Sustainability Book Chat
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Today’s episode is for anyone who has ever thought about adding cattle to their homestead. I’m talking to Callene Rapp, co-author of Homestead Cows: The Complete Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy Cattle.
We are discussing what traits an aspiring owner should look for when choosing a breed, as well as when deciding to buy individual cows. I also share the big mistake we made when purchasing our first cows.
We also talk about housing, fencing, and feeding cattle, as well as how many acres you need per head and how that affects your feed bill.
Do you need a bull? Callene talks about challenges of owning a bull. For those who are interested in alternatives to having a live bull for breeding, she compares the cost of alternatives.
Other book co-authored by Callene Rapp :
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Listen right here by clicking on the player above, or on your favorite platform:
Things to Know Before Raising Cattle – Transcript
Deborah Niemann 0:04
Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever size your living space, you can do more than you think to lead a greener lifestyle. In the “Sustainability Book Chat,” we are talking to authors and experts about all the different ways that achieving sustainability is within your reach.
Deborah Niemann 0:28
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. This is going to be a really interesting episode today. I am joined by Callene Rapp, the author of Homestead Cows: The Complete Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy Cows. She’s actually the co-author, along with her husband Eric. And together, they raise Pineywood cattle on their farm in Kansas, as well as rabbits. Welcome to the show today!
Callene Rapp 0:55
Thanks for having me.
Deborah Niemann 0:57
This is gonna be really interesting, because I know so many people, including myself—you know, more than 20 years ago—I thought if I want milk on my farm that I need to have cows.
Callene Rapp 1:07
Deborah Niemann 1:07
And, I just got the goats because I wanted to make chévre, because I did not realize that you can do a lot of the same things with dairy.
Callene Rapp 1:15
Deborah Niemann 1:15
And so, I know there are a lot of people who think, “Oh, I want cows.” And so, let’s talk about that today.
Callene Rapp 1:23
Deborah Niemann 1:24
I know you’re also a zookeeper in a children’s zoo in Kansas, and so you get the opportunity to meet a lot of people who—as you just said before we went on the air—they “don’t know what they don’t know.” Which I think is a wonderful background for an author to have. So, tell us a little bit about what are some of the things that you find that a lot of people don’t understand about cattle? Like, what is it that they don’t know that they should know?
Callene Rapp 1:53
You know, there are quite a few things. And that was one of the reasons we kind of went the direction we did with the book, you know, because “you don’t know what you don’t know.” So, we tried to, like, kind of go from a basic standpoint so that hopefully people could even know what questions to ask. Just a quick little story: Many years ago, here at the zoo, we were getting ready to do a milking demonstration with a cow, you know, that was lactating and everything. And a guest—who had an infant with her—couldn’t believe that the cow had to have a calf before she could start producing milk. And that just… You know, I thought everybody knew that. But of course, this woman had no experience that would have told her that cows are mammals. They’re the same as humans; you don’t just randomly give milk. So, that was just kind of one of the things that kind of made me want to write a book that answers those questions for people. And so, over the years, I’ve had a chance to work with a variety of breeds here at the zoo. And so that’s just kind of, you know, helped me build some experience working with a lot of different breeds and learning about them.
Deborah Niemann 3:04
That is such a great point. You know, when I was still new to goats, I did not understand the first time somebody asked me the question, “How do you make the goat make milk?”
Callene Rapp 3:15
Deborah Niemann 3:15
Because, I was like you; like, I thought everybody knew that, like, this is the way it works with mammals. You have a baby, and then your body makes milk to feed that baby. And, the one phone call I will never forget was the woman who called me and said, “Yeah, I was thinking about Nigerian Dwarf goats. But I wanted to know, do they have to get pregnant first before you can milk them?” And I said, “Well, yes. All mammals have to get pregnant before they will produce milk.” “Oh, no they don’t. No. They’re not really dairy goats, then. Okay, thank you. Bye.”
Callene Rapp 3:48
Deborah Niemann 3:49
Like, I just wonder, like, how many different breeders did she call of different breeds, and go… Okay, so there are no dairy goats based on her definition of the word.
Callene Rapp 3:59
Right. Yeah, exactly. But I mean, to many people, their experience with milk is just going to the cooler at the grocery store and pulling the gallon out, you know? They don’t think about what is behind all of it.
