This will be part 1 of a multi-part series on the family milk cow- arguably one of the most important animals on the homestead.
First off, let’s talk about some basic things you should think about before making the leap:
1. You must milk your cow every day, routinely
Some cows can be milked once a day (usually the lower producers), while others need to be milked twice a day. It’s important, we have found, to pick a scheduled time and stick with it. Not only are cows very routine animals and will be waiting for you at the gate when it’s milking time, milking them routinely will mean more consistent milk and a decreased chance of illnesses such as mastitis. Keep in mind that this in itself will result in the inability to go on many vacations (unless you have someone that you trust to milk your girl while you are gone) and events. You’re friends will have to get used to the “no, I can’t meet at 6pm for dinner.. I have to milk my cow”. Rain, shine, snow, ice, thunderstorm…no matter the weather, you have to milk her! Don’t let this scare you, though…you and your friends will get used to it!
Note: if the cow has a calf on her, milking times can be much more flexible.
2. Obviously, you have to feed her.
Make sure you have adequate space for you new cow. Ask yourselves these questions: Is the pasture good? Do you have a local hay source? Will you feed her grain while she’s being milked and, if you do, what type will you want to feed her? And the more important question: do you have the money to feed her? Remember, what she eats will turn into milk, making the quality of the food she is eating is very important. How much milk she is producing will depend on how much you are going to feed her.
3. How much milk do you need?
A Jersey cow seems to be the more popular homestead family cow because they produce less milk than a Holstein and more cream. The cream allows you to make more things, such as butter and cheese. A milk cow, depending on breed, can produce as little as 1/2 gallon and as much as 10 + gallons. It depends on the individual cow and the breed of cow. Look at the size of your family and how much milk you think you would need. This is a great starting point for choosing a cow.
4. Do you have access to a bull or access to Artificially Inseminate (AI) services?
For a cow to produce milk, she must have had a calf. After calving, the sooner you get her bred back, the easier it will be (they collect fat around their ovaries making it more difficult to conceive over time). Plus, the longer they go into their lactation, the more their milk supply will decrease. They have a gestation period of nine months and they need to be dried up (stopped being milked) 45-60 days before calving. They usually come back in heat 2-3 months after calving. The big question is: do you have the ability to get her bred back? Whether it be using a friends bull, buying a bull and then selling him after he does his job, or using AI techniques, this is an important, and often over looked, question. Also keep in mind that it’s not a great idea to breed you small Jersey cow to a huge Angus bull. This could result in difficulties birthing. Around our farm, the smaller the bull, the better. Keep in mind: you might want to know his genetics to see the sizes rather than just eyeballing him individually (age and food plays a part in size).
NOTE: Some folks say you don’t have to breed asap and are just fine breeding later…this is just our opinion and the method that we have had the most success with.
5. Do you have somewhere to milk her?
You don’t need a dairy or other building built just for her if you’re milking just one…but you do need somewhere designated as the milk area. And, trust me, you will want that area covered.
6. Are you going to milk by hand or by machine?
Milking machines can get costly, but they are worth it, especially if you are doing more than one cow. If your girl gives little milk, hand milking into a pail might be a more reasonable decision for you.You will have to buy the proper supplies for milking (talked about in a future post in this series), so it would be wise to see what you need to avoid any unforeseen costs later on.
7. Are you considered about testing?
If you are worried about diseases such as TB, Brucelliosis, Johnes, etc… Ask the farmer if she has been tested.
Where do I look for a milk cow?
With the power of social media these days, finding animals is a lot easier. If you are on Facebook, there are many groups such as the one we run, Southeast Dairy Cattle Exchange, that are great communities of people to help, ask questions and help find your new cow.
If you’re not on Facebook, you can try the local Craigslist and/or market bulletin for your state.
Note: Remember to always use caution and common sense when dealing with folks over the internet.
(If you have a milk cow, comment below on how you found her to help others out!)
Once you find a cow that you think might be the right fit, there are several questions you could ask the owner before going to see her. These are what we like to ask about a cow that has ever been in milk, whether currently or in the past:
1. Do all four quarters work? Some people don’t mind if a cow has only three quarters that work (some may have been damaged or gotten sick and can no longer produce milk), but we like a cow with all 4 working. Remember, all the quarters are separate entities. Something (like mastitis) could be going on in one quarter and the others could be completely fine.
2. Does she have a healthy udder? Does she have a history of mastitis?
Some cows are just more susceptible to things such as mastitis than others. We like to know the cow has a healthy udder (although usually meaning nothing, we prefer no bumps or lumps) and doesn’t get mastitis every other week. You want your family cow experience to be a happy and un-stressful one and having a sick udder doesn’t help much with that.
3. When did she calve?
Remember the note about how you were going to get her bred? If she’s been milking for 6 months already, you will need to get her bred ASAP. Also ask if she had any difficulties calving.
4. Hand or Machine?
Ask the owner if she’s being hand milked or machine milked. If they’ve only ever been hand milked, they could sometimes get a little skittish when a machine is introduced. That’s not something that should really turn you away, but it is nice to know so you can prepare for any possible incidents.
5. Does she kick?
Does she kick the pail or the inflations off when she’s being milked? If the answer is yes, it will be up to you if you want to deal with it. They do make kick-stops and hobbles to prevent kicking and, sometimes, they can be taught. Others are more stubborn…we choose not to take the chance.
6. Is she halter broke?
This one is totally up to you and not always a deal breaker. We like our girls halter broke so we can move them from pasture to pasture a lot easier. Most large dairies do not worry about such things.
7. Is she friendly in the pasture?
This is also not really a deal breaker because they may run away from you in the pasture but stand completely still while being milked. For a family milk cow, though, most people want something they can go love up on!
8. Is she a bully to other cows?
Cows have a pecking order. If you have more than one, they will have their order that they get milked in and will follow that order every time. But, a cow that’s TOO alpha could be bad if you ever get a smaller cow.
9. How old is she?
Age is an obvious question and is pretty important. A cow can milk for quite a while, so this is up to you. They usually have their first calf around 2 years old.
10. Why is the owner selling her?
This is an important question to ask. Get the info. Are they selling her at fault of the cow or just because the owners don’t have time for her. Make sure to ask this question!
11. How much milk is she giving?
This is an important question, as stated above, so you know how much to expect and if what she’s giving is enough/too much for you and your family!
12. Is she currently being milked once or twice a day? (If Applicable)
This will help you decide if she can be a good fit in your schedule!
This is all I can think of right now… have other questions you like to ask or other tips for first time family cow owners? Comment below- we love to hear from you!
Read the next post in the series….. “Picking a Family Milk Cow- The Round-Up“!