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Family cow, part II

March 13, 2008

Homesteading in our modern world requires balancing many things.  I’ve been asked more times than I can count, “Why would you want a milk cow?”  Sometimes, I can answer truthfully, other times, I just mind my manners and give a vague answer.  People who know me, either know better than to ask or figure the subject is none of their business.  My husband tells me I convince more people NOT to get a family cow than I persuade TO get a cow.

Here are my reasons to keep a family cow:     

I like cattle, and feel comfortable around them.
I like the relationship I have with my milk cow.
I like to stay home, and I don’t care for travel.
I like routine.
Raw milk in my area sells for $12.00 gallon.  I would have to drive 25 miles one way to get that milk, and the milk has been transported 40 miles to get to the pickup site.  That’s a lot of miles and time!
Milk from grass-fed cows contains essential vitamins not available in milk from other animals.
Our farm land is pasture land and timberland, with no browsing area for goats.
I like growing our own food, the milk cow helps me accomplish this.
I think family cows are one of the most economical units on a farmstead.

Here are some reasons not to keep a family cow (my husband calls this sugar coating): 

You don’t care for cattle, and feel uncomfortable in close quarters with them.
You don’t have good body language around animals.
You don’t think you could have a relationship with a cow.
You wouldn’t like cleaning up after a cow.  At my house this is at least a 6 cu. ft wheelbarrow everyday that I put my cow in her stall for the night.
You feel tied down to daily chores, and like to travel a lot.
Your neighbor has a family cow, and she sells the milk to you for a $1.00 gallon.
That same neighbor is well versed in pasture management and doesn’t believe in graining cows.
You think you have to find someone to take all that pesky manure that is piling up.
You like to go to town and buy things. (like groceries)
You think pasture is not important for cows and you can buy their feed at the feed store.
You don’t have pasture. 
You don’t have any fencing.
You think it’s OK to let chickens and ducks to free-range in feed areas and leave their business anywhere they want.  (I mean in feeders, on hay etc.)

I hope you don’t think I’m being too sarcastic, but milking and taking care of a milk cow shouldn’t be taken lightly.  There was a huge demand for family cows leading up to Y2K.  In our area most were sold before 2000 was over.  The price was high too,  $2000 – $2500 wasn’t uncommon.  Now, the price runs in the $800 – $1500 range. 

 A good comparison on the difference between a dairy cow and beef cow might be the contrast between a Cornish X meat chicken and a laying hen.  Modern dairy cows have been bred to produce a large quantity of milk, compared to beef cattle.  So of course, the management needs to be more fine tuned.  Cattle need to have a calf every year to earn their keep.  So, with a 9 month gestation, they are nursing a calf and growing a calf at the same time for a good share of the year.  So they need to be fed high quality forages to maintain themselves, their calves on the ground, and YOU! 

We are firm believers in grazing. For more information on grazing and the health benefits on grass-fed products, check out the Weston A. Price Foundation or Eat Wild  websites.

Here are some questions to ask when looking for a potential cow or calf.  Most would apply to any kind of livestock that you expect to keep more than one or two growing seasons. 

Why are you selling the cow?
How old is the cow?
Is the cow halter broke?
If not, why?
Are you milking her right now?
Has the cow ever had mastitis?
If so, how did you treat her?
Has the cow ever kicked you out of anger or fear?
May I see her current calf?
Is the cow bred?
If so, what is she bred to and when is she due?

Cattle are a product of their environment.  If they are born into unsanitary conditions, they will have sub-clinical problems all of their life.  Some can be overcome, but some can’t.   Look around the farm, are there junk piles in the pastures, dirty water troughs, etc. Is there adequate pasture?  Which means at least 4″ – 6″ in height, not the carpet look, nor is the grass 2 feet tall and past its prime.   Does the cow or calf you are looking at look poor?  Look at the cows udder.  Does the udder look soft?  It shouldn’t look full and hard as a rock.  This would indicate scar tissue from past infections.  Pass on this one. Watch as the owner approaches the cow, does the cow look inquisitive or threatening?  This could be an indication of the cows treatment by humans or just its general disposition.  Don’t try to pet the cow on its face, walk to its shoulder first and judge its assessment of you before touching the cow.  Rub your hand slowly along the top-line to the tail head.  At this point you can scratch the cow around the tail head and if you’re brave, scratch where the udder attaches below the vulva.  By now you will know if this cow is tame or not.  It’s better to find out now, then when you get her home and have to milk her.
 Sometimes, just the quick glance and a few questions, will tell you that this isn’t the right situation.  Just make sure the husbandry practices are closely aligned with what you believe in.  Life is too short to take on someone else problems, and with a family cow, emotions can run high.  They can be almost like a pet.  A good friend of mine sells raw milk, and he buys cull cows from an organic dairy.  They frequently die on him, even though he thinks he can bring them back from the brink.  He never asks himself why the dairy has so many culls in the first place.  He just keeps making the same mistake over and over.  I do not drink milk at his place when we are visiting.

Next – How much time I spend milking and caring for the cow.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2008 8:01 pm

    Anytime I’ve had a milk cow it’s been a young range cow that I’ve just broke to milk. They don’t give as much milk and it’s not very rich but it works for out needs. We had a brown swiss calf given to us once that I used as a milk cow when I need her but the rest of the time she was just one of the bunch. I wish I’d have kept a heifer calf off of her though.

  2. March 15, 2008 2:08 am

    I’m so glad you’re writing about your family cow. I’ve milked cows as a second job in a number of large-ish (for our area) dairy barns and always loved working with them. The cows I mean, not necessarily the people. 😉
    Anyway, my husband (who grew up on a dairy farm but is no longer involved) and I have been toying with the idea of getting a family cow. We’ve been weighing the pros and cons and your series is helping me to really get my thoughts together about it.

    Cheers. I really enjoy your writing and that is a nice looking pair you’ve got there.

  3. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    March 15, 2008 3:27 am

    Linda – Our neighbors had a Brown Swiss dairy. The cows were such gentle giants, they were beautiful too. A few of my beef cows would make good milkers, they have the right disposition. But usually they are too far away, and I would have a hard time cutting them out of the herd.

    Colleen – Are dairy cows as hard to find in your area as they are here? It takes a long time to raise one, but it is worth it because you know what you’re getting.

  4. March 15, 2008 5:44 pm

    What a pretty cow and baby! Beautiful critters!

  5. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    March 15, 2008 8:21 pm

    threecollie – Thank you! I’m hoping for a repeat performance of that picture this year. I usually cover the milk cow with a beef bull, but this year we AI’d her with Guernsey. She is on track to have a heifer. Most years she alternates between bull and heifer. However, I have a nice Guernsey hide from Dean, our one and only Guernsey bull calf. It’s my palomino pinto hide!

  6. March 16, 2008 8:47 pm

    I’m sure it would be a hard thing to get a decent cow in our area if you didn’t have the right farming connections. For some reason, I can’t think that people would be as comfortable selling even a cull cow to some random person as they are sending her to auction (which happens weekly and sometimes only due to poor production).
    So, for us, with my husbands family still hoping that he, the only son, will come back and take over the dairy farm, I doubt it would be an issue. Getting an organically raised animal would be another story though.
    One of the (silly) reasons we’re hesitating is that we don’t want to offend his parents (more) by buying a milk cow from them instead of just coming to milk their cows and getting the milk in the deal. Family!

  7. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    March 17, 2008 2:44 am

    Coleen – Yeah, family can be harder to deal with than livestock sometimes.

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