Choose Cattle for a Foundation Herd

You can't start a cow-calf herd without having some good quality animals from the outset. Knowing which cattle to look for, where to find them, and what to do with them is all important.


  1. Choose your cow-calf type operation accordingly. Look at what you're capable of and what you want to achieve when you buy cattle. Are you ready to take on the responsibilities of a seedstock/purebred breeder? Or would you rather start on the easy route that involves buying cows to sell calves at the end of every year?
    • Purebred or Seedstock cow-calf operations involve starting with and ending with superior parent stock in order to sell top-quality bulls and heifers that other producers want or need for their herds. Knowledge in genetics, EPDs (expected progeny differences), conformation, marketing, financing, record keeping, among other things, is crucial if you want to have a purebred operation. With these types of operations, you get to choose your favorite breed and improve on it and use it as a selling point to other breeders.
    • Commercial cow-calf operations involve starting with average to good parent stock that can be purebred, straight-bred or crossbred in order to produce calves that are sold to the beef market. You're not doing nearly as much marketing, campaigning and record keeping as purebred breeders are, but you've still got to sell your calves and keep track of your herd's progress. With commercial operations, you can start with any breed or crossbred you like, with the outcome to produce calves, with good weaning or yearling weights, to be sold to the beef market.
  2. Choose your breed[s]. Where you live, your climate, seasons, terrain, and vegetation zone are primary factors that will affect your decisions on choosing what cows you want. Some things to consider include:
    • Look for cows that are low maintenance, maintain good condition on forage alone, have very little to no calving problems, good conformation (udder and feet most important), good temperament, and have good mothering ability.
    • Choose cows that will do well in your climate and on the kind of vegetation you will have them on; they have to not just survive, but to thrive. Also choose your breeds on what your personal preferences are, what local markets are looking for, coat colour, horns/polled, etc.
  3. Find a good reputable breeder or someone who is selling the kind of cattle you're looking for. A purebred breeder may be the best place to start for any beginner cattle-person.
    • Find a breeder that has been in the business for at least 20 years, and one that reflects how you're going to care for and raise your cattle.
  4. Look at the breeder/seller's cattle. Ask if you can come over to look at his or her cows and other animals for sale, and take pictures of them. Study them later in the comfort of your home, to see how the animals match up as far as conformation and body condition is concerned.
  5. Ask questions. Ask questions about health history, what and how they've been fed over the years, how they've been raised, average weight of the cows, weaning weight of the calves, breeding, EPDs, and so forth. Make a list of questions to ask before you go over there so you don't forget anything you "should have" or "could have" asked. Check off each question as you get an answer, so that you're sure you've covered all you wanted to know.
  6. Go back home and make your decision. Study all the pictures you took as thoroughly as you can, and read and answer all the questions that you remember you asked the breeder. Maybe log on to one of the cattle forums on the web like Cattle Today[1], Ranchers[2],Backyardherds[3], or HomesteadingToday[4], or any other one you come across (the original author this article highly recommends going to first, to get other cattlefolk's opinions on the quality and kind of cows you are getting.
  7. Pass up or pay up. Contact the seller to let them know if you're wanting to bring them home, or if you've decided to go look somewhere else. Naturally, be polite about it. If you decided those are what you're looking for, great! Welcome to the world of raising cattle! If not, then keep looking, as you will eventually come across the ones you want. Good luck with your purchase and future herd!


  • Study conformation and body condition scoring to the point where you are seeing them in your sleep.
  • Have the cows (if they are bred) pregnancy-checked before you get them, or ask the breeder if they've been pregnancy-checked and get written confirmation of this.
  • Know the prices of the average cow, or heifer. Purebreds often sell for a bit higher than commercials do.
  • Know the risks of purchasing weaned heifers versus experienced bred cows, and make your decisions on that as well as what you know and what kind of sacrifices you are willing to put through to raise heifers.
  • Start small. Start with two or three good cows (good as in excellent quality cows), or five to six good to average cows, depending on your operational goals. Don't buy as many animals as your land area will hold right off the bat, as you may get in over your head.
  • Write everything down: thoughts, questions, answers, decisions, etc., and keep this information in a place where you can access them easily.
  • A more detailed explanation of the steps below are covered in How to Start up a Beef Cow Calf Operation
  • Ask questions! Don't be afraid to find out more information – it's your guarantee of quality.
  • Learn how to artificially inseminate (AI) and preg-check cows by yourself so you don't have to get a bull with your less-than-half-a-dozen cows, or find an AI tech who can AI your cows for you. Bulls are only for those breeders who have more than more than 25 cows.
  • Buy cattle that are no more than {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} away from you, as cattle that are farther away from you are often the ones that may do more poorly in your area than the ones that you bought them from. There may be exceptions though.
  • CattleToday Forums offer very honest opinions as to whether or not you've made the right choices.[5]


  • Bulls can be used if you are wanting to start with a little larger herd than 5 cows. Just be careful around them, as they are dangerous and do tend to want to challenge you if you haven't established your dominance with them yet.
  • If you decide on getting heifers instead of experienced cows, beware that you will be waiting for 2 years or more before you can sell the calves. Heifers are more fun to calve out because they are not experienced with calving, nor sometimes accepting her calf. They also tend to be over protective of their calves when weaning time rolls around, and will wreck your fences to get back to their calves.
    • Keep these in mind when you wish to purchase heifers instead of older cows.

Things You'll Need

  • Online access
  • Breeders or sellers with cattle for you to assess
  • Plans for your cattle herd into the future
  • Property to locate your cattle herd to
  • Pregnancy-check of each cow

Related Articles

Sources and Citations