Regardless of whether you are purchasing a dairy cow, beef cattle, or a calf, there are questions you want to ask every time. If you are purchasing a dairy cow, ask specific dairy cow questions. Make sure you understand their health, vaccination schedules, and lineage for all cattle. Make sure you are familiar with current cattle prices across breed, purpose, and age.
Choosing the Right Kind Of Cow for Your Family
Decide why you want cattle: beef, dairy, or both. Your choice will determine what you are looking for.
If you want a dairy cow, it’s best to look for a two or 3-year-old cow that’s already in milk. A 3-year-old cow that’s calved twice will eliminate 80% of the potential problems you may face. I recommend this choice for a new cow owner. Another option is to purchase a seven or eight-year-old cow that’s used to hand milking. These older cows often produce more milk than single-family needs and are gentler and more patient than younger cows.
If you want to create a small herd, you probably want to raise cattle for beef and/or dual beef-dairy purposes.
Some cattle grow faster and larger, making them perfect for beef cows. Dairy breeds are excellent at milk production but tend to be thinner. Crossbreed cows can combine the best of both worlds to create steers that grow fast and heifers that make ideal milk cows.
Even if your primary purpose is to raise beef cows, having cows with a dairy mix can help ensure that good mothers successfully nurse their calves.
Beef Cow for Slaughter
Beef yearlings ready for slaughter should have completely different qualities than cattle to raise. They should be big enough that you’ll get sufficient beef off them. Often, you have the choice of purchasing a one-fourth, one-half, or whole cow.
There are many things to know about purchasing a beef cow to butcher. As a general rule, a family of 2 or 3 should buy a fourth cow, while a four-person family can eat a half-cow in a year.
You’ll want to make sure you understand how the farmer is charging for the cow (plus other questions to ask) and whether it includes butcher fees. You’ll also want to understand that you’ll walk away with about 40% of the live weight in processed beef.
Finding a Cow to Purchase
In my article on the cost of a cow, I listed several websites where available cows are listed by location. But that’s not the best place to buy a cow. You have no way of knowing the seller’s reputation, and often, those cattle have issues that make them unsellable at optimal prices.
My neighbor, Ashley L, a local 5th generation beef cattle farmer, advised me never to buy a calf from a beef farmer.
Ashley advised, “If I have a good calf, I’m going to raise it. I’ll make more money selling it as a yearling. I’m keeping it to grow my herd if it’s a heifer. The only calf I’d sell would have problems that you wouldn’t want to deal with.”
Where can I buy a cow? The best place to buy a cow is from a local homesteader or dairy. Beef cattle operations are not likely to sell a high-quality cow out of their herd. Dairies often sell high-producing cows that have decreased milk production and bull yearlings that aren’t needed for the dairy. Homesteaders often raise high-quality smaller herds.
Buying a Cow or Steer Calf From a Dairy
Dairies make use of their heifer calves. But, they sell most of their steer calves, even when the steer is ideal. This makes dairies a great place to buy a calf.
The only problem with buying a steer from a dairy is that it’s likely to be a milk breed and may not gain as much weight as beef breeds. That’s where other small farmers or homesteaders fill the gap.
Buying from a Homesteader or Small-Time Farmer
In the cattle industry, cattle are sold by the Semi-truck. Farmers don’t just sell off individual cows or steers unless they have significant issues. But, the smaller farmer may not raise enough cattle to sell by the semi-truck. Small farmers, or homesteaders, have smaller, more specialized herds and can be a great place to get a quality cow.
Facebook banned the sale of animals on its platform. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good place to find cows. Join local cow and cattle groups. Many of these groups encourage local members to get to know each other. You can ask about local dairies and homesteaders.
In addition, you can probably find cows listed for sale. In one local group, I see ads with the words “2-year-old cow and calf up for discussion” or “Introducing my yearling heifer looking for a change of scenery.)
Facebook can also be a great way to find locally sold raw milk (if it’s allowed in your state).
Craigslist is one of the most common places to find cows and calves for sale. I looked at craigslist listings around the entire country. In most states, cows are listed for sale. Alaska, Hawaii, and some Eastern states had limited or no availability. But, 41 of the 50 United States had a decent cattle selection for sale. And, most of the states with limited cows were close to other areas with a higher supply.
Most areas have local auctions. In the midwest and west, auctions are very plentiful. But even in places like Maine, Florida, and Ohio, auctions are plentiful. The most significant risk of buying an auction cattle is likely to have issues. Auctions are the last place I’d ever buy a cow.
That’s because if the cow is of good quality, it’s probably going to sell to a feedlot, another farmer, or locally.
