We raise our own beef, hogs, goats, & chickens on a budget. For cattle
you can purchase bottle calves for between $75 to $125 depending on
sex & size or age. Day- to week-old males are the least expensive.
These will be mostly dairy breeds, but still make delicious beef.
You will have to purchase a calf bottle & nipple for under $10 and a bag
of milk replacer for about $75. Yes, it seems like quite an
investment to begin with, but this will feed your calf for the next
4-6 weeks until it is completely changed over to feed and hay or
This cost can be reduced if you have a full-size dairy goat
which can produce enough milk to support a calf, especially if you can
milk it three times a day then immediately feed the calf. After your
calf is drinking water from a bucket and eating feed & hay or grass
reliably, you have milk for yourself. (For us we find the goat's milk
more palatable if we add a little water to it.)
The biggest component in keeping your calf healthy is keeping it dry,
warm, & relatively clean. No bath needed; just clean dry bedding which
can be straw, dry leaves, crushed corn cobs, wood shavings, saw dust
(which can come from your chainsaw when cutting firewood), newspaper,
etc. Use your imagination.
An 8x8 corner of a garage or outbuilding works well or any kind of "fence"
covered with a tarp. If it's winter time you can hang a drag light with a
spotlight bulb to add warmth or add another calf.
Calves need some physical contact & company too. They are herd animals.
I usually get in the pen with the calf at feeding time & rub, pet, talk to it, etc.
This makes your next steps easier as well.
After the first week or so we put a halter on the calf, which can be
purchased or made. There are a multitude of websites & videos to show
you how to do this. We almost never remove the halter except to put on
a bigger one as it grows. Now you can teach it to lead & tie it out to
start exposing it to grass. We use a long line or rope & a concrete
block & let it help mow the yard moving the block as needed & adding
blocks as needed. Since you have made yourself its herd, the calf
really doesn't want to wander far from you or the house it knows
you're in, so containment is relatively easy with the blocks.
We now have electric fence up, which is by far the easiest to install &
can be moved or taken down altogether. We charge it with a solar
charger. There are references online for this as well. We also use the
nylon cord or rope type fencing because of the price & ease of use.
When you first introduce your calf to it, you can lead him around the
inside perimeter so he sees it & learns where he is supposed to be.
Make sure your fence is on & "firing very hot" during the first few
days because once he has touched a hot fence that really bites him he
won't test it again. There have been times that our fence has been off
for days without any escapees. Electric fence is a psychological
barrier not a physical one.
We buy our calves in early spring from local dairy farms which don't
want all the males that are born. By the time we wean them the grass
is greening & very nutritious. We supplement with beef pellets from
any feed mill at $6 - $8 for a 50 pound bag & feed a pound or so a day
just to get him off to good start. We also provide a mineral block
that will last for months of calf licking.
As soon as the bull calf's testicles have dropped into the scrotum
they need to be removed or the meat will be inedible. You can have a
vet or experienced farmer do this or show you how. The easiest way is
to "band" them, which the tool required costs around $20 & the bands
are just pennies. It's worth the investment if you're going to
continue raising calves or you might be able to borrow a bander from
another person raising livestock. You use the four pronged plier like
tool to apply a rubber ring the size of a cheerio around the scrotum
above the testicles. The circulation is cut off then they dry up &
fall off in a week or so. You may not believe me because it surprised
me too, but the calf doesn't seem to experience any pain or even
notice what has happened. Most of ours don't even stop grazing when we
do it. There are other methods & you can explore bull castration
When it was just my husband & me, we only raised the calf to a little
over a year old which was plenty of meat for the next year while
raising another calf. The concrete blocks worked fine & we got up to 5
or 6 blocks just before slaughter. We estimated approximately 500
pounds of dressed-out meat.
For free winter hay, let your yard grow as high as your mower can
still cut, then mow it. Let the clippings lay until completely dry,
spreading any clumps out by kicking them. After they are completely
dry rake them up or use a lawn sweeper to pick them up & store
anywhere that will stay dry. Plastic bags are okay, but they have to
be inside or under cover as well. The hay pokes through. We have some
bulk storage freezers from an ice factory that no longer worked.
Sometimes you can get large wooden containers from factories. Shipping
pallets work well as a floor then a sheet of plastic, your hay, then
cover all of it with a tarp or more plastic. I have a friend trying an
old family tent that the poles broke on that he is using it as a bag
making sure to keep the rain fly covering it. A little moisture will
cause some molding, which won't harm a calf in small amounts, but you
want to prevent it as much as possible.
When you feed your hay, feed in a quantity that can be eaten within a
few hours so the calf doesn't sleep in it or do other things in it. That
wastes a valuable resource. We used scrap lumber & boards from a
broken shipping pallet to build a manger just like what you see in a
nativity scene, only larger. The intersection of the crossed boards are
about 2 feet off the ground & the boards were 3-4 inches wide so that
is the gap between them. It keeps the hay off the ground & prevents
most wastage. You can make a circle out of livestock panels or wire
fence to keep your calf from nesting in your hay or there are many
other solutions too. When feeding the hay if it gets wet out in the
pasture it's not a problem. It will be eaten before it can mold.
We supplemented his diet with excess produce from the garden,
leftovers from cider making, kitchen scraps, stale bread & baked goods
from the bakery outlet, brewer's leftovers, wine making waste, pretty
much anything made of grain or vegetables or fruit. (And yes a cow
can get drunk. Feed such wastes in small amounts.)
As far as grain, we purchased feed during the winter, or as a treat
only, once the calf was off to a good start. Most of the grain (corn)
was what we picked up out of the neighbors' fields after they had
harvested. You would be amazed at the amount you can gather. We
shelled the kernels off & burned the cobs in the stove. We stored the
corn in plastic drums. Even if you don't want to raise critters, this
lost corn burns nice & hot in the stove. Not in a fireplace though;
some kernels will pop.
Shelter is not necessary after your calf is a couple months old, but
if you feel guilty, as we did, a lean-to made with a few posts & a tarp
worked for us. We attached the posts to post sections on the ground to
make it portable by dragging it with the mower, which we got out of the
To conclude this long story, on approximately a 1/2 acre of lawn we
raised a freezer full of meat per year without antibiotics, steroids,
or a feed lot, and enjoyed each & everyone of them as they grew. Cows
do have a lot of personality & all of ours had names, but from the
very first day we knew that one day we would kill it, process it just
like a deer or any other large mammal, and eat it. Our estimated
costs, even as our herd has increased & the lifespan has lengthened as
more family members are participating, each calf still has a little
less than 1/2 acre & after butchering them ourselves it costs less
than $2 a pound for anything from hamburger to Porterhouse steaks. Our
initial calves as described above, the costs were less than $1 a
This is in no way a comprehensive guide to raising bottle calves, but
it worked for us, and we keep things pretty uncomplicated and low effort.
Thank you for your time to read all this. - N.P.
Thank you, N.P., for taking the time to write this. My husband and I have been talking about getting a calf or two, to raise for meat. I feel more encouraged to try it after reading this!