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By Sue Weaver

I love my Highland steer. Frazer (named for Scottish-Canadian explorer, Simon Frazer) is an ox-intraining and my best bovine pal. Will we one day eat him? Never!
While farm folk traditionally equate cattle with animated hamburger, an increasing legion of rural
dwellers are viewing livestock in a brand new light. House rabbits, Pygmy goats, pot-bellied pigs, and
now cattle: they’re not just for supper any more.
“What’ll you do with him?” ask visitors when I say he isn’t abattoir bound. What do you do with pet
cattle? There are so many avenues to pursue.
Consider driving. Frazer’s job is learning to pull a cart. Draft oxen are traditionally hitched in tandem,
linked to one another and to the implement they’re hauling by means of a sturdy wooden neck yoke.
But an ox (a mature draft steer) can wear a modified horse harness or a sleek single yoke. And a cow
can pull a cart or wagon too. The advantages? Trained cattle are less reactive than many horses; it’s
generally safe to loop the reins, hunker back and enjoy their leisurely pace. Tough bovine hooves rarely
demand expensive shoeing, and an ox-drawn conveyance really turns heads.
Have you ever thought of riding a bovine buddy? While the undisputed king of saddle cattle is the Texas
Longhorn steer, any sensible, sizable, sturdily built cow or steer can be trained to ride. According to the
International Texas Longhorn Association (ITLA), there are 400-plus saddle-trained Longhorn steers in
the United States. Saddle and pulling steer events held at ITLA national and regional shows include an
intricate trail event in which steers slop through water, weave through pylons, step over an assortment
of obstacles and retain their composure while riders navigate a gate, don a crinkly slicker and unlatch
and close a rural mailbox. Impressive? Yes!
A petite Jersey, a Dexter, or a gentle miniature dairy cow can provide your family with better dairy
products than money can buy, and unlike a plastic milk jug, Bossy makes a great pet, too.
The soft, woolly undercoat curried from molting Galloway and Highland cattle is a fiber artist’s joy. Spin
it and knit the ultimate cushy, warm mittens. A 2,000-pound ox yields a heap of premium hair!
A pet cow can be artificially inseminated, so you needn’t ever own (or visit) a bull. Her calves will be
readily salable as pets or breeding stock if her bloodlines are good. Help preserve an old breed or
establish a new one—and experience the joys of raising cattle without shipping calves to slaughter.
A cow or steer can mow your yard. Some, such as Scottish Highland cattle, also browse—they’ll brush
wood lots and grub tree sprouts for you too.
Cattle are intelligent creatures and they readily perform for food. Traditional reward-based training
regimens work well with bovines but clicker training, the method used to teach marine animals at
attractions such as Sea World, is their forte. Methods designed for clicker training dogs, horses and
llamas are easily modified for cattle. You can even teach your bovine to do tricks!
Call it cowpie, cow pat, cow flop or plain old cow manure, bovines make a load of fertilizer. Fresh cow
flop is 5 percent nitrogen, .2 percent phosphoric acid, and 5 percent potash by weight; dried manure

