Basic Care of Cattle


Basic biology:

Average Body Temperature: 100.5 F 

Age of sexual maturity: 6 months  

Heat cycle: 21 days

Gestation: 283 days (9 months)

Productive life: 10-12 years

Digestive system: Ruminant

Types of cattle:

Dairy – Cattle selectively bred to produce larger volumes of milk than their calves would consume. 

Beef – Cattle selectively bred to be heavily muscled, often with a lighter bone structure and faster growth curves than other breeds. 

Exotic – Cattle more closely aligned with their wild counterparts, such as water buffalo or American bison.

Life stages:

Calf – Birth to weaning. 

Weanling – Average age of weaning is 4-6 months.

Heifer  – Refers to a young, female cow of sexual maturity, but not yet milking. It is not recommended to breed heifers before 18 months of age because their bodies have not fully matured. 

Cow – Refers to female breeding age bovine which have gone through their first lactation cycle. 

Other terms to know: 

Bull – Any individual of the species that exhibits male characteristics. 

Steer and oxen – Castrated males. 

Free martin – Any individual of the species that exhibits outward female characteristics, but does not have a complete reproductive tract and is therefore unable to reproduce. 

Housing requirements: 

When managing the living conditions of your organic livestock, you must consider the following: “All livestock … must have year-round access to outdoor areas that provide shade, shelter, opportunity for exercise, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight” (MOFGA Certification Services 2021, 23).

When considering these points for cattle we must remember that their anatomy and physiology dictate many of their living conditions. 

  • Ambient temperature and airflow are important things to monitor when dealing with ruminants. The action of the rumen creates heat, much like a compost pile, and it is, therefore, more important to make sure adult cattle are not overheating. The optimum environmental temperature for peak production in adult dairy cattle is between 25 F and 65 F (Keown and Grant 1993). 
  • It is the natural inclination of cattle to lie down. This means they need both comfortable, well-bedded space in which to do this and enough space to get back on their feet. When we observe cattle getting up from a nap, we see them rise to their knees, then lunge forward to facilitate the rise of their hindquarters (Wageningen Livestock Research 2014).
  • Due to the size of the rumen, diet and demands created by milk production, adult cattle consume upwards of 30-plus gallons of water per day. A constant supply of clean, fresh water cannot be stressed enough (Jemison and Jones 2016).

Pasture requirements:

To qualify for organic certification, cattle producers must follow guidelines for pasture set out by the USDA.

“Ruminant livestock must receive a minimum of 30% dry matter from pasture averaged over the entire grazing season” (MOFGA Certification Services 2021, 20).

What this means, in a practical sense, varies from farm to farm; however, some basic best practices can be followed to optimize forages from pasture. 

  • Rotationally graze – set up a series of paddocks to allow cattle to be moved to different sections once the grass has been grazed.
  • Don’t graze lower than 4-6 inches – this allows grasses to regrow efficiently without needing to access their root reserves and to stay above the height that internal parasites typically climb to, as they need to stay hydrated in those lower levels. 
  • Move animals off an area after three days to prevent back-grazing (returning to eat the tender regrowth that plants start to do after three days).
  • Clip uneaten forage when necessary.

Forages not from pasture:

Generally, cattle will eat 40 pounds of dry forage per day. Not all feed produced for the winter is dry, but calculations for what the dry matter percentage of those feeds are can be found online. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has created a useful tool to help small-scale producers better plan their animals’ feed requirements for the winter (Kersbergen 2020).


“Lameness is a clear sign that an animal is experiencing pain and discomfort” (Branine, et al. 2014, 8).

One of the most common hoof ailments we see here in the Northeast is lameness due to a combination of our normally wet weather, infrequent hoof care, a need for improved nutrition and breed selection. Also consider housing and laneway construction that may put undue stress on the flesh between claws when turning too sharply and quickly. 