Deborah Niemann 4:13
Yeah. So, one of the things that I discovered in having cows… Like, we have 32 acres, which is a lot, but the barn is only about 100 yards from the house.
Callene Rapp 4:24
Deborah Niemann 4:24
And I felt like we needed more room for cows, because cows produce wet manure, which attracts flies. And going back to my childhood in Texas, my grandparents ranch, my uncle’s ranch, I don’t remember flies being a problem, but they had, like, lots of acres, and the cows are, like, way out there. So, people always find it shocking that it’s not illegal to have any livestock in the city of Chicago—any livestock at all.
Callene Rapp 4:51
Deborah Niemann 4:52
And, every time they try to pass a law to make it illegal, the chicken people come out and say, “Well, we already have all the laws we need to get keep things clean,” you know? Like, nobody’s going to get a cow in the city of Chicago, because it’s going to violate all of the ordinances on trash and flies and attracting rodents—all this kind of stuff. So, okay, city of Chicago. Definitely a bad idea on a city lot.
Callene Rapp 5:18
Deborah Niemann 5:19
What kind of land do people need to have before they start thinking about cows?
Callene Rapp 5:25
Well, with cows being a bigger animal, obviously, they need more room. And one of the rules of thumb is, like, an acre or two per cow. That can vary a lot, you know, with how much pasture you have, or you know, anything like that. So it’s kind of hard, you know, to give an absolute, but a general rule of thumb: I probably wouldn’t want to try to keep more than a couple of cows on on less than five or six acres. And then, of course, there’s always going to be variations to that. Space is really something that you kind of need to take into consideration. So, cows are super adaptable, and they can, you know, adapt to just about any circumstances, but they do poop a little more.
Deborah Niemann 6:11
Yeah. One of the things I was grateful for is that we did have 32 acres of grass that they could eat. And that’s one of the things that I point out to people, that cows eat a lot. So—
Callene Rapp 6:22
Deborah Niemann 6:22
—if you don’t have a lot of grass to feed them, you’re gonna have to buy hay.
Callene Rapp 6:25
Right. Right. And cattle being ruminants, you know, forage is the biggest part of their diet. You know, they absolutely need that for everything to function well. So, you know, whether it’s acreage or hay… I mean, we buy hay for the winter, because we like to let our pasture rest and recover through there. So, we buy hay for the winter, but then they graze throughout the growing season. So: forage, forage, forage.
Deborah Niemann 6:52
Yeah, exactly. When it comes to choosing a breed… I know you have Pineywoods. But why don’t we just start with that? Why did you choose Pineywoods?
Callene Rapp 7:03
You know, I just fell in love with them. I mean, there are so many cattle breeds that I really, really do like a lot. I worked with Milking Devons. They’re a great breed of cattle; they make great oxen, you know, good milkers. Guernseys, Brown Swiss—you know, a lot of really good cattle breeds. But there was just something about the Pineywoods that I fell in love with. I think I love the fact that they’re so colorful. You know, I never know what color pattern we’re going to get. And you know, color—you don’t eat that. You can’t milk that. But for me, that’s just part of the fun, is seeing what the calves look like. We really like their heat tolerance. They’re a breed that was originally from the deep South, so they evolved to be very hardy, very parasite-resistant, and very heat-tolerant. And so, our Pineywoods will be out grazing when it’s 105 degrees, you know, in the blaring sun, while our neighbor cows—which are usually Black Angus—are in the pond, under the shade trees, you know, trying everything to escape the heat. And the Pineywood’s like, “Oh, is it warm? Okay. We don’t really care.” So, that was a big plus for us with that particular breed.
Deborah Niemann 8:25
That’s awesome. I am partial to heritage breeds myself. We had Irish Dexters for seven or eight years.
Callene Rapp 8:33
Deborah Niemann 8:33
And, I just loved how adaptable they were. And, they just did such a great job. You know, like, they would have their babies and nurse them and make them grow big and healthy—on nothing but pasture.
