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Choosing a Calf to Raise for Beef

Updated on March 11, 2015
A newborn calf.
A newborn calf. | Source

With the high price of beef at the grocery store, you may have wondered if you should be raising your own steer at home. If you have the time, and landbase to do so, this can be a great option.

Raising a steer will take 18-24 months, so it’s not a quick commitment like chickens or pigs are. This means there is also a lot more time to get attached to your steer before you ultimately send it for slaughter. Think seriously about whether you’ll be able to let it go in the end.

There are a few options for initially acquiring a steer. You can buy directly from a farm, or from an auction. It’s preferable to buy directly from a farm since auctions sometimes expose animals to a myriad of diseases.

What Kind of Calf Do You Want?

Decide what type of calf you want to start with. You can either buy a dairy bull calf, or a beef calf. If you buy a dairy calf, you will most likely be purchasing a calf that is about a week old, then bottle feeding it. In the case of a beef calf, you will probably be buying a weaned calf, though sometimes bottle beef calves are available. A dairy bull calf will be much cheaper, but also higher risk, because you are now caring for a baby, rather than a well started calf. The cost to raise might also be higher because milk replacer isn’t cheap. In the end, a dairy calf will have less meat on it than a beef calf, due to a higher bone ratio, though it may be tamer to handle.

If you go the baby calf route, be sure to ask the farmer if the calf has had adequate colostrum. A baby calf needs to have as much colostrum as it will drink in the first 12 hours of life. Ideally, it will have had 4L within 30 minutes of birth; however, most calves won’t drink this much right away. It should have at least 2L at birth, and an addition 2L within 8 hours. It’s also good if the calf has had its navel dipped with iodine as this will have helped it dry up faster and not allowed the calf to be exposed to diseases through its navel.

Decide whether you want the calf castrated right away with an elastrator band, or if you want to wait a bit and have a vet castrate surgically. Do not plan to raise a bull calf to adulthood. This is very dangerous as he will be a full fledged bull by the time he is ready to process.

Ensure the farmer has tagged the calf according to local regulations. In Canada, this means a RFID ‘button’ tag in one ear. It is illegal to transport a calf from its farm of origin without a tag, and you will not be able to get the animal processed at an abattoir without a tag. The fines for not tagging are huge. The owner, and sometimes even the trucker may be held responsible, even if they have no ownership of the animal. Most farmers are very honest people who know better than to pull a stunt like this, but every industry has a few bad apples.

Basic Housing Considerations

Have the calf’s housing ready before you bring it home. A baby calf needs a well ventilated pen or calf hutch that is well bedded with clean straw. A weaned calf obviously requires the same, but it will need to be of stronger construction because the calf will probably attempt to escape and look for its mother when it first arrives.

A pen needs to be built of board fencing, or very strong, tight woven wire. Don’t use barbed wire or electric fence for the calf’s main pen. Later on, if and when you put the calf on pasture, you can use electric fence, but the calf will need time to be trained to this. It is not uncommon for a calf to just simply crash through an electric fence because it is a mental barrier, not a physical one.

1000 square feet is an ideal pen size for one calf. This should also include a shelter. If it’s temperate weather when you bring your calf home, the shelter can be very simple. A three sided shed is more than adequate. If you’re bringing a baby calf home in the winter, it will need warmer housing.

The calf will also need a water container and a feed container. If the calf is very small, a water bucket will be sufficient, but as it grows, a small tank is preferable as a growing steer will drink a lot of water. Ideally, get a tank and water float that attaches to a hose so you don’t have to keep carrying water. A basic rubber tub will work for grain. Hay can be fed on the ground, but a lot will be wasted, so some sort of hay feeder is also ideal.

When you get your calf home, put it in its pen and leave it alone for awhile. Try to mimic the feeding times it had on its previous farm for the first few days. You can gradually modify its schedule to suit yours once it’s settled in.

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