Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Some bovine basics

Some time ago, a reader named Kari left a comment (copied below) with some basic bovine questions. I started to answer and then got sidetracked with a zillion other things. Kari, please forgive my tardiness!

I'm a first time commenter, but long-time reader. We have very little in common -- polar opposites, politically, socially and parentally, as it may be -- but I've long been interested in homesteading and home-business-ing (already got the homeschooling part down) and so greatly admire your commentary and knowledge on the subject. I found your blog some time ago through Backwoods Home Magazine, your Bovine Basics article. Your blog has been a huge inspiration, source of entertainment (and delicious recipes), and the seed of many far-fetched plans and ideas for the until-recently unrealised dream of having my own land and homesteading. I recently became the owner of two parcels, and it's all starting to become real now. The larger parcel away from the "home" parcel has been run for about 20 years as an organic pick-your-own operation and farm stand, and I'm learning the trade on a crash-course before summer. But as for my main parcel, about 40 acres, I'm starting out blank slate and am going to work setting it up as a true, diverse homestead and moving/crawling toward self-sufficiency.

Your blog has been a huge resource for me, and I greatly admire your family for how you've survived and thrived after you too made the big leap of faith moving from the city to the country. I probably never would have even dared to start without the writings of yourself and others like you who've done it and succeeded, so from the bottom of my heart, I just wanted to say, thank you!

I also have a probably silly question, if you don't mind humouring a completely naive Bovine Beginner:

When you've gotten cows in the past from other people, what do you look for? Do you bring a vet to check them out like you would a horse, or is there a set of either vague or specific criteria you go in knowing and looking for?

By the way, I admit I sometimes check your blog several times a day, just looking for a Lydia fix! My kids too. Shouldn't have shown them; since being "introduced" to Lydia, they've been begging for a Pyrenees for several months now.

Thank you very much for the insight and entertainment of your blog, and I'm sorry I've made a yawner of this!


Kari, I’m delighted to have you as a reader! Especially if our political and social philosophies differ as much as you say, then your compliments are praise indeed. Thank you so much!

I am thrilled on your behalf that you’re the proud owner of two parcels of land. Whoo-hoo! How cool is that? Please be sure to keep us posted about your progress. I’m serious about that.

To answer your Beginning Bovine questions:

When buying your first cow, it will depend on where you find her. We got Matilda (our mature Jersey) off a commercial dairy herd. We had no options about getting a healthy four-quartered cow; the dairy naturally wouldn’t sell those (at least at a price we could afford). We had our choice (sight unseen) of a number of culls. We ended up with Matilda, whom I love dearly, but she’s had a number of udder problems I wouldn’t wish on anyone, notably a nightmare case of mastitis which eventually killed one of her quarters. (She's healthy in all other respects, however; and she is a wonderful surrogate mom to all calves, so she's a valuable addition to our farm.)

It’s also a dicey thing to purchase a mature cow through Craig’s List or the Pennysaver or some other method, because these animals are usually culls sold through a broker. Not always, but often. The advantage with this situation, however, is you can at least bring a vet or a knowledgeable friend along to inspect the animal prior to purchase.

Naturally you can find healthy mature four-quartered cows for sale, but you’ll pay a premium price. Our neighbors bought such an animal, and she’s never given them a lick of trouble health-wise. So if you can afford it, go for those but expect to pay around $2000 - $2500. We got Matilda for $500. Frankly we got what we paid for.  So did our neighbor.

An alternative to a mature cow is to find a healthy Jersey calf. We were blessed to find Polly through Craig’s List. She was being sold by a homeschooling family who had raised her with love and had already lead-trained her quite nicely. The mother cow was on site so I could check out her udder attachment. Altogether we feel we got a bargain with Polly – but of course we’ll have to wait until she’s 15 months old before we can breed her, then wait another nine months after that for her to calve and we can start milking. So when buying a calf, your milking days are a couple years away.

What criteria should you look for in a cow?

One, I would look for a dehorned animal. Horns can be trouble. Polly wasn’t dehorned. She’s still young enough that we could manually dehorned her, but that’s a painful nightmare for the animal (and not so spiffy for us either) so we’ve decided to just leave her horned. It’s a calculated risk we’re willing to take. But for a bovine beginner, I would recommend a dehorned or polled (genetically hornless) animal.