Callene Rapp 8:49
Deborah Niemann 8:49
Which I really loved. Now, one mistake I made when choosing the Irish Dexter: I picked it because it was the smallest breed on the Conservancy list. And I thought, “Oh, well, I’m new, so I should get the smallest breed.” But what I didn’t realize until I had them for a few months, was that yeah, it really doesn’t matter if it weighs 500 pounds or 1,000 pounds. Either one is going to outweigh me. So, let’s just drop that flawed logic that I used. And, because I still hear other people say that, “Oh, we’re gonna get them because they’re the smallest.” It’s like, “Uh, yeah. You know we’re talking, like, 500 to 700 pounds here?”
Callene Rapp 9:34
Deborah Niemann 9:35
So, other than that, like, what would be a good starter breed for somebody that has no experience with cattle?
Callene Rapp 9:44
I think you want to look for a breed that’s known for having a good disposition, especially if you’re going to be milking them. You’re going to spend a lot of time with that animal. So, you want an animal that is going to be easy-going; you don’t have to chase it, it won’t run over you—that kind of thing. There are a lot of the breeds that are on the Livestock Conservancy’s priority list that are known for being pretty easy-going. I know Dexters are one; Milking Devons are one; the Pineywoods we’ve had have been pretty easy-going. So, that would be one of the first things I would advise somebody, is to just be honest with your experience level and try to find a breed. And then, from there, find a breeder who has well-behaved cattle. You know, somebody who works with them enough that they can tell you, “Oh, Susie, she’s an easy-going cow; she’ll be great for you. Lulu, you don’t want her; she’s a little goofy.” Somebody who can really kind of tell you about their individuals.
Deborah Niemann 10:50
That is such wonderful advice, because they’re first time we got two Irish Dexter heifers, we bought them from this very old couple. The woman had had breast cancer for the last couple years. The husband was not in good health, either. And so, these two heifers had had zero attention from the time they were born. Nobody’s fault, you know?
Callene Rapp 11:21
No. It’s just the reality. Right.
Deborah Niemann 11:23
And it was just… It was an absolute nightmare. Like, I could tell you so many stories. It was like a real-life rodeo, you know, every time we wanted to do something. And, it ultimately ended like with a cow, like, dragging my son across the pasture, because he got wrapped up with a rope. And like, I thought he was dead. And I’m like—
Callene Rapp 11:53
Deborah Niemann 11:54
“This… I can’t do this. We have to sell these cows. Somebody is going to get seriously injured, if not killed.” But I wanted more. So after a couple of years, I started looking for more, and then I was asking people, I was like, “How friendly are your cows? Can you send me a picture of you petting this cow?” They did. You know, I found this really nice lady in Missouri who, she’s out there with their cows every day. And she sent me pictures of her petting her cows. And I’m like, “Okay, I will buy those two cows.”
Callene Rapp 11:23
Right. And it worked better?
Deborah Niemann 12:20
Oh, yes. Much better. Yeah. They were much easier to handle. I mean, those those first two cows were practically feral.
Callene Rapp 12:28
Yeah, they were. I’m sure that they were, because, you know, calves that haven’t seen people or, you know, been around their moms when their moms have, you know, interacted with people—they don’t know what those strange, two-legged creatures are. And they’re like, “Uh, nope.”
Deborah Niemann 12:43
Yeah. I think—like a lot of people—I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be lovely. We’re just gonna walk out there, and we’re just gonna milk them,” you know.
Callene Rapp 12:49
Yeah. Yeah, it’s not so easy.
Deborah Niemann 12:52
Did not work.
Callene Rapp 12:53
Nope. No. No, and if milking is in your game plan, you know, ask people: Do they milk them? Have they ever milked them? Because, you know, I think a lot of an animal’s disposition is inherited, whether it’s genetic, or whether they just learn by being around a mom who does things calmly.
Deborah Niemann 13:13
Callene Rapp 13:13
It goes a long way towards, you know, having a well-behaved animal.
Deborah Niemann 13:17
Yeah. So, if somebody wants cattle, what do they need in terms of housing?
Callene Rapp 13:22
Depending on your climate, cattle are usually really, really hardy. In the winter, with our Pineywoods, we have sheds for them that they can get out of the weather, and most of the time—unless it’s, like, driving snow, you know, super wind chill—they just bed down out in the hay. And they handle it pretty well. If they have a chance to adapt to your weather… Like, don’t bring a cow from Florida to Montana in December; they’re not going to have the time to adapt. But, if they can get out of the worst of the elements, they don’t need anything special. A three-sided shed. A good, thick stand of timber.
