I have a secret!
Oh, alright. I guess it won’t be a secret much longer.
After begging and pleading with Farmer, he’s finally given me the thumbs up to get a family milk cow.
It’s rather bitter sweet really. I am getting her from good friend of ours.
They have owned a pasture dairy farm for several years. And like many other small dairies throughout the United States, they are struggling. With milk prices low and no foreseeable change in sight, they have decided to call it quits.
When they told me they were going out of the dairy business, I cried.
Deciding to become dairy farmers was not something they were born to or inherited. As a matter of fact, they spent months researching and improving their pastures before they got started. Their goal was to replace one off-farm income from the family farm.
The fact that it was not sustainable is heart wrenching.
This is where I will be purchasing our family milk cow. I will be buying one of their Jerseys.
Buying a Family Milk Cow
If you are going to be buying a family milk cow, there are seven things you will want to have nailed down.
1. Choose a Breed
First, choose what breed you would like. There are several breeds of dairy cows in the United States.
The most popular dairy cows are Holsteins. Those black and white cows you see everywhere.
Simply put, they give the most milk.
It is not uncommon for Holsteins to give over 100 lbs of milk a day. That’s over 12 gallons each and every day!
They are big cows that require more feed than most other breeds. Because of this they aren’t as well suited for a pasture based system.
Although capable of being quit calm, Holsteins do not make ideal family milk cows because of their high milk production and higher feed requirements.
Jerseys are the next most popular breed. I grew up with Jersey cows and will admit I am quite partial.
An average Jersey will give about 40-50 lbs of milk per day. That’s over 5-6 gallons a day at peak production.
Best of all, their milk is highest in butterfat. This means you will have more cream to make butter (and ice cream!) and fat solids to make cheese.
Jerseys’ smaller stature means they require less feed.
They make excellent family milk cows. They are docile, adaptable to a variety of climate conditions, and are excellent grazers.
Milking Shorthorns are an interesting breed.
We have raised Shorthorns for beef for several years and absolutely love their temperament. They are easy to work and do well on pasture.
Although originally considered a dual purpose breed, this breed has segregated into two distinct lines. Those for milking and those for beef.
The Milking Shorthorn is larger than a Jersey and has higher milk production, but only average butterfat and protein.
Recently homesteaders have been giving notice to Milking Devons. And with good reason.
These cattle have butterfat very similar to Jerseys. And the cows are slightly larger in stature.
They are considered a triple purpose breed as they can be used for milk, meat, and oxen.
They are easy keepers and do well on pasture. Should you keep any castrated males, they finish quickly and marble easily.
The down side is that they are exceptionally hard to come by. Because of their scarcity, there are very few statistics on their milk production. From the best I can tell, they give about half the milk of a Jersey.
Other commercial breeds include Ayrshires, Brown Swiss, and Guernseys. Although less popular, these are all great breeds in their own right. It should be noted however, that all of these breeds are larger in frame size, thus requiring more feed.
And although all make great cows, there are better options for the family milk cow.
There are also several other less known dual purpose breeds. For the most part, breeds like the Dutch Belted and Kerry, are harder to find and offer no additional benefits to those breeds listed above. Unless bred specifically for milk, production levels will be noticeably lower than those breeds listed above as well.
Here is a great resource to learn more about North American dairy breeds.
2. Find a Breeder
Once you have decided on a breed or two to select from, now its time to find your family milk cow.
Your best bet is going to be finding a local dairy farmer in your area.
Depending on where you live, there are four types of farms you may encounter.
The first are mega-dairies. These are farms milking 1,000 cows or more and bred specifically for efficiency and milk production.
As with most big businesses, here it is about finding that balance between inputs and outputs for maximum profits.
Given that most of these farms raise high production Holsteins, this is not the ideal place to pick up a family milk cow.
Family Owned Mid Sized Dairy Farms
Next you have your family-owned operations with 100-200 cows or more. You will find all breeds and management styles in this category.
If you are selective, you may find a lower producing cow that will meet all of your needs. But depending on their management style, this may or may not be your best place to look.
That said, don’t overlook these farmers just based on number of cows. If you have a mid-sized dairy farm near you, go and talk to them. Ask them questions. Only then will you know if their cows will work for you.
You may be fortunate enough to live in close proximity to a pasture dairy. In my opinion, purchasing a family milk cow from a pasture dairy is your best option. They are selecting and raising cattle that work well on pasture, yet still have adequate production.
Did you know dairy farmers get paid on fat solids, as well as, total production?
Overall milk production is typically lower on pasture dairies, when compared to conventional dairies. Because of this, many pasture dairies offset the drop in production by choosing cows that produce milk with higher butterfat. Thus, you are more likely to find other breeds, such as Jerseys, at these farms.
Lastly, there are those who have multiple family milk cows or provide milk for niche markets.
Because these individuals are looking for much of the same traits you are, this could be an excellent source for your next family milk cow.
