I have been known to say that “Everybody loves cows!” In fact, everybody does not love cows. I have been milking cows and farming since I was 13 years old, and over this period of time have come to the important conclusion that some folks are genetically predisposed to enjoy the physical, daily contact with cows (the dirt, the sounds, the smells). Others go to bed resenting the sweet, earthy perfume that extended close contact with bovines can leave behind. In the same way that some people are suited to a cubicle job, some people are better built for this kind of farm work. I put myself in the latter category.
I like to tell a quick story that illustrates my point. Back in the 1970s, my wife and I ran a small diversified dairy farm in western Massachusetts. We had a neighbor who was a sort of a new-age type who talked about building his own house, that is, until he saw what it took for me to build a timber-frame addition to my own house: “I didn’t realize you have to carry the lumber around!” he said.
For the same reason that my neighbor was not prepared to do the work required to build his own house, some folks are not interested, or prepared, to do the work required to run a Micro Dairy. And this is okay. It is better to know what you are getting into before taking the leap, buying the cows and realizing you don’t actually want to interact with cows every day. In my mind, a person suited to starting and running a successful Micro Dairy would look at manure as a valuable and relatively benign industrial byproduct that neatly fits into the natural cycle of operating a dairy farm. For me and similarly like-minded people, it is not just poop and pee. It is fertilizer, and the more my cows make for my fields, the better.
Understanding the realities of handling and caring for cows or other dairy animals is essential for anyone considering getting into the micro-dairy business. It is not about red-checked tablecloths and strolling through flower-filled meadows. It is about understanding cows and their needs and being able to encourage them to give you what you need. Here are some tips that are the result of years of (hard-earned) experience.
• Cows need to trust you. They should enjoy being handled and milked by their owner, whether you are milking them by hand or machine. They will sense if you fear or dislike them.
• Cows crave predictability and routine. It makes them feel safe.
• Cows must be well socialized to be productive for your Micro Dairy business. If a cow is not well socialized by the time it is three months old, it may have missed its social development window altogether and may never be suitable for your needs. I recommend selling this cow to a commercial dairy or simply culling it.
• Along these lines, some cows are just not suited to human contact. This is the kind of animal who can make a farmer’s life miserable and difficult, making meeting your milk goals even that much more challenging. It is perfectly okay to cull a cow for disposition reasons.
• Never buy a cow, heifer or calf without first seeing and touching it. Make sure you like the animal and that it has a calm disposition. You have to have trust with your animals.
• Know that cows are herd animals that follow a definitive pecking order. They are direct and forceful with their herd mates. They push and butt. This is normal.
• You must be the undisputed alpha cow, a benevolent dictator that your cows trust will provide for them, keep them safe and free from stress and —perhaps most importantly — never show favoritism.
• Cows love peace and quiet. Keep the areas where cows are kept and milked quiet. No sudden movements, loud voices, loud music or clanking of metal against metal.
• Heifers due to calve need time to adjust to the experience of being milked. Allow them to see other cows being milked and get them familiar with the sensation of having their udders touched.
• Get to know the signs of a kicky cow: When she is ready to give you a smack with her hoof, she will shift her weight from the rear leg closest to you to the rear left furthest from you. This is her way of staying balanced while she delivers the painful blow! Get to know the signs and avoid or block the kick. It is easiest to block a kick early in the leg swing so stay close to a cow that you suspect my kick. Don't try to milk her from a distance. Put your shoulder right onto her.
• Avoid the use of devices that mechanically prevent a cow from kicking, especially on first calf heifers. No quicker way to ruin a heifer.
• Cows that kick out of fear or aggression can be dangerous. A cow that routinely kicks should be sold.
In short, Micro Dairies are set up to maximize human-to-cow contact. So, anyone interested in starting one must love cows. Good idea for a personals ad, isn’t it? Despite the inevitable frustrations of dealing with animals—even with cows from time to time—a Micro Dairy should be a comfortable space for you and your cows. You should know what the cows need from you, and you should (must) want to deliver.