keeping cows naturally

Nov 26, 2017

Our Chief Exec, Scarlett Penn, met Jeannie Ireland earlier this year and was so interested in her ideas about, and experience of, keeping cows ‘naturally’ that we asked Jeannie to tell us about them.

In 2008 I moved to a rented property with a small field and a few sheds attached; an opportunity to realise a long-held ambition to become a smallholder. Along with pigs and poultry, central to the dream was the presence of a milk cow.

Having sought the advice of farming friends, volunteered with livestock tasks at a local CSA and read all I could find on small-scale cattle farming, I felt ready to take the plunge. The founder of my new herd was to be Lizzy; a twelve year old Gloucester/Kerry cross. She was in calf, an experienced mother and used to being milked – the perfect candidate for the post!

the weather turned from wet to frigid, with snowfall and an icy northern chill...
the weather turned from wet to frigid, with snowfall and an icy northern chill…

The first few weeks were a far cry from any rustic idyll I may foolishly have harboured. The winter turned from wet to frigid, with snowfall and an icy northern chill that froze the water in the cattle trough, together with all the pipework that supplied it. In the brief periods of thaw, the livestock churned pathways into knee deep mud that dragged boots from frozen feet and made trips to and from the cowshed a struggle for cows and people alike.

Lizzy was still in milk and would need milking daily until late February when she would be dried off before calving. She was (and is) a strong-minded cow, who didn’t know me, but did know that I was inexperienced. She was used to a milking machine, not being hand milked and she regarded my clumsy efforts with contempt. There were many times that, had I not been terrified of her developing mastitis, I would have abandoned all attempts to extract milk from the recalcitrant beast and given up on the whole idea. She routinely kicked over the milking bucket, or trod in it and on at least two occasions managed to kick me across the cowshed.

bossy old cow Lizzy in 2017
bossy old cow Lizzy in 2017

In April, Lizzy had her calf, a heifer that I named Isabelle. Lizzy calved with no difficulties and proved herself to be every bit the devoted mother I had hoped for. Lizzy and I had come to an understanding by this point and she was happy to share her milk between me and the calf – there was plenty for both of us.

Watching mother and calf over the coming weeks and months, I was captivated by the strength of the bond between them. With successive calves over the next few years and a growing family of cattle, the complexity of their relationships became ever more fascinating. I learned to recognise the different sounds they made when communicating with each other, becoming able to tell if all was well or if one of them had gotten itself into some sort of trouble. It became clear that each individual had its place in the herd and there were seldom arguments between them. All knew who was who in the hierarchy and Lizzy was undisputed matriarch (this is referred to as the ‘hooking order’ in cattle, rather than the ‘pecking order’).


Watching my cattle in comparison with larger, commercial herds close by, their associations were in stark contrast. For ease of management, herds are usually split up into separate age groups, and also in a dairy herd, into the milking herd and other ‘dry’ animals. In the dairy industry, calves are separated from the mother within days or at most a few short weeks, so that all the milk goes for human consumption. The development of relationships that occur naturally within a herd are disrupted, resulting in stress that is often accompanied by sickness and failure to thrive. In my herd, not only did calves get to stay with their mothers, but they benefited from the company of their aunts and uncles. Youngsters would, more often than not, be found in a crèche, watched over by one of the adults, whilst the others grazed nearby. I noticed that the yearling heifers were fascinated by the calves and would often spend a great deal of time with them. I felt sure that this made them much better prepared when the time came to have calves of their own. These relationships made my life much easier too. If I wanted the cattle in, I just called Lizzy and she led them to wherever I wanted them. Whenever there was a management task that they might find stressful, such as the dreaded annual TB testing, I found that the youngsters would watch how their elders behaved and act accordingly.

I then found myself in the position that many smallholders come to, of having to make financial (and ethical) sense out of something that started out as a hobby and kept on growing. I set out with the intention of keeping a house cow to supply dairy produce for my family; but of course, it is never that simple. To produce milk, a cow needs to have had a calf. If it is a heifer calf, she can go on to produce milk herself, but what if it is a bull calf? What do you do if you have only limited grazing and the herd keeps getting bigger? I found that I was forced to confront these questions as my small herd and the responsibilities and expense that went with it kept growing

Jeannie with Bill
Jeannie with Bill

I had been vegetarian for most of my life, mainly because I was uncomfortable with the way many animals were raised in large-scale commercial systems. When Lizzy’s next calf was a bull, I needed to decide whether I could justify keeping cattle at all. What I could not afford to do was to keep them as pets; somehow they needed to pay for themselves. After a great deal of soul searching I decided that I could be ok with my steers going for beef, so long as I had made sure that their lives were as comfortable and contented as possible and that when the time came to be killed they were not stressed or afraid. I travel with them to the abattoir and go in with them to make sure that they are calm. This is my contract with them that allows me to acknowledge and accept my responsibility for their deaths. When one of them goes for slaughter, the sale of the meat goes towards meeting the cost of keeping the herd, their family, for another year.

I began reading what I could find on ‘natural’ behaviour in wild/feral cattle and trying to mirror this in my herd management. Wherever possible, the family is kept together. When they do need to be separated, for instance when young heifers need keeping apart from a bull, I make sure both groups are made up of a good number of relatives that get on well. When I move stock, the older ones generally go first, as they are more sensible and the youngsters then arrive to find the rest of the family in place so they settle quickly.

the gang
the gang

I have come to believe that this perspective on cattle rearing has advantages that can translate into financial practicality. Somewhat to my surprise, when I first started selling my beef, the positive response was overwhelming. Staff at the abattoir were complementary, as was the butcher who hung and prepared the beef. Customers repeatedly told me that it was the best beef they had ever eaten. When this was repeated with successive beasts, I began to try and pinpoint what was the cause of this welcome result. The cattle are of a rare breed (Gloucesters and Gloucester crosses) and are grass fed and slow matured. In addition to this, I strongly believe that being ‘family’ reared they lead extremely stress-free and relaxed lives. Furthermore, so far, I have had virtually no health issues to worry about, which has kept vets’ bills to a minimum (no pneumonia or scouring in calves, no TB).

This is a subject that could be explored and debated at great length, but for me this system of small-scale cattle rearing has numerous benefits; I am able to sell my meat at a premium, not only because of its quality, but because buyers like the ‘back story’ – they like hearing that my cattle have as natural and pleasant a life as possible. Management is also much easier and a lot more pleasant for me.

grazing ... on some beautiful species-rich grassland on the Cotswold escarpment
grazing … on some beautiful species-rich grassland on the Cotswold escarpment

As time has gone on, the subject has become wider and the debate more complex. The herd quickly outgrew the few acres I had available and I now have a grazing licence on some beautiful species-rich grassland on the Cotswold escarpment. For those who would argue that cattle are net producers of methane and as such are contributing to climate change, I would counter that my cattle are also conservation managers. The richly biodiverse landscape they inhabit was created by millennia of grazing by cattle and without it, precious habitats would degrade.

I hope, in time, when the herd is larger and more of my time can be devoted to it, that I will return to my early dairy ambitions and begin milking again, but on a commercial rather than just a personal level (Gloucesters are dual-purpose animals, providing both meat and milk). This would have to follow the ‘Calf at Foot’ model, where the cows are milked once a day and the calves are left with them. The economics of reduced milk yield, can, I believe be offset both by sales of quality meat and by the higher premiums paid for ethically produced milk.

This way of raising cattle is likely not suited to all situations, but certainly, for small producers in environmentally sensitive areas, it is a means of making management easier whilst producing a high-value product with fantastic ethical credentials.

For the record, Lizzy is now twenty years old, a little grey round the muzzle and still worth her weight in gold as herd matriarch and generally bossy old cow.

Any thoughts? Let us know by leaving a comment below or by using

photos: Jeannie Ireland

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