Over the past couple years, I've had readers email me with various and sundry questions about homesteading. I've kept my answers in a separate file because I never knew when I'd be able to recycle all or part of an answer. It finally dawned on me - duh - that these types of questions and answers are perfect for posting on a blog. This will be the first in a series, posted sporadically as they arise.
Following is an email from a reader about my recent article on dairy cows in Backwoods Home Magazine. My lengthy reply follows.
Could you please give me a little information/encouragement (!?) on dairy cattle? We are currently raising dozens of chickens, a few ducks, and a flock of meat goats. We are interested in adding a cow to provide raw milk for our family of four. When convenient, please offer any insight on the following:
-Do you recommend a particular breed? We’re planning to keep it “grass-fed” only.
-What should we look for and what should we avoid?
-Is it o.k. to keep a single cow? Or will she do better if she has a companion?
-Will one cow provide far too much milk for a family of four?
-Anything else you can think of?
One of my greatest “hang ups” is wondering if I am ready for the commitment of twice per day milking. Especially in the winter! We do have a ten year old and a (almost) nine year old, so they can certainly be of help.
Don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal to be nervous about getting your first dairy cow. I knew I was scared spitless, but somehow it all worked out. Sometimes you have to just grit your teeth and DO IT before your fears will abate.
I’ll answer your questions in the order you sent them.
1. Do I recommend a particular breed?
The only breeds with which I have personal experience are Dexters and Jerseys. Dexters are a small Irish breed that are dual-purpose (milk and meat). They are a feistier breed than most. Not aggressive, just feisty. Some people love that. If you get a Dexter, do NOT get one with horns, and look for an animal that is gentle and halter-broken.
We’ve had Dexter since 1999 and only last year got a Jersey (in addition to our Dexters) because I wanted a higher-volume milk animal. And boy howdy did I get it. Our Jersey was giving FIVE gallons a day last summer at the peak of her lactation. This has its advantages (I was making a lot of cheese) and disadvantages (pouring lots of milk down the sink when I couldn’t keep up with her output).
2. What should we look for and what should we avoid?
Avoid horns. My God, avoid horns. If you’re looking at a horned animal for sale, do not buy it.
For your first dairy cow, I strongly recommend one who is halter-broken and is easy to lead around. I was pleasantly surprised how much easier our Jersey was to handle than our Dexters. To be fair, the Jersey came off a commercial herd and is six years old, and was used to be handled; whereas I don’t bother halter-training our Dexters, so of course I’m biased in favor of the gentleness of Jerseys. But lots of Dexters owners I know hand-raise their animals and they’re docile and easy to handle. In the end it’s up to you to go look over the animal in question and try walking her around a corral.
As far as breeds, it depends on what you want. We like our Dexters because the surplus steers fill our freezer and they produce *wonderful* meat. If you want a purely milk animal, I’d recommend a Jersey over, say, a Guernsey or a Holstein. Guernseys have among the highest butterfat content but they’re also *very* heavy producers. Ask yourself if you can handle ten gallons of milk a day. Holsteins produce far less butterfat but much more milk, sometimes as high as 15 gallons a day. So I’d stick with a Jersey.
If you get a lactating cow without a calf on her, you MUST milk twice a day, no exception, and all the milk is yours. With a calf, you might be able to get away with skipping an occasional milking, and you share the milk with a calf. (I never bottle raise calves; I prefer to leave the calf-raising to the mothers.)
3. Is it OK to keep a single cow, or should she have a companion?
Cows are herd animals. They ALWAYS need a companion. That said, nothing says the companion needs to be another cow. Our neighbors had eight horses and one cow, and the poor cow was always being picked on (sometimes aggressively) by the horses. (They were forced to separate them.) Now the cow has some calves so she’s not as lonely, but she spent a lot of her first year mooing pitifully and avoiding the horses.
But your cow may bond with your meat goats. Cows get along fine with smaller animals, so if you keep your cow with your goats she should be fine.
