Welcome to this week’s Friday Fiction Facts! Sciency things fiction-writers need to know.

Jersey cows are pretty dairy cows (Flickr User Up Your Ego CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

A beautiful Jersey dairy cow (Flickr User: Up Your Ego CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

This post came to me after talking with an author about a novel she was working on. In it, a Texan cattle rancher moves north and takes over a relative’s dairy farm. As we talked about her plot and characters and storyline, I realized that a lot of people probably don’t know that running a cattle ranch and running a dairy involve two different sets of skills and knowledge. Yes, they both involve cows, but the similarity pretty much ends there.

So let’s take a look at some of the fundamental differences between the two kinds of “cow farming” and see what our rancher is going to need to know to switch from ranching to dairy.


Beef Cattle Ranching

Angus are beef cattle (Flickr User cskk (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) )

Angus are beef cattle (Flickr User cskk (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) )

Beef cows are usually referred to as cattle. They are built like a meat loaf – stocky and square, with short legs and thick bodies. The most common beef cows in North America are Herfords, Angus,

Most beef cows begin life at a cow-calf operation. This is the part of beef cattle production that people typically think of as “ranching” — where female cows are bred to produce young “feeder cattle.” Cow-calf operations often keep bulls and allow breeding to happen naturally. Young male calves are castrated and become steers, to be sold for beef. Some female calves may be kept for breeding; the rest are sold for beef.

Hereford cow and calves, bred for beef (Flickr User MrATM CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Hereford cow and calves, bred for beef (Flickr User MrATM CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Most beef cattle farmers have a high school diploma, though an increasing number hold college degrees in animal science, agriculture, or a closely related field. Coursework for such degrees generally includes animal science, beef production, meat science, anatomy, physiology, reproduction, genetics, nutrition, ration formulation, crop science, farm management, technology, business, and agricultural marketing. – About.com: Beef Cattle Farmer

Cow-calf operations typically pasture their animals and/or feed them grains. Almost all beef ranches in the US are family-run, handed down from generation to generation, and most keep fewer than 50 animals. But some are more industrial, with 100,000 cattle and selling hundreds of calves every day.

Harris Ranch Industrial feedlot (Photo: Farm Sanctuary CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Harris Ranch Industrial feedlot. For full effect, click to enlarge.  (Photo: Farm Sanctuary CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The young cattle are sold at auction as weanlings or are sold directly to slaughter at one to two years old. Those going to auction are brought in to feed yards for pre-conditioning or “backgrounding” before sending them off.

During preconditioning young cattle get used to being away from their mothers, learn to eat from troughs, and are fed until they are strong and heavy enough (about 650 lbs) to be sold at auction and withstand life in a feedlot.

Feedlots are industrial scale operations where cattle are sent to be fed to get them up to market weight. At any time, thousands of animals will be in a single feedlot which consists of acres of muddy pens of tightly packed cattle. The animals are fed an energy-dense mix of corn and grains, plus antibiotics to stave of digestive disorders brought on by their unnatural diet and lifestyle. Within three to four months, feedlot cattle reach market weight of over 1000 lbs and are shipped to slaughterhouses.

A day in the life of a cattle rancher

Beef Cattle Info —


Dairy Cow Farming

Dairy cows are more often referred to as cows than cattle. They are generally tall lanky animals whose bodies seem to hang from their backbones, shoulders and hips. Mature dairy cows are easily recognized by their pendulous udders.

Holstein dairy cow (Keith Weller/USDA)

Holstein dairy cow (Keith Weller/USDA)

Dairy cows are raised on a dairy farm and the herd is made up of milk cows and their young. Dairy farms seldom include a bull. Animals are normally bred via artificial insemination. Cows are bred annually.

Calves are taken from their mothers within days of their birth and moved to a calf-barn where they are bottle-fed. One a cow has given birth she is milked until she becomes pregnant the next season. Female calves may be kept and added to the milking herd or may be sold as breeding milk cows. Male calves are sold for veal or beef.

A typical cow is milked about 300 to 320 days per year. While she is in milk, a cow must be milked every day or she will begin to “dry off” and may completely stop producing milk. A cow in full milk production also risks an udder infection – mastitis – if she is not milked regularly. Cows with mastitis must be milked but their milk may not be sold.

Milking time at Univ of Georgia. (Photo/John Amis; Univ of GA (CC BY-NC 2.0) )

Milking time at Univ of Georgia. (Photo/John Amis; Univ of GA (CC BY-NC 2.0) )

Dairy cows are pastured during the day (or sometimes housed indoors) and are brought in, either two or three times a day to be milked in a milking parlour. They are hooked up to milking machines that draw the milk from their udders through a system of pipes to a bulk tank, where the milk is stored until it picked up by the milk truck.

Milk is measured by weight and dairy cows are rated by the number of pounds of milk they produce and by the fat content of their milk. The average dairy cow produces 9164.4 kg (20,204 lbs) of milk per year.

Because keeping a cow in milk as long as possible is critical and because dairy farmers use artificial insemination to breed dairy cows, dairy farmers need to understand the breeding cycle of cow, be able to tell when cows are in estrus, and must establish a strong systematic breeding program.

This is economically important to the dairy business because for every day a cow is not pregnant beyond 120 days after calving it costs about $2.00 per cow per day. For a 250 cow herd with an average of 140 days open [not pregnant], the cost would be $40 per cow or $10,000 per year compared to 120 days open. – Penn State Extension: Systematic Breeding

 A day in the life of a dairy farmer


Final word: In your writing, do not refer to farmers’ or ranchers’ “wives.” Spouses are full partners in any farming endeavor. Both are farmers or ranchers.

Keep writing!