SCBA have a Beginner's Guide which addresses many of the issues associated with starting with cattle. This is available on request. The following represent the concerns most regularly raised by enquirers.
How much land do I need?
A quick answer is one acre of good grazing per cow during the summer months. But Shetlands are used extensively in conservation grazing schemes, and on heathland, for example, you might need 25 acres per animal. Your land requirement therefore is dependent on quality of pasture and the availability of supplementary feed. If you wish to produce your own feed for the winter, such as hay, haylage or sileage you will require additional land. As a very rough calculation your cow will eat around 5 large bales of haylage over the winter and you would need more than half an acre of summer growth to produce this. If your cows are to live out they will eat rather more. Cows will exist on less land but you will have to depend on bought in feed.
What should I expect to pay for a cow?
Many factors influence price including age, health, availability, vendor's circumstances, particular bloodlines and quality of the stock. Level of service to purchasers, such as comprehensive breeder's warranties, full health checks etc. can increase costs for a breeder.
Demand for stock means that Shetlands rarely reach local markets and breed numbers and geographical spread precludes an annual breed sale. This factor and a lack of comprehensive private sales data makes it difficult to give an average figure. As a general guide expect to pay at least £750 for a cow in calf, bearing in mind that all the factors above will result in variations and a calf at weaning will sell for between £400 and £500. A useful exercise is to look at the results from pedigree sales of mainstream breeds to see values that attach to pedigree stock.
What about health?
Shetlands are generally robust and disease resistant. There is no known genetic disease associated with the breed. Government policy dictates that TB is routinely screened at no cost to the owner. Choose healthy looking animals and ask the vendor about his or her health plan.
What is a "good" cow?
The essence of a good Shetland cow is healthy maintenance and production on a low plane of nutrition, whether this is for milk or beef production. The breed is classified as "dual purpose" and, in type, should sit between the extremes of "beefiness" and "milkiness". In practice there is a variety of type and size and this reflects a healthy genetic spread. If you are interested in showing, then you will need to know the breed description.
I am concerned about owning a cow with horns. Can they be polled?
Some breeders disbud their calves at birth to prevent later problems. This is often because they keep other naturally polled breeds and they wish to avoid bullying problems particularly if the animals are to be housed together. It is usually done before 2 months of age. Dehorning at a later age is possible but causes more stress. The Shetland's horns are a distinguishing feature and in practice cows are most careful how they use them, particularly around humans. Ownership of a horned animal just requires taking care and being sensible.
Does SCBA hold a list of recommended breeders?
No. Such lists can operate against newer breeders who can supply good stock but who lack a track record. Instead we recommend that you visit potential vendors and discuss your requirements. You should always make the vendor aware of what you want from your purchase. Any breeder wishing to maintain or build a good reputation will want to have a satisfied customer.
What about sales terms?
Some breeders may offer a warranty with their animals but there are industry
norms that would apply in the absence of any individual warranty.
No breeder can guarantee an extended warranty as care of the animal passes from
his/her control at the time of sale. For instance, a widely used warranty states that a cow sold in breeding condition is guaranteed as such for 6 months; the reason being that once out of the breeder's hands, it is the buyer's management that governs the well-being of an animal.
If you are unable to visit a breeder then we recommend obtaining a clear written description and photos of the stock for sale. Be clear about what you are purchasing and any terms before you buy.
When I buy, am I expected to collect the cattle?
In general terms, yes. You will find that some breeders are prepared to deliver but may charge for this service.
What are the problems of keeping your own bull?
Much depends on what you feel about it. Do they make you nervous? If you have no experience it can be a daunting proposition. Bulls can be dangerous animals, so you must be aware of what they could do. Fortunately for Shetland owners most bulls don't do anything other than the job they have been given. But do you have neighbouring cattle? He will take an interest in them when he has finished with his own herd. An electric tape as a boundary reinforcement is usually sufficient. You may have cows which are pets. Some Shetland bulls have such placid temperaments that there is the temptation to treat them the same. We would recommend that you resist. Respect his space, and expect him to respect yours. The more mature the bull becomes the more likely he is to need wives. One piece of advice we give to people starting a herd is to use a bull calf. See how you get on with him as your confidence grows. He can be used then put in the freezer or kept on for a second year if you like him.
Is Shetland semen readily available for Artificial Insemination?
Yes. You can contact the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to purchase straws which are held by Genus Breeding. There are 6 Shetland bulls presently available in the Semen Bank.
When should a heifer be put to the bull?
