throughout the summer as forage growth decreases, they should be moved when about half of the forage in a pasture is gone.

Establish paddocks

When establishing your first paddocks, don't be too hasty in setting up something permanent.

"There's a good chance you'll want to change the system after the first time," says Russell. "Use fiberglass posts and electric cable. After several years, using permanent fences works quite nicely."

It may also be worth your time to find an aerial photo of your property and sit down with it to plot out your pastures. This should help you gain a better view of your land as a whole and will help you take into consideration land features you may have overlooked on the ground.

Shape matters

After you've plotted on paper, go out and mark the property just to be sure you haven't missed anything important. When you're picking out land for your pastures, consider the general size and shape of the pasture, the water supply, and the forage species indigenous to the area. Square paddocks are better than oblong or irregular-shaped ones, since they help to maintain uniformity in grazing and manure distribution.

"Typically if you put cows in a nice square pasture, they'll go totally around the outsides," says Russell. "The longer and narrower the paddock, the less evenly the cows will graze it."

Similarly, providing water in every pasture promotes the same uniformity of grazing and manure distribution, while eliminating the need for lanes that can lead to soil erosion.

Though the sizes of the pastures don't need to be identical, they should be similar in productivity. If one pasture has a less-productive forage species -- Kentucky bluegrass, for example -- then it's going to be less productive than one of the same size with a more-productive species like reed canarygrass. In that case, the pasture with less-productive species should be made bigger to compensate.

Break out the mower

Mowing is an important asset to pastures that have become excessively overgrown or are beginning to have problems with weeds. In such a case, just running a mower with the deck set high to clip off seed heads can be helpful in maintaining the health of your pasture.

If you notice a particularly high density of tall fescue (a grass known for being prone to endophyte infection), mowing should be your first priority. Though cattle will often selectively graze around fescue, preferring legumes, a lack of proper forage can drive them to eat it. Endophyte toxicosis in cattle can cause significant health concerns, including heat stress, tail switches, and the sloughing of hooves. Diluting the fescue with adequate amounts of legumes, at least 30% of the pasture, is a good preventative measure.

But be careful. Legumes have a dark side, too. While they are some of the best-quality forages you could hope for in a pasture, they can cause bloat in your cows. Bloat is essentially a buildup of foam and gases in the cow's stomach and can lead to death if you're not careful.

How to prevent bloat

To prevent bloat, keep the proportion of legumes to grasses in the pasture under half. Have smaller paddocks to force the cows to eat down to the stems of legumes, not just the high-protein leaves that are primarily responsible for bloat. Since bloat tends to occur most often in the mornings when everything is still moist, release your cattle in the afternoon and make sure they have a stomach full of hay.

Add salt

There are also products on the market that help prevent bloat in your cattle and may be worth investing in to keep your vet from having to pay a visit. Consider salt and magnesium supplements. Magnesium deficiencies can lead to grass tetany, and cows require salt continuously for maintaining the proper function of their nervous and muscular systems.

"Cows require salt; they have no capability of storing that. They need it on a regular basis," says Russell. "During the spring, having a mixture that contains magnesium can be of some value. Beyond that, be aware of any particular mineral problems within a given area."

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