Keep in mind though that because of the size of their operation, they will most likely not have any hard data on how much their cows milk. And if they purchased their cow(s) from someone else, they may have limited knowledge in how they were raised.
3. Understand Her Backstory
When purchasing a family milk cow you will want to pay close attention to how she has been managed. What is her backstory?
As I mentioned, local dairy farms are one of the easiest sources for a family milk cow. However, if she was raised on a TMR diet, it may be challenging to transition her over to mostly pasture.
TMR stands for Total Mixed Ration. Most dairy cows in the United States are fed a TMR diet, which includes grains, silage and other forages such as haylage, hay, and pasture.
Don’t get me wrong, I have never been a purest when it comes to pasture. Most pasture is left to chance and not properly managed to its full potential. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to feed an animal all of the nutrients they need by pasture alone. Especially when they are in peak milk production.
Supplementing pasture with grain makes it both easier to get a cow in for milking and insures that they are getting all the nutrients they need.
If possible, I recommend purchasing your family milk cow from a pasture dairy. Although they may supplement with grain, cows are selected for being able to thrive on pasture. They will also be able to give you details on how they were raised and how they are currently being managed.
4. Choose Appropriate Age
Determining what age cow to get can be a little like dancing. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Do I get a young cow with lots of life ahead of her?
Do I get a more mature cow who knows the ropes?
You want one old enough, but not too old. How’s that for being decisive.
If you are new to this, I would recommend that you stay away from two year olds and first time calvers. They can be a little skittish and a whole lot ditsy.
Although not always true, mothering ability is often passed from generation to generation.
Most of the dairy cows you will be considering have no idea what it means to be a mother. Within the first day or two of calving, calves are moved to calf hutches and bottle fed. After all, the job of the cow is to produce milk to sell.
This seems to translate into new moms that are very unsure and anxious.
On the other hand, you don’t want a cow that has declined in performance and is towards the end of her life expectance.
I recommend choosing a cow that is between 3 and 5 years old. Like I said, old enough, but not too old.
5. Evaluate Body Condition
Growing up in 4-H and part of a dairy family, I learned how to judge dairy cattle. And one thing that was continually drilled into my head was body condition.
Fat cows don’t milk. Period.
By the way, it is not just cows.
I have seen this hold true with all livestock. Go into our sheep barn 30 days after lambing and I can tell you just by looking at the ewes which have raised the largest lambs.
I am that good.
Just kidding. It’s basic animal science.
Producing milk requires a lot of energy.
Fat is caused by unused energy.
See the conflict.
A cow can’t produce lots of milk while staying fat.
I know. You aren’t looking for a top performing dairy cow.
Most of us hand milk our family milk cow. A few gallons would be awesome. Several buckets a day… not so much.
Just keep in mind, a fat cow is not going to be your best milker. And a super angular, high performing cow is not going to be the easiest keeper.
Your job is to find one that fits somewhere in the middle.
6. Evaluate Udder and Teat Size
Oh, this section could go sooo wrong so fast.
So here is the short of it.
Be sure to take a look at your potential cow’s udder and teats.
Ideally you want all four teats to be under the corners of her udder, forming a nice square if you were able to look from above.
And size does matter.
Milking a cow with tiny teats leads to hand cramps. Bad, bad hand cramps.
Look for ones with 3-4″ long teats that look comfortable to milk.
7. Decide on Stage of Lactation / Gestation
So you have decided on a breed. You’re ready to ask your breeder lots of questions. And you know what to look for.
Now you need to decide whether you want one that has just calved or is getting ready to calve.
Although much of this depends on where you get your family milk cow and when they have one available, I have two recommendations.
Later in Lactation
The first is to get a cow on the downhill side of her lactation. This will give you adequate milk without the huge learning curve of what to do with more milk than you need.
Another advantage is that she should already be bred. No bull needed... kick *that* can down the road.
The downside is that she will not have a calf at her side.
Right Before Calving
Another great option is to buy a dry cow (not currently lactating) that is due to calve soon. This will give you time to adjust to your new family milk cow, while also allowing your family to share in the miracle of birth.
The biggest advantage is getting to keep her newborn calf. Many homesteaders, myself included, prefer to share their cow with a calf. Meaning the calf stays on momma for 12 hours, and off 12 hours, to allow you to milk her only once a day.
Even if you choose to milk her twice a day, you get two cows for the price of one. Not a bad deal.
If you are new to all of this, the downside maybe feeling a little out of your element delivering a calf. But don’t let that stop you.
You got this!
What Not to Get
What you don’t want is a cow towards the end of her lactation that is not bred. To me this would indicate that she is having trouble getting pregnant.
You are looking for a family milk cow, not someone else’s cull cow. Nuff said.
Hopefully you have found this information helpful and useful when purchasing your next family milk cow. If you have questions I didn’t quite answer, drop me a comment below. This ole’ dairy girl is here to help ya!
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