When people start making plans to move to the country or to grow more of their own food, many start planning to bring a family cow into their lives. A pastoral scene is etched in the minds of many homesteaders, and that picture usually contains a contented cow grazing lush pastures, and the cow comes when you call, and calmly lets her milk down for you, and you easily milk her and carry your foaming milk bucket to the house. There your rosy faced children greet you, and open the door for you, and you tend to your milk. After that, you don your prettiest apron and make butter, and all kinds of cheeses. That is all in the morning. Repeat in the afternoon, leaving out the butter and cheese part. I know, I’m being mean, it doesn’t really work like that.
It can come close though, (except I don’t wear aprons, unless I’m playing dress-up) if you truly want a family cow, and all she can provide for your family. You will be rewarded with a close relationship with an animal, plenty of fresh milk for all kinds of dairy products, and a calf that will grow into a future cow, or beef for your freezer, and the best fertilizer (according to Steiner) for your garden.
What your cow expects in reward is grass to graze, fresh water, minerals, some grain or root crops to supplement her while she is lactating, comfortable housing, and daily kind care taking from you. She expects you to buy the best hay for her that you can buy, not the cheapest or best deal. Cows can get by on cheap feed, but it will cost you in the long run.
WHERE TO BUY A COW?
Family cows can be scarcer than hens teeth. Ask around, the local Weston Price chapter may have information on raw milk producers who are selling a cow or know of someone who is. If possible, try to avoid the auction barn, usually a cow there will have health or behavior problems, she is a cull, that’s why she is there.
If you want to treat a cow organically, check organic dairies. If you practice Western veterinary medicine check conventional dairies. Dairies may have a cow that doesn’t produce enough for fluid milk sales, but will give plenty for a family cow. The dairyman will probably give you an idea too, about the cow’s manners. You are looking for a gentle, inquisitive cow. Not one that blows snot when she sees a human.
Craigslist, feed store bulletin boards, 4-H clubs are also good places to check.
I’ll leave that one up to you. Popular breeds are Jersey, Milking Shorthorn, Dexter, Guernsey, Holstein, and crossbreeds of any of the above. Some breeds have higher butterfat, some give more milk, some are small, and some are large. And be prepared if you start asking, people will tell you that you HAVE to get the breed they have because… . I won’t list the reasons, the more questions you ask, the more questions you will have. A lot of it depends on availability, you may have your heart set on a sweet doe eyed Jersey, but you just can’t find one that fits your criteria.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I PAY?
That depends on how bad you want a cow. Registered stock costs more. Grade animals and crossbreeds will cost less. A quick check on Craigslist today showed Jersey’s going for $1500.00. One had a sketchy sounding life in the ad, and one sounded like the cow had been managed well. If you buy from a novice, you may not get the whole story on the cow because the seller really does not know what to look for in the way of problems. If you buy from an experienced person you may not get the complete story either, there may be something to hide. Ask why the cow is being sold. There are no lemon laws to protect you from a bad cow deal. You have to be informed.
And remember no matter how sweet the cow is, and how much you want her, if you have to sell her because of problems – she will only be worth what she brings at the auction barn. In other words, cow price at the stockyards, usually about $.50 a pound. If your cow weighs 900 lbs, you can plan on selling her for $450.00. Then subtract commission fees, hauling fees and heartache – you don’t end up with much.
If she gets sick and needs certain drugs, she can’t be sold into the food chain and must be put down. Depending on where you live, you may have to pay a renderer to come and get the carcass. Or you may do the deed yourself, and bury the cow if the laws in your state allow it. Just some things to think about, before bringing home Bossie.
DO I HAVE TO MILK EVERY DAY?
Yes, and most of the lactation twice a day. I share the milk with my cow’s calf, so when the calf gets old enough to take one of the milkings, I let the calf milk. I keep the calf separated and let the cow and calf together at milking time only, then separate again. Before turning the cow out I make sure the calf has drank all the milk, if not, I finish the job. Leaving milk that has been let down, in the udder, is a sure way to get an infection going. Mastitis can be hard to treat, so if you can prevent it, your milking life will go easier.
DO I REALLY HAVE TO HAVE PASTURE?
Well, I’m going to say yes, because that is the natural feed for cattle, with a little browse mixed in. You can purchase all the feed your cow will need, if you don’t have pasture, but that is how confinement dairies work, and we all know how good that works. We have more and more medicine to treat livestock with these days, and the livestock is sicker than ever. The idea of having fresh milk is more than the milk itself. The life the cow leads is important too.
I would say if you have to buy a good portion of the feed, you may as well get your milk from the store.
CAN I SELL MY SURPLUS FRESH MILK?
In most places NO. You can’t advertise. You can give it away, or sell it as pet food. But the easiest way to sell your raw milk, is to feed it to a pig or two and sell the pork, or just raise the pig for your own consumption or for barter. Perfectly legal, and tasty too!
DOES THE COW HAVE TO HAVE CALF TO GIVE MILK?
Yes, and if they are healthy they should have a calf every year. And be prepared, you will have to possibly end that calf’s life at some point. If it is a heifer (girl) and you want to increase your herd she may get a bye. If the calf is a bull, he can grow up to be your meat supply. He will have to be castrated, and that will make him a steer and a little easier to manage than a young bull.
WHAT ABOUT BREEDING?
You can rent a bull, or have Artificial Insemination done. The old fashioned way (bull) works the best, but there isn’t always a bull available. Artificial Insemination can give you a purebred replacement for a good price if that is the way you want to go.
IS IT WORTH IT?
You’re asking the wrong person! Of course I will say it is worth it, I love cows. But yes, a cow will provide you with enough manure to compost for a 1/2 acre garden. She will provide you with milk, and a calf for beef and this is every year.
But this is a personal choice, and a huge monetary and time consideration, so make sure all family members are involved in the decision - and happy milking!