From the time of the ancient Hindoo to this time have the thoughts of men turned
to this kindly and beneficent creature as one of the chief sustaining forces of the human race”
– W.D. Hoard
One essential feature of the classic, self-sufficient homestead that may go unnoticed in the background is the milk cow. But ol' Bossy is always there, and she is a huge asset.
Grass is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to convert solar energy into nutrition... But human guts can't digest the stuff very well. A cow can. And she'll convert it into milk, a near-perfect food source for most living things! (Don't buy into that 'humans can't digest cow milk' hooey. That processed whitewater from the supermarket doesn't come with the essential enzymes for proper digestion like raw milk does!)
The dairy cow is a fount of sustenance for the whole farm. Milk, cream, butter, and cheese for her masters. Clabber for the chickens. Whey for the pigs or tomatoes... And let's not forget the by-product in the form of hundreds of pounds of beef.
The downside is that even a one cow dairy program is a huge commitment and a lot of work. She's called a "family cow" because you really need a family to divide the chores, as well as to consume all the milk. One person handling the whole dairy operation is overwhelming, especially when the cow is fresh.
Theoretically, any cow of reproductive age can be milked. But countless generations of selective breeding have produced dairy cows so different from beef breeds that they could pass for separate species. In addition to higher milk production, dairy cows are selected for quieter, more manageable dispositions.
Everybody gets too clever by half these days with fancy breeds. You really need look no farther than the traditional family cows, like the Jersey and Guernsey. The most commonly seen commercial dairy cow in America these days is the Holstein. An old joke claims that the government wouldn't allow dairymen to water-down their milk, so they bred Holstein cows to do it for them. (Holsteins are bigger than other dairy breeds, and produce more gallons of milk, but with a lower concentration of milkfat and protein.)
'Miniature' cows have become trendy, but keep in-mind the inbreeding that was used to scale cattle down. If a Jersey cow is too intimidating, you might want to consider goats. (More on those later.)
You may be able to find a dairy cull for a good price. Commercial dairy operations dispose of cows when they no longer meet a set output relative to upkeep standard. Many of these cows are fairly young, and could produce more than enough for doomstead needs for years to come. But industrial scale milk production is hard animals, and does not impart the kind of human-oriented social imprinting that is desirable for a family cow. Look well about these for chronic mastitis, poor disposition.
If buying a 'new' cow, a good argument can be made for starting with a heifer already confirmed well along in her first pregnancy. That way you know she's fertile, and you don't have to wait too long to start getting a return on your investment. But these can run you a pretty penny.
We started with an early weaned Jersey/Guernsey heifer calf because we wanted to make sure our cow had a good upbringing and was completely imprinted on us. We were acquainted with some folks through LATOC who had a small homestead dairy operation further up in the mountains, and knew they'd handled their calves extensively from birth.
Starting with a calf means you're going to have to invest a lot of time and effort and upkeep into the critter before you get the first cup of milk in return. But a family cow really needs to be part of the family, completely comfortable and trusting of her people. This isn't just for sentimental reasons. Commercial dairies have lots of concrete and steel facilities, with sorting chutes, head gates, tilt tables. They can use injections to get cows to let-down. And they only expect two or three milking seasons from a cow before she becomes Big Macs... You probably won't have anything like that. So you'll need a cow who wants to cooperate with you. Will let you catch her out of the pasture and lead her in. Tie her to a post and milk her without restraints. Will let down with just a little warm-up and sweet talk. Even stand for artificial insemination procedures without trouble.
Basically, we raised our little Maudie as if she were a foal. Grooming, bathing, leading, tying, hoof handling. She also learned to tether, which is something horses should not do... Cows are naturally better at being tied with long (like 50') sturdy ropes to solid anchors like fence post bases. Their leather hides are less likely to get rope burned, and they tend not to panic when they get tangled. Tethering is a very handy way to let your cow consume grass in areas not fenced for grazing.
One decision you may have to make when raising your own milk cow is whether to let her keep her horns. Most dairy breeds do have the genetics for horn growth, although some lines and crosses may be polled (hornless). Horns can easily be eliminated early in a cows life, prior to the horn buds attach to the skull. Before around eight weeks of age, they can be cut, burned, or chemically eliminated (with a mild acid somewhat like the Compound W used for warts in humans). The paste is nearly painless. Other methods hurt a bit, and should be done with some sort of topical numbing agent and possible sedation. Get a vet or experienced cattleman to help you the first time.
Letting the cow keep her horns gives her some defense against coyotes, dogs, and other threats. They also give you a convenient handle to take hold of her head. The intimidation factor of just having horns may discourage city folk from messing with your milker... Heck, half of them seem to think only bulls have horns!
No decent family milk cow would ever think of goring her own people, but accidents do happen. And mischievous cows will definitely use their horns as tools to disassemble fences, stalls, and other things. So it's a judgement call. We let Maudie keep her horns. But she's the only one.