Auctions are the places where problem cows sell. If you choose to buy a cow from an auction, make sure you take someone with you who knows what to look for. There are gems to be found in auctions, but there are also a lot of issues.
Your County or State Fair
One exception to the auction rule is your local county or state fair. Cows sold at county and state fairs are not usually problem animals. 4-H kids raise calves and learn how to train and feed them. These yearlings are usually very loved and very cared for.
Plus, they have contributed significantly to teaching responsibility to the 4-H kids and helping the next generation of ag farmers.
Sometimes the price of a 4-H yearling will go above market price. But, even then you are doing more than just buying a cow- you are helping kids. I feel that’s an important contribution to make.
Determine the Age and Gender of Your Cattle
If you want a dairy cow, you need a heifer or cow (female who has calved). If you are looking for a beef cow, heifers and bulls both work well. Most beef cattle are steers (castrated males) and go to the butcher around a year old.
But, the averages don’t tell everything. For example, grass-finished cattle are usually two to three years old. And, young calves have a higher risk of illness and cost. Many factors affect the cost and value of a particular cow. Rarer breeds such as Limousine, Gallaway, and Gelbveih breeds are usually more expensive. Registered and prize-winning cattle are worth more. And while 3-year-old cows are at their peak value, a 3-year-old heifer is almost worthless.
Many people decide to purchase a bottle calf but be warned. Bottle calves have the highest rate of illness and death of any age of cattle. Make sure you are prepared to raise a bottle calf and ask the right questions before you buy one.
Ask The Right Questions When Buying A Cow
There are so many things that can go wrong with a cow’s health. Where I live, wild birds bring disease and affect cattle health significantly. I recommend that you test for as many of these diseases as you can before you finalize the sale.
Closed Versus Open Herd
First, find out if the herd is an open or closed herd. Closed herds are kept isolated from other cows and are more likely to be disease-free. Breeders with closed herds separate new cattle for a 60 or 90 day period to ensure that the new cows aren’t ill. They have extreme biosecurity to reduce the risk of spreading disease.
- Ask what process they take when breeding cows (do they rent bulls)
- Is the herd a closed or open herd?
- What happens when they purchase a new cow or bull?
- If closed: what steps do they take to ensure a closed herd?
Anytime you purchase a cow, make sure you take a look at the rest of the herd. This will tell you a lot about how well it’s taken care of. Cows should be clean and healthy-looking. Check out the barn, pasture, and other areas. Look for red flags that can indicate illness or disease among the herd.
- What problems has the cow’s dam or sire had?
- What illnesses has the herd had?
- When was the herd tested for illnesses last?
- What diseases were the cows tested for?
- Where all the cattle tested or only part of them?
- What vaccines are the herd vaccinated with?
Common Questions to Ask Around Cattle Diseases
When buying cattle, ask if the cow, steer, or bull has been tested for these diseases. Ask to see the actual paperwork. The paperwork will tell you how long ago they tested and confirm the results. Some sellers use verbiage to indicate they’ve tested negative when the cow has tested positive instead.
Insert vaccine table
Johnes disease is a disease that affects the intestines of a cow. Johnes disease causes a cow to starve to death. It is fatal, although it can take years to kill.
Johnes disease doesn’t present itself to the cow until at least two or three years old and can wait until the cow is seven to manifest. Stress can bring out Johnes. Testing a yearling won’t indicate if Johne’s disease is present. The only way to reduce the risk is to ensure the entire herd is free of Johnes.
Test a potential cow before you bring it home. Or ask for proof of a negative test. If you are uncertain, retest. A fecal PCR is one of the most reliable tests.
Johne’s spreads quickly and impossible to completely rid the ground of the disease. It can be passed to humans and is very prevalent among U.S. cattle herds. Johnes disease can pass to sheep and goats as well as other cattle. It is super contagious.
Be very cautious about buying a calf from a Johnes disease cow. Usually, infected calves are culled.
- Johnes disease is exceptionally contagious
- Johnes disease can pass to any ruminant species
- It eventually kills the infected cow by starving it to death
- Mycopar is the only approved vaccine in the U.S. for Johnes, but other trials are underway.
Bovine Leukosis Virus (BLV)
BLV has no known cure. Scientists haven’t even been able to prove how it’s spread. It’s widespread. Some studies estimates that as many as 80% of U.S. Dairy herds have BLV. This type of cancer is often undetected in cattle. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for BLV. The best way to prevent BLV from your herd is to practice strict biosecurity. Isolate new animals for 90 days, and cull animals that test positive. Many farmers test their entire herd annually.
The test for BLV is inexpensive and will save you a lot of expense. Avoid purchasing cows with BLV.
