Keeping a family milk cow is a wonderful way to enjoy fresh, delicious raw milk, develop food security, and consume clean, healthy dairy products.
There are many benefits to having a family cow including:
- Fresh, raw milk
- Rich, delicious cream
- Homemade yogurt, kefir, cheese.
- Extra milk to feed other farm animals such as bottle calves, pigs and chickens.
- Fertilizer for certain garden plants
My 91-year-old mother in law, that we all call Gramma, still keeps a family milk cow. She has milked cows her entire life. Gramma was raised on a farm and milked cows for over 85 years. She has taught me everything I know about keeping a milk cow and raising the cow’s calf. With that much experience, I am confident in the skills she has taught me. Now I want to share with you what she has taught me about milking a cow.
Five Considerations before purchasing a family milk cow.
- Time and commitment
- Age and lactation status of the cow
Time and commitment
I think the biggest consideration when deciding on whether to keep a milk cow or not is the time and commitment it will take.
Like all mammals, a cow produces milk in order to feed her calf. After the cow has given birth, she must be milked (or her calf nurses) at least twice daily or the milk will stop flowing. A cow will produce milk for about ten months of milk. It is important to let the cow rest at least two months before a new calf is born. The daily routine consists of feeding, watering, and milking twice a day. You may also milk once a day by separating the calf from the cow for about 12 hours before you milk. You will also need to clean the manure out of the milking area daily. Your cow will also need to be fed and watered.
You can not take the weekend off or not do it when you are sick. You must be able to commit to a daily milking and have a backup plan in cases of emergencies. If a cow isn’t milked daily, she may become sick, her milk production will go down and she will eventually dry up.
We have always milked our cow twice a day: morning and night. There is a milking method called once a day milking where you can put the calf on the cow for one milking. This may be convenient, but there are some drawbacks to this method. The cow will learn to hold her milk back for her calf and also she will not give as much milk over time. Her milk production will adjust according to the calf’s needs.
A cow needs both roughage and protein. Roughage can be supplied by pasture and various forms of hay. Good grass hay and grass pasture can contain sufficient protein for animal maintenance, however, for a lactating dairy cow, higher protein feeds such as alfalfa hay, grass-legume pasture, or protein supplements increase milk production. Mineral supplement and salt are also necessary. A milk cow can drink up to 30 gallons of water per day, so provide plenty of fresh water.
In the winter when the pasture is not available, good hay and additional grain will be necessary. If you want to increase the cow’s milk production, feed a grain supplement in the form of chopped or ground oats, barley, corn, or wheat every day, regardless of the season. This is also a good way to get the cow to stand still while milking.
If you have decided to commit to a family milk cow, the next step is to decide on a breed of a dairy cow. Some options are Jersey, Holstein, Swiss. These are the three breeds I am most familiar with.
Here are some reasons why we like Jersey. They are a small, gentle, and beautiful breed. They have a high-fat content, which makes excellent cream. Although, they do have some issues. I have found that Jerseys do become sick easily, especially when they are a calf. Since your milk cow will have a calf in order to give you milk, you will probably be raising the calf, unless you decide to sell it.
Jersey calves are small and can easily become sick. I will be writing an article about starting out your milk cow’s calf right, but it is definitely something to consider. If you have a heifer (female) calf, you may want to raise it and have an additional milk cow or sell it when it reaches breeding age. If you have a bull (male) calf, you may want to castrate it and raise it up to butcher or sell it when it is weaned. Either way, jersey calves are somewhat fickle to raise.
I have also found the jersey breed likes to eat things that they shouldn’t. Here is an example. I purchased four jersey bull calves and they were in a paddock that was right against the barn. When they were about six months old, they systematically tore apart a plastic window off the barn and ate it, leaving a hole in the barn. It didn’t seem to affect their health, but this is a consideration when deciding where you will keep the calf.
Another dairy breed to consider is Holstein. Holsteins are probably the most common dairy cow available. I have raised many Holstein steers and my 12-year-old son is currently raising a Holstein heifer to milk in the future. I will be able to speak more specifically about milking a Holstein as a family cow once we start milking her. Holsteins are quiet and usually have a good disposition. Of course, with any animal, it depends on the particular animal.