Below are a few hoof conditions common in organic production:

  • Axial fissures are characterized by a deep fissure in the inside horn wall, running vertically from the sole toward the coronary band. These cracks on the inside of the claw could be caused by overgrown toes, soft walking surfaces or improper trimming. Foot rot may result. 
  • Corkscrew claw is a genetic conformation flaw in which one claw per foot is spiral or corkscrew shaped, elongated, twisted and deformed with a horn wall that curls in and underneath the sole. It almost always occurs on the outside claw, and causes an abnormal gait. Do not select these animals for breeding.
  • Vertical fissures are cracks that happen at the front or side of the claw. These cracks are often found in heavier cattle on dry pasture and in sandy conditions. This problem can be associated with mineral deficiencies. 
  • Digital dermatitis, commonly known as hairy heel warts, are raw, bright-red or black circular erosions causing inflammation of the skin above the heel bulbs. These sores are often seen with a white margin and overlong hairs that surround the sore or are adjacent to thick, hairy, warlike growths. Hairy heel warts are very contagious. Care should be taken when transporting cattle to new facilities or commingling cattle in any way that proper hygiene protocols are implemented. (Branine, et al. 2014, 31-47)

Grain and mineral requirements:

While formulating a ration can be as simple or as complicated as a producer prefers to make it, cattle should always have access to minerals in accordance with their life stage and production level. 


Generally, cattle receiving adequate nutrition and housing remain healthy and problem-free. There are, however, some common issues that arise despite the best of care. If cattle owners remain aware of these possibilities, they can be better equipped to work with their veterinarian to put their animals on the road to recovery.

  • Hypocalcemia – Commonly known as milk fever, this metabolic disorder occurs after calving and presents as a cow with flaccid, cold muscles (often unable to stand) and a stalled digestive system (unwilling to eat). These symptoms occur because of the shift of calcium from the blood to the udder. As calcium is necessary for the proper function of muscle, fresh cows will need to be supplemented with calcium before they will recover. This often needs to be done quickly, and intravenously. Should you find a “down cow,” contact your veterinarian immediately. 
  • Ketosis – This is another metabolic disorder associated with calving. Dr. Daryl Kleinschmit states, “After calving, the demand for milk production increases substantially, and cows are unable to consume adequate energy to sustain performance, causing them to be in a negative energy balance. As a result, cows mobilize body fat in order to maintain energy for milk production and post-calving recovery … ” (Kleinschmit, para.1 n.d.). Ketosis is characterized by cattle uninterested in feed and rapidly losing weight. Rebalancing energy requirements is key to solving ketosis issues and feeding molasses can often alleviate these symptoms. Severe cases of ketosis (colloquially known as “crazy ketosis”) involve cattle frothing at the mouth and attempting to eat inedible objects, such as gates. Contact your veterinarian for severe or persistent cases of ketosis. 
  • Pinkeye – Bacterial infections of the eye can occur during intense fly pressure, or dry and dusty conditions, where foreign matter is introduced into the eye. Pinkeye is characterized by a clouding over of the cornea and, if left untreated, may result in the loss of the eye. Mild cases are often resolved by cleaning around the eye and protecting it from sunlight. Prevention is a better solution in the case of pinkeye.
  • Lice – Infestations of biting lice happen in animals with an imbalance in nutrition and occur most often in weanling groups. Cattle suffering from lice are rough coated with swirl patterns along their bodies from constant licking. Lice can be treated organically by repeatedly brushing diatomaceous earth into the topline of infested individuals. This should also be done in conjunction with addressing the nutritional needs of the animal(s). 


  • University of Maine Cooperative Extension
  • University of Missouri Extension
  • Schivera, Diane. 2019. “Raising Organic Livestock in Maine: MOFGA Accepted Health Practices, Products, and Ingredients.” MOFGA.
  • MOFGA Certification Services — always check with MCS before using a new product.
  • MOFGA Farmer Programs — can help to guide producers to solutions for organic practices and management.
  • Livestock Handling course — 6-week intensive utilizing online content learning and hands-on instruction, held annually starting at the end of March thru April.


Branine, Mark, Dorte Dopfer, and Tom Edwards. 2014. Cattle Lameness: Identification, Prevention, and Control of Claw Lesions. Zinpro Corporation.

Jemison, Jr., John and Chris Jones. 2016. “Bulletin #7129, Watering Systems for Livestock.” University of Maine Cooperative Extension., Jeffrey and Richard Grant. 1993. How to Reduce Heat Stress in Dairy Cattle.” University of Missouri Extension.

Kersbergen, Richard. 2020. “Bulletin #2263, How Maine Farmers Can Determine if They Have Enough Hay and Forage for the Winter.”

Kleinschmit, Dr. Daryl. n.d. “Controlling Ketosis in Dairy Cows.” Zinpro Corporation.

MOFGA Certification Services, LLC. “Practice Manual.” 2021.

Wageningen Livestock Research. 2014. “The way cows stand up en lie down.” Video, 2:20.

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