We love our cows, but they aren't a good fit for every homestead. Like all animals, they come with an assortment of needs and administrative obligations. Here we lay out some information to help you decide if Bretonne Pie Noir cows right for you.
The French government recommends that to be environmentally friendly, you should have somewhere between 0.35 - 2.0 animal units/hectare. A cow (age two years or older) counts as one animal unit. So that means the recommended pasture size is 0.5 - 2.86 hectares (1.2 - 7.06 acres) for one cow. But since the Bretonne Pie Noir breed is about 75% the size of the average cow, the figures decrease a bit to 0.38 - 2.15 hectares (0.94 - 5.31 acres). At the lower end you'd probably need to supplement her diet with hay, whereas at the higher end, depending on grazing management, you could probably rely 100% on pasture.
Cattle need year-round access to salt. Many people use salt blocks; we opt to pour loose salt into a bucket. We mix it with garlic in February in a 1:25 ratio (40g garlic powder to 1kg of salt) to help deter the flies and ticks that emerge during warmer weather. In theory, cattle can obtain the vitamins and minerals they need by eating a diverse diet, but we offer a variety of loose minerals in buckets to make sure they're getting what they need. Many other people use a mineral block or bucket.
Cows generally drink 35 - 50 liters of water per day (about 9 - 13 gallons). Some of that can come from grass wet from dew or rain. They don't lap it like dogs - they take big "draws," like they're taking a really long drink through a straw with one big breath then a big gulp. Because of this, particularly shallow or low-volume water sources should be avoided. They're also really strong and like to rub themselves on things, so water containers should be sturdy and difficult to move when empty or low on water.
Research shows that cattle start to feel cold around -8 °C and hot around 21 °C. Windchill matters, so if it's cold and rainy, and the "feels like" temperature drops to -8, you can assume your cattle will be cold if they can't find shelter from the wind and rain. Shelter from the sun is at least as important. I often see our cattle grazing (or even ruminating) out in rain I would seek shelter from, but on hot days when I look for shade, my cows generally do the same. Our cattle find shelter in the woods, under individual trees, and in thickets of Blackthorn and Prickly Ash. I've taken shelter with them in these places on occasion when caught out in the field, and have learned that they're surprisingly effective at creating a more comfortable micro-climate.
Adults who are trained to electric fencing can be contained by one strand of wire. We recommend using two wires along the perimeter as an extra precaution. Also, calves can easily fit under one wire, so if you want to ensure the calves never leave the paddock, two strands would probably be a good idea.
We highly recommend building or purchasing contention equipment that can be used to hold cattle still when needed, like during mandatory veterinary procedures like certain vaccinations and blood tests. We went through many iterations before learning just how strong cattle are, particularly when under stress, before settling on our contention set-up.
Regulations can differ between departments, so we can only speak from our own experience in the Haute-Vienne.
Cheptel Number: You don't need to be registered as a farmer to own a cow, but you do need a Cheptel number, which can easily be obtained (for free) by contacting the Chamber of Agriculture.
Vétérinaire Sanitaire: You also need to designate a Vétérinaire Sanitaire, by contacting a veterinarian who deals with cows and asking him/her to sign some forms which are then sent to the DDCSPP (Direction Départmentale de la Cohésion Sociale et de la Protection des Populations de la Haute-Vienne). Your Vétérinaire Sanitaire is the person who will come do the annual blood draws and vaccinations mandated by the Department. Specifically, every bovine at least two years of age must be tested for tuberculosis (TB) and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), and vaccinated against TB, once a year between October and May.
Notification of Animal Movement: After you get your Cheptel number, the Etablissement Départemental de l'Elevage Haute-Vienne (EDE) will send you a packet of blank carbon-copy papers. Each time a cow comes to or leaves your cheptel, you need to record it on one of those forms and mail to the EDE within seven days. You can do it electronically too, but it costs more.
Controle d'Achat: In most cases the Vétérinaire Sanitaire has to come do a "Controle d'achat" on all cattle within 15 days of their arrival. We found the cost to be about 100€/cow, between the vet visit and associated laboratory fees for blood drawn during the visit. It's possible to bypass the controle d'achat if you're able to meet the conditions for a "prise de sang" (blood test) derogation and return the form to CDAAS within seven days of the new animals' arrival. (CDAAS is the Coopérative Départementale Agricole d'Action Sanitaire.)
The specific conditions are listed in the Demande de dérogation ponctuelle au contrôle sérologique IBR à l’introduction de bovins qualifiés « Indemnes en IBR » form, which you can obtain by contacting CDAAS. Basically, the conditions are that all of the cattle you purchased are certified free from IBR (Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis), transported in a trailer that was cleaned before they entered and will be cleaned after they leave, that they weren't mixed with any other livestock during transport, and that pick-up and delivery both occur the same day. All of our cattle are certified free of IBR and our delivery process conforms to the prise de sang derogation requirements.
Bovine Passports: How do you know if a cow is certified free of IBR? France makes it easy. Every bovine has its own passport that follows the cow throughout its entire life. You can see the Cheptel number of the farm where it was born, who else has owned it, parentage (to varying degrees), and certain health certifications (like being IBR-free). We share the passports of our cattle with all potential buyers in advance; in our experience it's important to review passports before buying cattle to identify any potential issues and ensure peace of mind with a purchase.
BVD Status: We also believe it's important to inquire about the BVD status of cattle before purchase. Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD) is a respiratory disease that usually leads cows to abort or give birth to calves that don't survive for long. Sometimes though, depending on when a pregnant cow was exposed to BVD, she can give birth to a calf who's immune to BVD but passes it on to everyone else. So this calf, referred to as "IPI" (infected persistent immunotolerant), grows into a cow who makes her whole herd sick for the rest of her life. As soon as this discovery is made, the IPI calf/cow must be sent to the abattoir. Testing for IPI status is suggested but not obligatory. We have certificates on file to document all of our cows and calves are non-IPI.
Annual Fees: Everyone in the Haute-Vienne who raises cattle needs to pay annual fees for équarrissage (dead animal pick-up) and forfait elevage (just for having cattle). We also choose to join CDAAS each year. The "forfait elevage" is based on the number of bovines you have, but there is a minimum charge. Altogether we pay about 30€/year total for these three things. We also choose to adhere to the Union Bretonne Pie Noir, which costs 30€/year.
Ear tags: All bovines are required to have an ID tag in each ear. These tags follow them throughout their lives and tie back to their passports. Any bovine you purchase should already have ear tags since tagging must be done within a couple weeks of birth. If a tag falls out, a replacement must be ordered from the EDE and reinserted into the ear. It has never happened to us but the notion that it might is another reason I'm glad we have decent contention equipment!
Still interested? Learn how to buy a cow from The Happy Homestead.