- In the U.S. BLV, positive milk can be pasteurized and sold
- Some scientists suspect that BLV contributes to Crohn’s disease, but as of yet, there is no solid evidence
- BLV can be passed to humans through contact with infected cattle
- No vaccine available
Q Fever is a bacteria that causes abortions. It can pass between cattle, sheep, goats, cats, dogs, and rabbits. `Cattle usually contract Q Fever from contagious dogs or coyotes who poop while eating cattle feed or hanging out in the fields.
There is no known cure for Q Fever. It’s possible for an infected cow to calve successfully, but that’s rare.
- Q Fever causes abortions.
- Australia has a Q Fever vaccine, but there is none in the US
Neospora causes abortions and weak calves. Cattle are infected when they drink contaminated water from an infected dog. Neopsora causes repeat abortions in cattle. There are no other symptoms. Cows are diagnosed through a blood test.
- Neosporosis abortions are usually between months 5-7, but can occur anytime.
- No vaccine available
Brucella is highly contagious to other animals and to humans. It causes abortions and weak calves in infected cows. There is no cure, but there is a vaccine. After cows reach 4 months old, they should be vaccinated. Most states require vaccination of dairy cows. Cows with brucellosis are safe for butchering.
- Brucella causes abortions and weak calves.
- Safe for butchering
- Vaccine available after 4 months of age
Bovine Tuberculosis (TB)
Cattle TB causes respiratory problems, depression, lethargy. It is contagious to nearly every mammal and is especially contagious to humans. TB passes to people through drinking contaminated raw milk. Pasteurized milk kills TB in the milk. TB infected cows can be slaughtered for beef as long as TB lesions aren’t found in more than one organ.
- TB is highly contagious
- TB cattle are slaughtered to slow the spread of TB
- Cows are ok to eat and pasteurized milk is ok
Leptospira causes calves to die when they are only three to five days old. It also affects older cattle by causing damage to the kidneys, liver, uterus, and other organs. Most of the times, Leptospirosis is not visually apparent in older cattle. It can cause abortion because the uterus separates during pregnancy.
Leptospira can be passed to other animals and people through contaminated water. Cattle should be vaccinated 2 months before breeding. In the Southern U.S., vaccines can be administered twice a year.
- Cows should be vaccinated annually or bi-annually
- Contagious to people and other animals
Mastitis and Staphylococcus
Staph is the most common bacteria that cause mastitis in Cows. It’s tough to cure cows of mastitis because although the cow may stop showing symptoms, they often still carry the staph bacteria in their system.
You must find out if the cow has ever had mastitis. Learn how to identify and treat mastitis. If so, find out how often and how frequently. Ask what the seller did to help cure the cow of mastitis. Mastitis should be treated early and vigorously. Otherwise, it can become a chronic condition.
- How frequently has the cow had mastitis?
- How long was the duration of the mastitis?
- What methods were used to treat mastitis?
- Has she had mastitis previously, how often?
- What is the somatic cell count history?
Somatic cell count indicates whether a cow’s immune system is fighting illness. It’s often used to gauge quarter health. A higher somatic cell count can implicate a staph infection or a quarter infection.
Cow Vaccines Schedule Chart
|Disease||Effects of the sickness||Vaccine||Age Applicable|
|Johnes Disease||Starves cow to death||Mycopar||1-35 days old, Reduced occurrences by 90%|
|Bovine Leukosis Virus (BLV)||Most infected cows don’t develop lumps. 80% of Dairy herds may have it||No Vaccine||N/A|
|Q Fever||Causes death in fetus and stillborn calves||Australia has a vaccine, the U.S. does not||N/A|
|Neosporosis||Weak Calves||No vaccine||N/A|
|Brucellosis||Abortion and weak calves||Multiple vaccines available||4 months and older|
|Bovine Tuberculosis (BV)||Respiratory Issues, Highly contagious||Bacillus Calmette Guerin||After birth|
|Leptospirosis||Calf Death||Multiple vaccines||2 months before breeding and annually|
|Mastitis and Staph||Mastitis in lactating cows||2 vaccines available||6 months and annually|
Worm and Parasite Load Questions
Cattle have worms. It’s almost guaranteed. Depending on where you live, different parasites will be more common.
Drenching is a common practice to help mediate parasite loads of stomach worms and liver fluke. Some areas are higher in parasites, and cattle need to be drenched as many as four times a year. Dairy cows are usually drenched annually.
Ask your vet about the best practices for your area.
- When was the cow wormed last?
- When was it drenched last?
Buying the right bovine is a big decision for your family and your wallet. Armed with these questions, you’ll be better prepared to buy the right cattle for your family’s needs.
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