has even higher percentages. And it’s said to be mildly antiseptic. Old-timers soaked athlete’s foot in
fresh cowpie, smeared it on their heads to inhibit baldness, and caked it on injuries as a drawing
poultice. In India, where cows are sacred, dried cow pats provide cooking fuel and are smoldered to
repel mosquitoes.
Tame bovines make charming and unusual pets, but they’re not for everyone. Before buying a cow, calf
or steer, find a mentor to advise you.
County extension agents, veterinarians, experienced oxen drovers, veteran dairyman and beef cattle
breeders are excellent choices. Investigate breeds via online search engines. Cattle-oriented mailing
lists put new owners in daily touch with helpful cattle keepers from around the globe.
The average cow or steer can live 18 years, some live 25 years or more. Adding a bovine beast to your
family is a huge commitment. Be sure you really want a cow or steer before you buy one. Here are the
barest basics to consider.
Housing for a cow or steer can be as fancy as a box stall in your horse barn or a simple field shelter.
You’ll probably need a safe, enclosed area in which to train your animal, either indoors or fenced tall
and stout, so it can’t leap out. New owners often assume cows can’t jump, but frightened or irked cattle
can vault a standard pipe gate with ease.
Working enclosures should be solidly built of planks, poles or brawny wire cattle panels at least five- or
six-feet tall. Equine round-pen panels work well. If your animal is a miniature, a wee youngster, or
already tame when you get him, standard fencing will suffice. There is a lot to be said for starting with a
trained pet bovine or a calf!
Pastures should be perimeter fenced using stout, permanent fence posts supporting cattle panels,
tightly stretched wire mesh, five or more strands of barbed wire, or four to six strands of high tensile
electric fence. Smooth wire won’t work unless it’s electrified; cattle will squeeze right through. Cross
fencing needn’t be as elaborate unless you’re fencing cattle away from something they mustn’t eat.
Cattle can pasture with other species; each will dine on plants the other leaves. The exception: some
horses harry cattle. If your horse and pet cow can’t get along, separate pastures are probably a must.
Cattle require a lot of drinking water. An adult cow will down around 30 gallons a day, more if it’s hot or
she’s lactating. She won’t drink as much as she needs from a soiled or scummy water source and
probably won’t break ice in a waterer that’s frozen over. Clean water served lukewarm when the
mercury plummets and cool when it soars will encourage her to imbibe all she needs. Cattle appreciate
pond access in the summertime. They’ll wile away sultry days up to their chins in cool water and drink
from the pond as well.
A 2,200 pound Minnesota-based riding steer, a Hoosier farmer’s miniature Zebu pasture ornament, and
a Georgia family’s milking Jersey all require radically different diets, vaccinations and deworming
While book and online resources can spell out the basics of cattlekeeping, always discuss important
points with your county agricultural extension agent and a cattle-savvy local veterinarian before bringing
Bossy home.
Cattle are ruminants. Their four-compartment stomachs allow them to eat their food then hunker down,
bring it back up as a cud and rechew it at leisure. Unless you (or a calf) milk your cow, it’ll probably do

best on a predominately hay and pasture diet. No matter which local forage you choose for your cow or
steer, it should be high quality, dust-free, and fed from a hayrack or a clean, dry spot on the ground.
Cattle and moldy feed spell disaster; never feed moldy hay or musty, sour grain to your cow or steer.
Cattle attract flies. The worst are horn and face flies, but deer flies, horse flies, gnats and black flies are
attracted to cattle too. Droves of biting flies cause cattle to rub, race and fret, so control is a must.
Insecticide-laced ear tags, oral larvicides, pour-ons, sprays and dust bags or back scrubbers are all
viable options; but because pesky horn flies develop resistance to the chemicals used in these controls,
it’s important to rotate organophosphate and pyrethroid products every few years. Face flies spread
pinkeye, a highly contagious bacterial infection that can lead to blindness unless aggressively treated.
Fortunately, most horn fly control products also repel face flies and other bloodsucking pests.
Well-nourished cattle kept in dry, tidy surroundings don’t require a lot of coat care but you’ll need a
cattle comb to groom your shedding beast and chase caked-on mud and muck when it accumulates.
Most cattle appreciate being hosed with cool water on hot, steamy summer days. Expect to hand pick
burrs, tiny sticks and other debris from long-coated breeds and from forelocks and tail swishes.
Hooves need trimming every few months. Hire a professional who will load your animal in a mobile
chute and use power tools to shape his hooves, or teach your pet to pick up his feet and do the job with
simple hand tools yourself. Visit Purdue University’s “Trimming Hooves” page online at (URL is case sensitive) to see how it’s
properly done.
Continually sloppy footing in barns, cow lots or pastures leads to foot rot, a nasty bacterial malady that
thrives in mucky manure and invades via scratched or abraded feet (see “Livestock Q&A” on page 12
for a more detailed discussion of foot rot). Untreated foot rot can cause permanent disability, and is
extremely painful to the animal. Keep your cow or steer out of mud.
All cattle are strong, and unhandled ones are reactive. It takes a certain amount of strength and agility
to tame and train a bovine. Horned cattle can be especially dangerous; beginners shouldn’t buy a wild,
snorty cow or steer with horns. Older cattle can be dehorned but it’s a grisly, agonizing process.
Choose a calf or a tame adult member of horned breeds, or opt for a dehorned or naturally polled cow
or steer.
Many first-time buyers choose a calf, and this is a logical choice. However, because calves are more
susceptible to certain diseases and stresses than older cattle, buying a baby is a process fraught with
danger. Discuss calf-rearing issues with your county extension agent or veterinarian before buying a
tiny baby—you must be fully prepared and in the know before you do.
Any calf should be purchased from a reliable source. “Don’t buy a calf from a sale barn,” says dairy
farmer Lori Armstrong of Thayer, Mo. “Cattle at a sale might look perfectly healthy but you can bring
home a lot of disease that way. For a pet I’d buy a bucket calf (bottle baby) from a dairy farm; it will look
to you as mama. It’s not long before a calf is big enough to start dragging you around, but a bucket calf
is smaller so it’s easy to train. I’d recommend a Jersey. Jerseys are naturally social; they make really
good family cows.”
Another option: Buy a trained or partially trained weanling calf or older heifer, cow or steer from a
reputable beef breeder. Nick and Anneke Self of Bent Creek Farm near Greenville, Tenn., bred our boy
Frazer. A husky 10-month-old calf when he joined us, Frazer was already gentled and he led and stood
tied like a pro. “We take our cattle to exhibitions,” explains Anneke, “so we work with our calves, we
teach them basic things, the sort of things Frazer knows. Quite a few Highland breeders do that. It
wouldn’t be hard to find a handled Highland, even an adult, if [you] check around.”