Two, she should be friendly. Some cows have never been handled and can be quite wild. These can be tamed, of course, but you’ll have to confine her in a small corral or barn while you do this. It takes patience and patience and more patience, but it will work if you’re patient. I have a friend who recently got her first cow. The cow was skittish, but because my friend was patient and gentle, the cow is coming along nicely.

A mature cow which has been milked before has an advantage here – she’s used to being handled and all you have to do is get her used to you. A younger animal can be more challenging. Daily gentle handling is important – brushing, feeding treats (such as a bit of grain), walking on a lead, etc.

Three, udder. Specifically, udder attachment. Since getting Matilda, I’ve learned far more than I ever wanted to about the drawbacks of a pendulous, poorly attached udder.

A pendulous udder will only become more pendulous as the animal ages. The udder may get so long and stretched that the cow will actually step on her own teats (OUCH). When it gets that bad, it’s better to put the animal down. Matilda is probably on this path, sad to say, though we have a few more years before it’s that bad.

But a well-attached udder should stay well attached for the lifetime of the cow. This type of udder is high and tight against the cow’s body, rather than hanging down like a sack.

This is our neighbor's Jersey. When I took this photo a couple weeks ago, she was "bagged up," meaning her udder is swelling shortly before giving birth. (She has since given birth to a little bull calf.) Notice how high and tight her udder is against her body.

Now contrast this with Matilda's poor udder attachment, keeping in mind that Matilda's calf is three months old, so she is no longer "bagged up" and turgid. Still, you can see how saggy-baggy her udder is.  (That's a calf's rump on the ground underneath her.)

A rear view (sorry it's blurry) showing the loose ligatures holding Matilda's bag.

Odd as it may sound, purchasing a three-quartered cow may not be a bad thing. Sometimes a cow can lose a teat from frostbite or another condition that may not necessarily affect the other teats. (Find out the truth about why the teat died.  If it was mastitis, beware; for many cows it's a chronic condition.)  Many three-teated cows become wonderful family milkers. So don’t necessarily let a dead quarter decide you against a cow, if she fits all the other criteria.

I posted a little more about udders here.

Hope this helps! I hope you find a suitable animal to bring onto your new farm.  As I said, please keep us posted.


  1. Patrice, your blog is always both entertaining and informative. My wife and I have yet to get beyond the sidewalks, and so have little practical experience as of yet.

    One question I do have, though, after the calves are weaned, what does a relatively small operation do with all that milk? You can drink just so much, and eat just so much cheese and yogurt.

    It seems that just a couple of cows would be too few for any kind of commercial use. I would expect that the big dairy brokers wouldn't want to bother with the output from just a handful of cows, plus, even even 30 years ago, back when the government was relatively sane, I'd heard about conflicting regulations from various agencies that would make the logistics of following them all a nightmare. These days things are worse, with news items about an Amish farmer desperado crossing state lines with raw milk.

    I would think that goats would produce a much more managable quantity for the homestead.


  2. Thanks, Patrice. Very helpful stuff!

    The goats v. cow discussion continues here as we inch toward our homestead.

    Hey, Kari - maybe your children and my DH could form a support group, lol. Our problem is, we've had 2 Pyrs in the past. (Sniff, pass the tissues.) So we know what we're missing.

  3. Hello Patrice,

    It sounds like poor udder attachment doesn't mean poor milk production. If that is true. Have you ever thought of inventing a "bra" for Matilda to gentle hold up her udders. Maybe Enola Gray would sew it for you too. -Okay, everyone can stop laughing now-

    I was just thinking since she has such a wonderful disposition with mothering other calves and all, if it was possible to "manually" correct the udder problem she could be around for a little while longer.


  4. Oh my! Cow bras already exist. They're called Udder Supports. Oh well, one day I'll have an original thought. :)


  5. Too funny, Margaret! I muct confess that I continued laugh beyond your command to stop. :D

  6. Thank you so very much, Patrice! What a wonderful response, and exactly what I was wondering about. I'm hesitant to answer any ads off Craigslist (not that we have much of a section for it where I live anyway), but this has given me a great jumping-off point. I'm leaning heavily towards a Jersey or a Jersey crossbred and there are plenty of small dairies around, so it shouldn't be too hard to find a healthy "cull" or a calf, I'd think.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful response and taking the time to answer! It's always so wonderful to hear from someone who's been there and done that rather than a "professional" just talking out their rear end in a traditional text book type setting.

    My deepest thanks and compliments,

  7. Now keep us posted, Kari, hear? I love following other folks' homesteading adventures. Maybe you should start a blog so we can all share (wink).

    - Patrice