Cattle were first domesticated by humans approximately 10,000 years ago. Since then, selective breeding has led to a plethora of different breeds, each with their own unique adaptations. In Britain, breeds such as Holsteins, Friesians, Jerseys and Guernseys are renowned for the quantity and quality of their milk. As such, they are generally kept as dairy animals. Herefords, Aberdeen Angus and Limousins are just a few of the most popular beef breeds; kept specifically for meat production.
Why would I want a house cow?
In recent years, there has been a surge of interest from hobby farmers who are keen to start their own micro herds. This may be to satisfy personal requirements for milk or meat, engage with rare breed conservation, or simply to keep the grass down. As a result traditional, dual purpose breeds such as Dexters have seen a dramatic increase in numbers since the turn of the century. However, even smaller breeds such as this can produce over 8 litres of milk per day, certainly more than the average family can drink!
What are the rules and regulations around keeping cattle in the UK?
There are a significant number of legal requirements that must be fulfilled before you start buying animals for your herd. Cattle are classified as livestock and as a result you must obtain a county parish holding (CPH) number from the Rural Payment Agency (RPA), in order to keep them on your land. In addition, it is a requirement to apply for your own unique herd mark, which is issued by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in England, Scotland and Wales. Any cattle moved on or off your holding must be logged with the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) within 3 days and an up to date on farm herd register must also be maintained. Furthermore, regular compulsory testing for bovine tuberculosis must be carried out, usually by a trained veterinary surgeon (although sometimes an APHA Animal Health Officer may be sent).
What sort of housing do cattle require?
Robust traditional breeds can often be kept outdoors all year round, although it is a sensible idea to have indoor housing available for particularly harsh winters. As a general rule of thumb, each cow will require approximately 2 acres of grazing in order to supply it with sufficient grass to eat. Smaller areas will soon be stripped bare and can turn into mud baths in wet weather. Given that cattle are sociable animals, it is not suitable to keep them on their own. As a result, the minimum land requirement is likely to be at least 4 acres.
What do cattle eat?
Many cattle can live exclusively on grass alone all year round. However, when sward growth is poor during the winter, this may need to be supplemented with other forages such as hay, haylage or silage. Animals being grown intensively or used for milk production may require extra energy from concentrates. It is essential to ensure free access to fresh water is available at all times.
Do I need to breed my cattle?
Cows can live for up to 20 years provided they are well looked after. If you are not interested in using your cattle for milk or beef production, then there is no need to breed them. Bear in mind though, that it is probably unwise to purchase any uncastrated males. Not only will bulls impregnate your female cows, they are also more likely to become aggressive.
Dairy cows need to have a calf every year in order to keep producing milk. Likewise, producing your own beef for the freezer will require a steady stream of calves to rear. An alternative is to simply purchase young animals from a local farmer. Other than keeping a bull, which may be a health and safety risk, there are companies that can perform artificial insemination on your cows. This may be a more sensible option for smaller herds.
Is it for me?
Although keeping cattle at home can be an extremely rewarding experience, it is important to be fully informed before taking the plunge. A range of costs such as buying in feed, breeding and veterinary care can very quickly start to add up; so be prepared for a significant investment in time and finances. The space requirements are also substantial, especially when compared to smaller species like sheep. Take the time to contact your vet for advice in advance and consider arranging a visit to an established local farm who may be willing to show you the ropes.