Ancient Cattle Care

Modern methods of animal management are so expensive and cash-dependent that it is obvious the cannot be sustainable.  Varro explains to us the simple methods of ancient Roman farmers, which we would do well to follow.   Remember that these references to times and seasons only make sense in the northern hemisphere.  Italy runs from 35 to 47 degrees N latitude, which is comparable therein to the mid-Atlantic states from Virginia north to New York, but it is moister and hotter because of the Mediterranean climate, which makes it a zone 9 region, comparable to the deep South in the US.

Thus from Varro:

“Large cattle are most conveniently pastured on wooded land where there is much undergrowth and foliage; and those that spend the winter along the coast are driven in summer into the leafy hills. In the matter of breeding I usually follow these principles: 

For one month before they are mated, cows should not have their fill of food and drink, because it is thought that when thin they are in better condition to conceive. On the other hand, I keep the bulls filled with grass, straw, and hay for two months before mating; and I keep them away from the females.  I keep the same number of bulls as Atticus — two to every 70 brood cows — one a yearling, the other a two-year-old.

Note:  The Roman practice with regard to castration is very different than modern methods.  They leave all bulls un-castrated and castrate after 2 years of age (see more below).  Notice how the Romans cared more the visible quality of animals than their paperwork–a good lesson to be learned.  


I attend to this matter following the rising of the constellation which the Greeks call Lyra and which our people call Fides–it is only then that I turn the bulls into the herd.

The bull shows by the way he dismounts whether a male or female has been conceived by his act: if it is a male he comes down on the right side, and if a female on the left. Why this is true,” he remarked to me, “you who read Aristotle will have to find out. Cows should not be covered which are less than two years old, so that they may be three years old when they bear; and it will be all the better if they are four years old. Most of them continue bearing up to ten years, and some of them even longer. The best time for mating is from the rising of the Dolphin up to forty days or a little more; for cows which conceive at that time drop their calves at the most temperate season, as cows carry their calves for ten months. 

Note: See how, for the ancients, the constellations were not used superstitiously, but were simply their calendar.  The REASON why cows were mated at the time of the dolphin was because, carrying for 10 months, they would bear in the most temperate season of the year.  We have to realize that there were no printed calendars!  The stars are the calendar–and remain so today if we will use them.

Lyra and Delphinus are both late summer constellations.  Thus, cows were bred in late summer that they might calve in late Spring, which remains the norm today.  Note that this means that cows are milked from May to March and fed during their peak milking time (day 1-60) when the pastures are most lush.  There’s no way to do this better.

On this subject I have seen a remarkable statement — that if you turn in a bull immediately after he has been castrated, he can get a calf. The cows should be pastured in grassy and watered ground, and care should be taken not to let them crowd, be struck, or run against one another.

As cattle-flies have a way of tormenting them in summer and certain minute insects grow under their tails, some breeders keep them shut up in pens, to keep them from being worried. The pens should be strewn with a bedding of leaves or some such thing, so that they may rest in greater comfort.

In summer they should be driven to water twice, in winter once. 

When they come to the time of calving, fresh fodder should be kept near the stalls for them to nibble at as they go out, for they become dainty. Care should also be taken that the place into which they turned shall not be chilly, for chill and hunger make them grow thin. 

In the matter of rearing, the following rules should be observed with this kind of animal: Sucklings must not sleep with their dams, as they will be trampled; they should be admitted to their dams in the morning and when they have come back from pasture.

When the calves have made some growth, the dams should be relieved by throwing green food before the calves in the pens. These stalls (and this holds good for practically all stalls) should be paved with stones or something of the sort, so that their hoofs may not rot.

After the autumnal equinox calves pasture along with their dams. They should not be castrated until they are two years old, because it is hard for them to recover otherwise; while those which are castrated later become tough and worthless. Just as in the case of other herds, there should be a culling once a year, and the culls should be cut out of the herd, as they take up the room of those which can bring in a profit.

If a cow has lost her calf she should be given some whose dams do not give enough milk. Calves six months old are fed wheat bran and barley-meal and tender grass, and care is taken that they drink morning and evening. 

Note:  The modern “grass-fed” cow fad is a complete myth that was never practiced in history.  Livestock need grain and supplementation in their diets to thrive.  

On the subject of health there are many rules; these have been copied down from Mago’s treatise, and I see to it that my head herdsman is reading some of them repeatedly.

As to the number of bulls and cows, the rule is that there be, to every sixty cows, one yearling bull and one two-year-old. Some breeders make the number smaller or larger; as, for instance, in Atticus’s herd there are two bulls to seventy breeding cows. The number of animals in a herd varies with the owner, some breeders (and I am one of them) considering a hundred a reasonable number. But Atticus has 120, as does Lucienus.”


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