Callene Rapp 14:03
One of the worst weather combinations for cattle—or any animal, really—is for it to be wet and cold. Most of the time, if they’re dry, they can handle, you know, sub-zero temperatures; but if, like, a freezing rain or something, and that hair gets wet, it can’t insulate them. So, if you live in a region where you’re prone to having freezing rain—which in Kansas, we get freezing rain and ice more often than we get true snow. So, it is helpful to have a roof or something that they can stay dry in. And, you know, like I was saying, our Pineywoods, we really don’t have to do anything with them in the summer extremes. They handle that pretty well. But again, shade, access to fresh water, you know, goes a long way. Cattle are pretty hardy.
Deborah Niemann 14:51
Okay. And then, the next question I was going to ask you is about fencing for cattle.
Callene Rapp 14:57
Deborah Niemann 14:58
I recently got a question from somebody who wanted to get goats. She’s like, “Do I really have to have fencing? Won’t they just stay in my yard?”
Callene Rapp 15:06
Um, no. No. I haven’t seen their yard, but I can answer that: No.
Deborah Niemann 15:12
Yeah. So, the topic of fencing, now, has a whole new level of “Let’s start with the basics here. Yes, you need a fence.”
Callene Rapp 15:21
Yes, yes. And depending on the cattle you have… If you’re going to have a bull, you need substantial fence, because the bull’s one job is to breed cows. And if you only have a couple cows, and he’s bred them, he’s going to go start looking for neighbor cows to breed.
Deborah Niemann 15:40
Callene Rapp 15:41
So, you need a substantial fence, whether it’s, you know, multistrand, barbed wire, hotwire—anything like that. It’s got to be substantial. You can probably be a little less substantial if you just have a couple of females and you go the A.I. route to get calves. We have a pretty good, tight, barbed-wire fence. But it’s also reinforced in places with a strand of hotwire, just to remind them that it’s not for pushing on. Cattle can find remarkable places to get through fence, kind of like goats, but on a larger scale. So, fencing is really something that you can’t take for granted. I mean, you need to maintain your fences, and you know, make sure they’re substantial.
Deborah Niemann 16:28
Yeah. So many people—I feel unfairly—say that goats are, like, really hard to keep in. Any animal is hard to keep in without the right kind of fencing.
Callene Rapp 16:38
Deborah Niemann 16:39
And I really do not think goats are any harder to keep in than pigs or cattle. Our biggest challenge with the cattle is that we have a creek that runs through our property. And every time that creek floods, it would short out the electric fencing, and then the cows being big animals—
Callene Rapp 16:56
Deborah Niemann 16:57
—as the creek started to go back down, they would just head out to the creek and just walk down the creek and leave.
Callene Rapp 17:02
Right. Right. Yeah. And I swear, hotwire, I swear they know when it’s not working.
Deborah Niemann 17:09
Callene Rapp 17:09
Whether they can hear it. Whether they can smell it. You know, it’s out on the cow internet, that “Hey, the fence is grounded out today.” They’ll figure it out pretty darn quick.
Deborah Niemann 17:19
Yeah, exactly. And it’s funny, because we only had two Irish Dexter cows, and we had a bull, which was not a good idea. Like you said, like, he got those two cows pregnant, and he’s like, “Okay, where are the other girls?”
Callene Rapp 17:35
Deborah Niemann 17:36
And then you get a phone call from your neighbor, who raises purebred cattle, who’s like, “Your bull’s over here bothering my heifers.”
Callene Rapp 17:44
Deborah Niemann 17:45
And you’re like, “I’m so sorry.”
Callene Rapp 17:47
“We’ll be right there!”
Deborah Niemann 17:47
And then, the only way we were able to get that bull away was to tie him to the pickup truck. Like, there was no—I mean, he was like, what, 800, 900 pounds? Like, there was no way we were going to get him to budge, like, just as a mere human, you know?
Callene Rapp 18:07
Yeah. Well, he had work to do.
