Homesteading Advice on Dairy Animals

MOTHER EARTH NEWS shares a special mini-dairy section with readers, providing advice about which dairy animal to choose for your homestead needs.


MOTHER EARTH NEWS shares advice on choosing which dairy animal is right for your homestead.


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For most newcomers to the land — provided they're not the very strictest of vegetarians — the homestead dream includes at least one placidly grazing dairy animal. Just what animal, though, is a matter of personal preference. In the U.S., Canada, and most of Europe, the usual options are cows and goats . . . and each has its vigorous partisans. If you're not violently prejudiced one way or the. other, it's best to make the choice rationally on the basis of your own circumstances and the nature of the beasts in question.

Homesteading Advice on Dairy Animals

Cows, for instance, are basically grass eaters and require good pasture in summer and plentiful hay through the winter, with some grain as a supplement. If your homestead is blessed with lush meadows, Bossy will thrive. On the other hand, if what you have to offer is rough terrain and brush-grown hillsides, a herd of goats will clamber and browse happily on your place (and help control the undergrowth while they feed). They can't produce milk on twigs alone, though, and will need additional rations of hay, vegetables, and grain.

There are many other pros and cons . . . mostly questions of cost versus productivity. A good cow will require a fairly large initial investment (in many areas, $300 and up for an established milker) and will need more food and more elaborate shelter than a goat . . . but she'll also produce much larger quantities of milk (several gallons a day) and her calves will be valuable regardless of sex (steers of even the dairy breeds will provide large quantities of high-quality protein for home use).

While a doe's production is much smaller than a cow's — an average is two to three quarts daily over a 10-month season — always remember that you can keep about five goats for the cost of one cow and that goats' milk can often be tolerated by people who are allergic to cows' milk. Nanny is also given to multiple births, which means that your herd will increase quickly (and also that you'll have to dispose of numerous male kids. . . not an easy decision, since they're among the most charming of young animals. Chevon, however, is good food if you can bring yourself to do the slaughtering.)

Two more points to consider before you commit yourself to any milch animal:

  • The price of a home milk supply is getting out to the barn faithfully twice a day — come hell, high water, childbirth, double pneumonia, or legal holidays — to milk and otherwise tend your beasts.
  • Robert Frost was right . . . good fences really do make good neighbors. If you have stock, you're responsible for controlling them. Goats are notorious escape artists and a frisky heifer is none too easy to keep in the home pasture.

If you do make the commitment, there are several good sources of information on goatkeeping . . . including the following:

Dairy Goat Journal (monthly magazine), Scottsdale, AZ (one year subscription $5.00, three-year $14.00)

Aids to Goatkeeping by Cori A. Leach (8th edition, $10.00 from Dairy Goat Journal )

Starting Right with Milk Goats by Helen Walsh, $3.00 from Garden Way Publishing, VT (or from MOTHER'S Bookshelf)

American Dairy Goat Association, N.C. (There are also various regional dairy goat associations and local goalkeepers' clubs through which you can meet experienced persons from your own area. Important: Ask such an individual to recommend a veterinarian who has a good working knowledge of goats. Do this in advance, before you need the vet's services.)

Advice on the care of a family cow is harder to come by, since most dairy publications are oriented to the large operation. One good, detailed description of homestead cowkeeping and dairy management, however, is found in Carla Emery's Old Fashioned Recipe Book, ($12.95 including postage). You might also send for USDA Leaflet No. 536, Keeping a Cow, from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (current price is available on request). And then, of course, there's the excellent article, "The One-Cow Family Meets the One-Family Cow", in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 15 and "The Miniature Dairy" section in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 2.

Finally, you'll find a good selection of animal husbandry and dairy supplies — including specialized goat items — in the catalog of American Supply House, MO.