The reason we haven’t had a Holstein milk cow is because they are big. This is great if you are milking a herd, which is one of the reasons they are so commonly milked. But when you are milking one cow, perhaps in a small area, a Holstein seems very big and tall. Another reason we don’t keep a Holstein as a family cow is because the fat content of the milk is much lower and the cream is lower. We love to make butter from our cream and it is less with a Holstein than a Jersey.
Another dairy breed is a Brown Swiss. We had a Brown Swiss for about a year. Her name was Babe, the big, slow tank. Yes, like a military tank. She was HUGE! She was SLOW! Babe went where she wanted to go when she felt like going. This cow had an ATTITUDE. I thought maybe it was just this particular animal, but last spring we purchased a Brown Swiss bottle calf that my ten-year-old son is planning to raise as a milk cow. Even as a calf, she has exhibited some of the same character traits as Babe.
One breed that I have always wanted to try is a Guernsey. This breed is similar to a Jersey: small, gentle, and quiet. We have just never had the opportunity to purchase one because they are not very common in our area, but it would be a good breed to consider.
There are many other breeds to consider such as milking short horn which has become very popular in our area recently. We considered buying one. Many dairy farmers who are transitioning from dairy to beef will have short horns bred to a beef bull because of the calving ease of the cows.
When purchasing a milk cow, it is important to find out where the cow is in the lactation cycle.
Is she a heifer who has never had a calf? Maybe not the best choice for a new milker since she will need some training.
Perhaps she is a dry cow who is about to have a calf. An experienced cow is a good choice. Perhaps she is in the middle of her lactation cycle. Also a good choice. Here is an article explaining the different stages of a cow’s lactation cycle.
The final consideration is equipment and set up. As I mentioned before I do not recommend hand milking a cow. It is possible, but it is tedious work. We have a bucket milker and a vacuum pump system.
What is a bucket milker?
A bucket milker consists of a vacuum pump, a bucket and lid, a pulsator and a claw. The vacuum pump is connected to the bucket milker via a vacuum line. The vacuum line maintains a steady vacuum to make the pulsators suck the milk from the cow. Most bucket milkers hold 4 to 8 gallons of milk. This is plenty of room for the milk from one cow.
How to use a bucket milker
Learning to operate a bucket milker takes some practice and it is a good idea to learn first hand from someone who knows how to do it.
- Hook the vacuum line to the vacuum port on the bucket milker and turn on the vacuum pump.
- Properly clean the cow and start her with your hands so she will let her milk down. Make sure your hands are warm. It is important to be relaxed. A cow can sense fear and nervousness.
- Place the bucket on the ground beside the cow next to her rib cage. This gives you room to access her udder.
- Position the claw under the udder with the milk hose pointed towards the front of the claw.
- Listen to make sure that the pulsator is clicking properly.
- Put the inflations on the cow’s teats one at a time starting with the teat farthest from you.
- The claw must hang straight down from the udder. It cannot be twisted during milking.
- Watch the milk go through the clear tubing into the bucket. It will take some experience to know when the cow is milked out. In my opinion, it is better to under milk rather than over milk a cow.
- Remove the teat cups
It is time to prepare milk for drinking. Other equipment you will need is a stainless steel bucket, a milk strainer, paper disks, milk bucket with a lid or a pitcher to transfer the milk from the barn to the house.
These are the main considerations before purchasing a milk cow. Do I have time and am I willing to make the daily commitment to milking a cow? Will I have access to the adequate feed? Do I have adequate equipment, shelter, and training to milk a cow?
If all these answers are yes, then the next questions to ask are: What breed will be best for my situation? What stage of lactation is the cow and how old is she? After making these decisions, you are ready to purchase your first milk cow. Keeping a milk cow is a rewarding experience for many reasons including delicious, fresh, raw milk. Please check out my other articles about bottle calves and creative uses for milk.