Deborah Niemann 18:09
Callene Rapp 18:10
He wasn’t off the clock! So yeah, and that’s, you know, that’s a really good point. If someone is beginning in cattle, starting with a bull may not be the right course of action.
Deborah Niemann 18:21
Callene Rapp 18:23
Artificial insemination is a great tool. Like I always say, nobody’s ever been charged in the pasture by a liquid nitrogen tank. Now, you’re gonna spend more going to A.I. school learning to do it right, investing in the equipment, but you can sleep at night knowing your A.I. tank has not jumped the fence in with your neighbor cows. And if you’re just starting out, it might be a good idea to kind of get your feet wet with just the cows before you jump into a bull. I know there’s several companies. A lot of vets can do A.I. for you. You know, like, the zoo has a ABS—American Breeder Service—rep that maintains our nitrogen tank. You know, she A.I.s. So, there’s people that can do it for you if you want to try to go that way. It’s a lot easier starting out. It’ll cost a little bit more, but you know, it can definitely be worth it in the long run.
Deborah Niemann 19:22
Yeah. And if you’ve only got two or three cows, I think if you add up the cost of, like, buying the bull, or feeding the bull, and everything—it really isn’t gonna cost you more.
Callene Rapp 19:34
No, it doesn’t pencil out.
Deborah Niemann 19:35
Callene Rapp 19:36
Cuz he’s gonna breed, you know, in 2 days out of 365; he’s done his job. So, you’re feeding him for 363 days he’s not working.
Deborah Niemann 19:46
Yeah. So the A.I. actually turns out to be a really good deal for people that don’t have very many cattle.
Callene Rapp 19:52
Right. And with the internet, you can always find somebody who probably has had their bull collected of your breed. You know, I know you can find Dexter semen; you can find Pineywood semen. You know, it’s out there for whatever breed you decide to go with. So, it’s definitely worth looking into.
Deborah Niemann 20:13
So, what are some of the, just, final thoughts in terms of common beginner mistakes that people have made—other than the ones I’ve already mentioned that I made? Don’t buy a bull…
Callene Rapp 20:26
Yeah, I think maybe underestimating the space that they need, or how big they are, especially if you, you know, had any experience with smaller livestock; it’s easy to underestimate just how much space they take up and how much they’ll need to eat. That is one advantage to the smaller breeds, is that they wind up generally eating a lot less than some of your larger breeds. So they can be a lot more efficient that way. But I think another piece of advice I might give—although I didn’t do this. I fell in love with a breed, and then, you know, that was it. That was… Pineywoods, were the only one for me. But, be open-minded. You know, maybe you love a breed, but maybe they’re not as easily available in your area. There’s no harm in getting some starter animals—you know, maybe some crossbred cattle or something—get some experience, and then maybe step into a heritage breed or a conservation breed once you’ve kind of got your feet wet. So, there’s nothing wrong with considering to do that.
Callene Rapp 21:33
I love cows, and I would never try to talk anybody out of getting cows. But, you know, just kind of do some homework. That’s one of the things kind of behind our book, because we wanted to give people just, you know, some information that they might not have thought of before getting into it. So, kind of do your research, you know, and everything like that before you start out.
Deborah Niemann 21:55
Okay, great. Those were some really good tips. It’s been a while since we got our cattle, and so this was a lovely trip down memory lane for me in terms of, “Yeah, don’t make all these mistakes we did.” Thank you so much for joining us today.
Callene Rapp 22:14
Oh, you’re welcome!
Deborah Niemann 22:14
I think a lot of people are gonna find this really helpful.
Callene Rapp 22:16
I want to be as helpful to people getting started as possible, so we can always be emailed or contacted on Facebook if people have questions that, you know, we might not have addressed in the book or anything like that.
Deborah Niemann 22:29
And your website is RareHareBarn.com, right?
Callene Rapp 22:33
Yep. And that’s our Facebook page as well. So, stop by. Check us out.
Deborah Niemann 22:37
Okay, great. Thanks so much!
Callene Rapp 22:40
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Deborah Niemann 22:43
And that’s it for today’s episode. You can find show notes at ThriftyHomesteader.com/BookChat, as well as a transcript. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. You can also find Thrifty Homesteader on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. See you next week on “Sustainability Book Chat.”