Before choosing a breed, consider what you plan to do with your pet. Ornamental organic lawnmower?
Any breed that intrigues you will do.
But if you have your heart set on a riding steer, a Longhorn or Highland makes more sense than a
Jersey or Zebu. An Angus family milk cow? Get a Guernsey instead! Any steer makes a fine ox, but for
massive pulling power try a Chianina. And for compact cuteness, opt for a Dexter or a miniature
Longhorn. If you want to win ribbons, choose a breed that’s popular in your locale.
Availability may be an issue. Most miniature breeds and some heritage and imported breeds are in
demand, as well as breeds listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s endangered list.
Evaluate your climate and facilities. While they’ll adapt, Highlands in Florida and Brahmans in northern
Minnesota are definitely out of their element. Small acreage? Think Dexters, Jerseys, Guernseys, and
miniatures when space is at a premium.
Which sex? Cows and steers make fine pets; for the casual cattle keeper, bulls do not. Working cattle
are traditionally castrated males, but cows can pull carts and pack riders too.
Finally, do you recognize cattle ailments, afflictions, and conformation anomalies when you see them?
Do you know what to ask about vaccinations, breeding stock bloodlines, and other nuances of cattle
selling? If not, ask someone who does to help evaluate potential purchases. Don’t choose unwisely
because you’re unaware.
So go ahead, have a cow—or a heifer, steer, ox or calf—and enjoy the ultimate hobby-farm pet.
This article first appeared in the December/January 2004 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.
Did You Know...?
 Author John Pukite (A Field Guide to Cows) lists 929 breeds of cattle at his Cows of the World
 All modern cattle belong to one of two species: Bos indicus (humped Asian and African cattle) or
Bos taurus (non-humped types and breeds).
 On his 1933 expedition to the South Pole, Admiral Richard E. Byrd packed along three
Guernsey cows (Emmadine, Klondike and Deerfoot) and a two-year supply of their feed and
bedding. A bull calf, Iceburg, was born en route.
 In 1627, the last wild aurochs—the ancestor of modern European cattle, as depicted on cave
walls near Lascaux, France—were slain on a remote Polish game preserve.
 A typical 1,000-pound cow produces 10 tons of manure each year.
 America’s largest cattle statues include New Salem Sue, the World’s Largest Holstein (South
Dakota); Albert, the World’s Biggest Bull (Audubon, Iowa); and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji,
Minn. See them (and more gigantic bovines) at the “Roadside America: Cows” website
 The Moscow Circus once featured a troop of trained cows that danced to Russian music and
played football.
 Bone fragments excavated in North Africa and Turkey indicate cows were domesticated more
than 8,500 years ago.
 The most popular breed of cattle in the world is the Holstein. More than 300,000 new
registrations are processed by the Holstein Association USA every year.
 Many cows, steers and bulls have been touted as the largest in history. A likely contender for the
“biggest” cow title was Lone Star, a handsome half-Jersey, half-Brahman cow exhibited at the
1933 Chicago World’s Fair. She tipped the scales at 2,800 pounds and stood 6’1” tall.

Cows detect scents as far as five miles away; they see in color and hear high- and lowfrequency sounds better than we do.