When we brought Maudie home, we gave her a stall in the horse stables. This worked just fine while she was a little heifer. But, as she got bigger, then had to share with her calf, it became a real mess. Cow manure is near-liquid, and a pregnant or lactating cow will make barrels of urine. Cows are deceptively heavy, with relatively small, cloven hooves that will grind filth into a pit gravel floor. And bovines have ZERO sense of hygiene! They will turn a stall floor into belly-deep septic muck over time, despite your efforts to clean it regularly.
Her current accommodations are an anchored-down steel tube corral panel enclosure on a reinforced concrete floor with heavy rubber mats and (of all things) an old boat secured keel-up to provide a partial roof. (Remember, we're in Dixie, where a cow only needs a roof for shade and sometimes freezing rain.) This is situated in her primary turnout paddock so that, when she has a new calf, she can go out to graze while he's safe inside. She can come back and feed him through the panel when she sees fit. (They figure that out pretty quick.)
We also started out milking Maudie in her stall. This was a BAD IDEA that got worse as the stall grew ever more foul. Then I built a Milking Parlor... Just an 8' x 12' extension on the barn with a gravel floor, rubber mats where the cow stands, a feeder, a low table for equipment, lights, a fan, and power outlets. This little, dedicated workspace made milking so much faster and easier that I can't believe we ever did it any other way.
To make milk, a cow has to first produce a calf...
Heifers usually come into heat for the first time sometime between six and nine months of age. Then they cycle about every three weeks unless they are pregnant... This is going to test your patience a bit, as you shouldn't have a heifer bred until she's past fifteen months old. So you'll have to put up with several rounds of her relentless bellowing, crazy eyes, and jumping on everyone and everything. The saving grace is that cows are usually in full heat less than two days.
When she's fifteen months or so, you can get your cow bred either the old fashioned way, putting her out with a bull, or employ the more modern approach of artificial insemination (AI). The former may be handy if you have a good neighbor with an appropriate bull he'll share. Keeping your own bull to freshen just one or two milkers is beyond impractical.
AI means coordinating with your vet or a reproduction tech, who will show-up with a tank of frozen bull semen, packaged in one dose straws. A dose will be selected, carefully thawed, and inserted into the heifer's uterus. Well-handled cows in full heat are usually pretty tolerant of the whole process, requiring little restraint and no sedation. But the person going shoulder-deep into the cow gets to make that call!
Bulls inclined to produce small-headed, low-birthweight calves are desirable for a heifer's first pregnancy for easy delivery. Angus bulls are a popular choice, as their calves are easily born and grow rapidly into good beef producers.
Breeding to a dairy bull gives you a chance for a relatively valuable full-dairy heifer. But, if you get a full-dairy bull calf, he'll produce less beef than an Angus cross. You can use sexed semen to assure a heifer calf, but availability can be a problem, cost is higher, and potency tends to be far lower than whole semen.
Bovine gestation is usually around 283 days, a bit over 9 months. Dairy cows tend to go a little shorter. Cattle are pretty low-maintenance in pregnancy. Just keep her well-fed (more on that later), with access to clean water, and the usual shade, shelter.
Calving is normally a pretty quick affair. Most cattle come into this world with no assistance. If you happen to be present when the calf comes, you can reduce some of the stress on cow and calf once the front feet and nose show. (They should be oriented hooves-down, as though the calf was jumping out and intends to land on his feet... They may also be covered in the birth sack.) Take a firm hold on the legs, just above the feet, wait for the cow to push, and pull out and slightly downward. Don't yank.
If the calf appears in an incorrect orientation, or birth takes more than 45 minutes after the water breaks, get a vet or experienced cattleman's help ASAP. Don't panic. Cows are pretty tough.
A newly born calf usually appears lifeless. Make sure its mouth and nose are clear, rub on the critter a minute, and it should soon awaken... Then you have a decision to implement...
You've now got a cow with (hopefully) full udders and a newborn calf. You can let Mamma keep her calf, or you can split them up ASAP.
Commercial dairies usually do the latter. Some homesteaders do as well. Taking the calf to another stall or hutch to be bottle-fed. The primary advantage to this is preventing the cow from becoming calf-bound. Although a dairy cow will produce far more milk than her calf needs, some will instinctively hold-up milk for the calf, shorting her people. She may even dry-off when the calf is weaned, ending the milking season months ahead of schedule. This maddening problem may be avoided if the cow never bonds with her offspring, but learns to rely on the milker for udder relief.
Family milk cows are often allowed to keep their calves. This has the advantage of saving the humans a lot of work. Instead of having to milk the fresh cow three or four times a day, and bottle feeding part of the milk to the calf, we just let the calf self-serve, and milk the cow twice a day. The dairyman typically gets a little less milk this way, but there's still usually more than enough for a family.
TO BE CONTINUED...
MUCH MORE DAIRY CHAPTER TO COME.
Back to LOW-NONSENSE DOOMSTEADING index.