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Permaculture animal: Cattle

Photo by Michael Jackson
Photo by Micheal Jackson
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Cattle (cows, bulls, oxen, heifers, steers, bullocks or calves) are valued for their ability to provide large amounts of milk or meat. They can also be used for labour and when well-managed, in maintaining grasslands. Yet cattle are very large animals, expensive to purchase and they eat a lot of feed. Cattle bring many benefits, but be sure they’re right for you and your system before you commit.


There are dairy breeds (such as Jersey, Aussie Reds and Friesians) and beef breeds (such as Angus and the tropical Brahmas). The offspring from dairy breeds produce relatively little meat, and beef breeds are not suited to milking as they produce less milk and generally lack the right temperament. If you want a dairy cow but also some meat, mate your cow to a beef bull each year. Besides cross breeding, there are also some dual purpose breeds (such as Dexter).

Smaller breeds, or miniatures of standard breeds, are particularly well-suited to smaller-scale permaculture systems as they have lower feed and space requirements.


Cattle need well-mineralised pastures with a diversity of plants including grasses, legumes and small herbs. Rotating stock and allowing plants time to recover is key to building healthy pasture. By carefully monitoring the animals’ intake and state of the plants, you can use rotation systems to promote the growth of deep-rooted, nutritious native grasses and other beneficial plants. Rotation systems also reduce parasite problems.

If year-round pasture is unavailable, hay or other fodder will be needed. Cattle need a lot of roughage for their digestive systems to work well. They enjoy nutritious leaves, such as those from willow, elm and tagasaste.

A dairy cow producing large amounts of milk will generally need some supplementary feeding. Grains are commonly used, although tree fodder crops such as carob, locust pods and acorns make excellent feed. Another alternative to grains are fodder vegetables such as turnips, beets or pumpkins.


Cattle are herd animals and need company. Keeping a dairy calf with the mother is beneficial for the welfare of both. If keeping another cow is not possible, animals of a different species, such as a sheep, can be companions. Human contact is also important; spending time with your animals gives you the chance to observe them closely, and keep them tame and friendly.


A cow (or any other type of cattle) will need at least half an acre to exercise, but a lot more land will be required to keep it fed. The exact amount of land will depend on the number and size of your stock, the quality of your soil and pasture, the amount and timing of rainfall, and whether you supplement your animals’ feed or rely entirely on pasture.

Cattle are hardy, but they need shade in hot summers and prefer a shelter shed in cold and wet weather. A shelter shed with straw or wood shavings on the floor is also an efficient way to collect manure.

A good water system is vital, as cattle will drink around 100 litres a day each (up to 250 litres in hot weather). A trough with a float valve is ideal, as letting cows drink directly from dams or waterways causes erosion and water quality issues. Cattle require sturdy, well-maintained fencing. Portable electric fencing is useful for dividing paddocks for rotational grazing.


Dairy cows will generally produce more milk than a family needs, even with a calf sharing the milk. Being rich in both protein and calcium, milk and whey are relished by poultry and pigs, either fed directly or used to soak grain.


The other major permaculture product from cattle is manure. In a rotational system with plenty of space, they can be left in the pasture to improve the soil. Otherwise, it can be collected and composted for use in the garden or orchard. Cow manure is a traditional ingredient in many mud renders.


One animal produces a lot of meat; you may end up trying to fit 200 kg of meat in your freezer! A calf can be butchered whenever there is enough meat to make it worthwhile. With adequate feed, butchering between 18 months and two years old will yield best results.


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