All About Cows

Cattle Breed Associations

Oklahoma State University Virtual Livestock Library;
Beef at
or Dairy at
Cattle Today
Steer Feeding
Feeding a single bovine; Mississippi State University
Fitting and Showing Beef Cattle
Tips to make your bovine look terrific
Electronic Zoo/Vet Net (extensive!) Cattle Links
Veterinary Education and Information Network Cattle Links


Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle,
by Heather Smith Thomas
(Storey Books; 1998)

Your Calf; A Kid’s Guide to Raising and Showing Beef and Dairy Calves, by Heather Smith
(Storey Books; 1997)
Natural Cattle Care, by Pat Coleby
(Acres USA; 2001)
The Family Cow, by Dirk Van Loon
(Storey Books; 1983)
Keeping a Family Cow, by Joanne S. Grohman
(Coburn Press; 2000)


Crazy For Cows

My Moo Cow Pages

Moo Cow Madness
The Cow Corral
The author, Sue Weaver, hosts a free Yahoo Groups e-mail list called (of course) “Have a Cow”
Texas Longhorn Riding Steers
How to Train a Trophy Riding Steer
Sporting Cattle
Rural Heritage Ox Paddock
(many great articles, books and videos; not to be missed)


The Complete Cow: An Udderly Entertaining History of Dairy & Beef Cows of the World, by Sara
Rath (Voyageur Press; 1998)
About Cows, by Sara Rath (Voyageur Press; 2002)

A Field Guide to Cows: How to Identify and Appreciate America’s 52 Breeds, by John Pukite
(Penguin USA; 1998)
Wholly Cow!, By Emily Margolin Gwathmey (Abbeville Press; 1988)

The most important thing to keep in mind when raising a cow or steer as a pet is not to spoil the animal
to where it loses its respect for you. Never raise a bull as a pet; even a gentle bull can become
dangerous, especially if he no longer respects you as “boss.”
Establishing Yourself as Boss
Cattle are herd animals, accustomed to having a “pecking order.” The more aggressive individuals
establish dominance over the submissive ones in the herd. Cattle are naturally pushy and take
advantage of a more submissive herd mate. It’s easy to work with cattle because they are very social
animals. It is natural for them to submit to a higher-ranking herd member, and they can readily transfer
this submission to a human. If a cow or steer knows and respects you, and accepts you as the
dominant herd member, you will have few problems.
In a herd situation, the bossiest cow rarely has to defend her title because the others have learned to
respect her. She doesn’t have to charge at them or fight; all she has to do is threaten. Body language is
Cattle, like horses, are very trainable. You’ll effectively gain the animal’s trust by being consistent (kind
but firm, with certain rules you never slacken). If a pet cow or steer starts shoving or butting you with its
head, discipline it with a swat or a twist of its ear. It must learn that it can’t get away with pushing you
Hormonal Changes
Don’t forget, however, that there are times when a cow’s instincts may overrule your authority. For
instance, if a cow or heifer is in heat, she may become cranky or even dangerous if she tries to mount

you as she would another herd mate. And if she has a new calf, she may try to protect it from perceived
predators, which may include you and any dogs that come near during those first hours or days when
her calf is very young.
A cow you raised as a pet may know and trust you, and even coexist peacefully with your dog. But
when she calves, her attitude will be stimulated by her hormones; her driving purpose is to protect her
new baby. She may threaten you or even charge at you. She may be even more upset if a dog
approaches, to the point of trampling you or her calf in her attempts to kill the dog. Some cows with
newborn calves become more emotional and dangerous than bulls.
If you must work with a cow or heifer when she’s in heat, or handle her newborn calf, carry a stick. You
may not have to use it, but just having it as a backup to your authority can be like the body language of
the dominant cow who merely has to shake her head or horns at a subordinate herd member to make it
back off.
Above all, your attitude and demeanor are most important. If you are afraid, she will sense it and take
advantage of you. If you are unafraid and dominant, she will know that also, and continue to respect
Cattle like to be rubbed and scratched, especially in body areas that are hard for them to reach—such
as under the chin or at the base of the tail. But don’t rub the top of the head or the front of the face; this
generally encourages the animal to rub back, and she may bunt at you.
Cattle like to play, and their idea of play is to have a mock battle, butting heads. If your pet looks upon
you as an equal, he or she will want to “play fight” with you. Thus you must establish your role as the
dominant herd member early on. Play fighting may be fun when a calf is small, but dangerous when he
or she becomes a 500-pound weanling or 1,100-pound yearling. Again, if needed, carry a small stick
when you work with or feed the calf, to rap its nose if it becomes too aggressive. Once the calf accepts
you as boss, your relationship can be just as enjoyable, but not as dangerous.
—Heather Smith Thomas, author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle