Mother Earth News Blogs > Homesteading and Livestock

Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

How to Choose Cows for a Micro or Small-Herd Dairy

By Steve Judge, Bob-White Systems

Tags: micro dairy, dairy cows, home dairying, milking, farm equipment, Jersey cows, Vermont, Steve Judge,

Choosing the Right Cow for Your Micro Dairy

In a previous blog post, I made it perfectly clear that I believe Jersey cows are the best breed for a micro dairy. However, that is my opinion. Other breeds will work as well, even Holsteins, if you must.

What is more important than the breed you choose is the health, temperament and history of the individual cow you select. In a micro or a small herd dairy the cows should be easily handled, relaxed around people and not kick when they are milked. Chances are those cows will be visited and milked by inexperienced visitors or hired help and they can’t be dangerous or difficult to handle in any way.

Let me add here that people usually sell cows for a reason. If you are buying a cow from someone you aren’t well acquainted with, then ask yourself, “Why is this cow being sold?” There is always a reason. I prefer to buy cows from local farmer friends who routinely sell cows and bred heifers to control their herd size.

Determining if a cow is healthy is essential. It is critical to have the cow tested for all common bovine diseases. Don’t stop at the tests your state requires. Also, test for Johnes and Leucosis (BLV) because it is now assumed that both diseases can be spread to humans by milk and blood, as well as being fatal for cows. Most farmers are unaware of the seriousness of these diseases and rarely test their cows for it.

The infection rate in the U.S. for Bovine Leucosis Disease and BLV is well over 50%. In addition, have the cow’s milk tested for Staph Mastitis. If the cow is dry, squeeze a small amount of milk out and have it tested. Staph Aureus mastitis is highly contagious and incurable. If a cow gets infected, she has it for life. This is one good reason to sell a cow.

Know the cow’s history as well. If you have a tie barn and the cows are going to sleep in their stalls and drink out of water bowls, make darn sure the cow you are considering has previous experience in a tie stall, or expect a rough transition. If the cow has only been in loose housing, the move to a tie barn can be stressful and even dangerous for both you and your animal. I am not saying that it can’t be done, but you need to be aware of any potential problems. 

Last summer, I bought a very nice Jersey that had only experienced loose housing. Her one saving grace was that she didn’t kick when I milked her. Though she has a good temperament, she wasn’t used to human contact and didn’t welcome my touch, she couldn’t use a water bowl and she had difficulty getting up in her stall because she lunged forward too far and bruised her brisket. I had to cut the curb down to give her more room. I also had to water her by hand for more than a month until she finally figured out the water bowl.

Now she is well adjusted and welcomes my touch, most of the time. She is a good cow, but the transition was difficult and added excess time to my daily chores.

Fencing Choices

You should also know what sort of fencing the cow respects. I use electrified poly-wire. This isn’t a barrier fence like barbed or woven wire fencing. If a cow doesn’t respect Polywire, they can go right through it.

My farm is located in a little village with close neighbors, railroad tracks and a busy state road. The idea of having a cow on the loose here scares the heck out of me. I keep my fences well charged and, in turn, my cows respect Polywire. If they touch it and don’t get shocked, they count themselves lucky, just as I do. 

Remember, when you introduce a new addition to a small herd of cows, it will take some time for them to develop a bond with one another. The cows in the herd will see the new cow as a stranger, and the new cow will be looking for her old buddies. Similar to cats, its best to give cows some time to adjust to one another before you turn the animals out together.

Years ago, I brought one of my cows to a nearby 40-cow Jersey farm to be “babysat” while I did some work on my barn. The farmer immediately turned her out with his herd in the barnyard and the other cows ganged up on her and broke her hind leg. In the end, a well-mannered cow had to be put down.

Regarding temperament, my rule is to never buy a cow I haven’t put my hands on.  Foolishly, I seem to keep breaking my rule and end up regretting it. You should spend time with the cow and notice if she is relaxed or tense. After a few minutes you should be able to approach her and put your hands on her with out her fussing or backing away. Kneel down beside the cow and feel her udder. She shouldn’t object.

The cow may show a little annoyance, which could be okay, but if she kicks out and tries to hurt you then look for another cow. Just like people, every cow has its own personality. Be well acquainted with the cow’s personality before you purchase her.

There’s a lot to think about when choosing the right cow for a small herd or micro-dairy, but it is worth taking the time needed to select an animal that will best fit you and your farm.

Steve Judge is a long-time dairy farmer and micro-dairy expert at Bob-White Systems. Driven by a passion for the Slow Food movement and a desire for communities to enjoy locally produced, Steve's goal is to create appropriately scaled dairy technology and equipment that will give small-scale dairy farmers the opportunity to sell safe, farm fresh milk and dairy products directly from their farms to friends and neighbors. Read all of Steve's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.