There are differing opinions on this. What is not in question is that Shetlands mature very early and can be "bulling" at 5 months or before. At this age they are babies and should not be left with a bull. There are breeders, particularly on the Shetland Isles, who believe heifers should not calve until they are three years old, because this helps towards a long and productive life. A consequence of this is that a heifer can be "bulling" every 3 weeks or so for 2 years – not always a problem but some can be quite enthusiastic. Other breeders, and perhaps a majority of the Shetland breed, will put their heifer to the bull at around 15 months, which is some 12 months earlier. The animal is not fully grown at this age but in practice this does not seem to cause problems with births or later development.
How do I register a Shetland calf?
The registration authority is the Shetland Cattle Herd Book Society (SCHBS) located at Shetland Rural Centre, Staneyhill, Lerwick, Shetland Isles, ZE1 0NA. They can be contacted by email – firstname.lastname@example.org
– or telephone 01595 696300. Membership of the Society (£20) entitles you to preferential registration rates which are £7.50 per animal, and you can register a prefix without charge. Birth notification forms are sent automatically to Society members and cover a calendar year. They must be returned before 31 January of the following year. As the name of the form implies, all births are to be entered and you indicate which you wish to register. If you are not a member you can request a form direct from the Society.
When do you wean calves?
Cows are individuals – some will wean calves without any encouragement, simply deciding that they are old enough to manage without milk. Generally however you will decide to separate them at around 6 months. You can leave it later than this but if the cow is in-calf again, you should allow some time for the udder to rest. At the very least a month is recommended. Weaning can be a stressful time but there are various ways to do it. Some mothers and calves can be very determined to stay together. If you have buildings you can separate the two and after a couple of days of shouting they tend to settle down. If you have fields out of earshot, these can be useful too, but be aware that in the dead of night the sound of a calf shouting can be heard for quite a distance. Dependent on the temperament of the cow, it is possible to move the calf to an adjoining field so that they remain in contact. It might be necessary to reinforce the fencing with electric tape but this can be a less stressful method. Also possible is the use of anti-suckling devices. These are clipped inside the nostrils of the calf and make it impossible for the calf to suckle. The advantage is that mother and calf stay together. You remove the device after a month when the cow has dried off. Worth noting is that a calf will settle better, whichever method is used, if it can be a part of a group.
During weaning there is an initial build-up of milk which can lead to mastitis. This can be relieved by milking a small amount from the cow. Some breeders choose not to wean and mastitis problems are said to be eliminated. The cows are left with their calves up to and following the birth of the next calf. The cows automatically stop feeding the older calf and look after the new. No problems have been reported. It is basically a question of what importance you attach to giving the udder a rest. Above all, the cow should not be allowed to lose too much condition, whichever option is taken.
Should I retain my bull calf for breeding?
This is a difficult decision especially when you are just starting as a Shetland breeder. But you have plenty of time to make up your mind before the animal is born. You don't know that it will be a bull but you can be prepared. Much depends on how it is bred. The breed has a relatively small gene pool and it is important to use as wide a spread of unrelated bulls as possible. So your calf may be important to the breed. But the opposite may also be true. If he is related to bulls currently in use then he actually narrows the gene pool by filling a gap which could be better filled by a bull of different breeding. You cannot be expected to have details available to you but you can contact SCBA for advice. If your calf does not improve the breed situation then the simplest course is to have him castrated. Of course genetics are only one consideration and the only one you can predict with certainty. You should also be concerned with his conformation and his temperament. The latter might become the most important consideration for a future owner.
When is my bull calf fertile?
A question usually asked after the deed has been done and when Mum or his sisters have been involved! Shetland bull calves mature early but not as early as heifers. Quoting an age is perhaps unwise because records can always be broken, but it is safe to say that they are fertile within 12 months and we would not take chances with a calf at 8 months.
At what age do you slaughter for meat?
Shetlands will be ready for the butcher within 30 months, even if fed on just grass. Dependent on the date they were born, it is possible to save the cost of a winter's feed by sending them even earlier. Most steers slaughtered at 20-24 months will be around the same weight as those retained over the winter period because they gain little during these months. Some will disprove this by doing very well on winter feed. The quality of the meat produced will be exceptional at either age but the perfect specimen is likely to be the older animal. An animal slaughtered in its teens (months) will still be very acceptable in meat terms.
If the animal is well grown, expect between 150 and 180 kgs of meat.
How much milk does a Shetland give?
There is quite a variation between cows, but over the lactation period expect an average of 12 litres per day. You should note that the yield is heavy in the first few weeks before dropping later in the year.