4. Will one cow provide far too much milk for a family of four?
Depends. It depends on the breed of cow and whether she has a calf with her or not. I used to milk two Dexters once a day (meaning, I separated the mamas and calves at night, and milked only in the morning). This certainly provided enough milk for the four of us but we didn’t have any left over for cheese. Plus cows who are nursing calves have less butterfat in the milk, meaning the calves take most of it, so I didn’t have enough cream for butter. Now that I’m milking a Jersey, things have changed. We got our Jersey last year from a commercial dairy, so of course her calf was removed immediately after birth and I was instantly committed to a twice-a-day schedule. (I was also fighting a nightmare case of mastitis that eventually killed one of her quarters, but that’s another story.) Her output ranged from two to five gallons A DAY. The five-gallon peak occurred in May when she was grazing on all that fresh green grass.
With so much milk, it forced me to come up with ways to use it. I grew adept at making cheddar, mozzarella, and cream cheese. I made lots of butter and yogurt. I didn’t fuss at the kids if they only drank half their cup of milk at dinner (hey, there’s lots more milk where that came from!). And I poured a lot of milk down the drain. So if your goal is to learn to make dairy products in addition to just getting fresh milk, a lot of extra milk isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Now that our Jersey has a calf, her butterfat content is less and her milk output is sporadic. Some days I get as little as half a gallon (rare), other days I get two gallons. I’m satisfied with this arrangement (even though her butterfat content is lower) because I’m not so overwhelmed with milk. I have enough to make cheese, butter, and yogurt, the calf gets plenty, and everyone’s happy.
Technically I should be able to skip an occasional milking with our Jersey, but because of her history of mastitis, I don’t dare. Her udder is pendulous and the calf can’t reach the one working back quarter, so I need to milk that one at least.
5. Speaking of udders and speaking of other things to watch out for, check out the udder attachment of any cow you buy. Pendulous udders are more subject to mastitis, more uncomfortable for the cow (they interfere with running and sometimes even walking), are more vulnerable to injury, more difficult to milk, and as the cow gets older she may even get to the point where she steps on her own teats (ouch!).
A well-attached udder (you can look this up online for photos) is held more tightly to the cow’s body, even after giving birth. It will give her (and you) far less trouble over the lifespan of the cow.
Do yourself a favor and build a shelter for your cow before you get her. You might be able to bunk her down with your meat goats, but some sort of shelter makes everyone's life easier (yours as well as the cow's). It can provide shade in a brutal hot sun or shelter in a bitterly cold winter.
What about committing yourself to twice-a-day milking? I’m afraid there’s no getting around this. While your kids *may* be able to help, a lot will depend on the temperament of your cow (and the reliability of your kids). Our neighbor’s Jersey is gentle enough that their 10 and 12 yr old sons can milk her. Our cow has a tendency to kick and I can’t trust my 12 and 14 yr old girls to milk without risking a concussion. Also, our cow is a “hard” milker, meaning it’s physically more challenging to squeeze out the milk. Our neighbor’s Jersey is a much easier milker. So getting help with the milking schedule will just depend on your particular situation.
As you can see, much will depend on the animal you get. We tend to be cheap…er, frugal, and as a result we get what we pay for – an older cow with one dead quarter, a history of mastitis, and a pendulous udder that no one but myself can milk. That said, I love this Jersey cow to pieces. Adore her. She has the sweetest disposition, follows me like a puppy, and she’s just plain fun. So everything evens out in the end.
But that doesn’t excuse you from researching out your cow and buying the best possible one you can afford. It’s truly a matter of getting what you pay for. I am now more or less experienced enough to be able to handle the detriments of our Jersey cow. If you can start with a better budget and have the time, take someone with you who can look for sound udder attachment and a gentle disposition.
Good luck. If you ask more questions, I’ll post the answers on my blog so everyone can read them – I’m learning that a lot of people have similar questions.