Keep a Family Cow and Enjoy Delicious Milk, Cream, Cheese and More

Have a cow! Here’s what you need to know to buy and care for a family cow. You’ll have a blast, plus save money on dairy products (and even meat).

family cow - man with cows

Dominic Palumbo leads his family cows (a Normande and a Jersey-Angus cross) to pasture near Sheffield, Mass.


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A family dairy cow provides lots of practical benefits. Perhaps the most notable is that cows eating a grass-based diet can provide great-tasting dairy products that are more nutritious and flavorful than those you can buy in most grocery stores. Raising a family cow is a fun experience, plus it’s a great step toward self-sufficiency and food security. Surplus dairy products from the cow and meat from calves could even bring in extra income for your family. Keeping a homestead dairy cow is a big commitment though, so you’ll want to prepare carefully.

The Daily Dairy Cow Routine

A cow produces milk in order to feed her calf. After the cow has given birth, she must be milked (or her calf allowed to nurse) at least twice daily or the milk will stop flowing. Count on about nine to 10 months of milk production, allowing the cow to rest at least two months before a new calf is born. Your daily routine will consist of feeding, milking twice a day, or milking once a day and separating the calf from the cow eight to 12 hours before you milk. You will also need to muck out the milking area frequently and move fences for rotational grazing as needed.

Feeding. A dairy cow needs two principal components in her diet to be healthy: roughage and protein. Roughage mainly consists of cellulose and can be supplied by pasture and various forms of hay. Good grass hay and grass pasture can contain sufficient protein for animal maintenance, but for a lactating dairy cow, higher protein feeds such as alfalfa hay, grass-legume pasture, or protein supplements will increase milk production. She’ll also need a mineral supplement and salt, and a lactating cow can drink up to 30 gallons of water per day, so you’ll need to provide plenty of fresh water.

In winter when the pasture is sparse, good hay — and possibly additional grain or premixed feed — will be necessary. If you can feed leafy alfalfa hay (2 to 3 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight), this will be all she needs. However, 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 season.

During the summer, the cow can get all the nutrients and protein she needs from grazing a lush pasture consisting of legumes and grasses. In many regions, a cow and calf will need at least an acre of good pasture. In regions with poor soil or little rain, 10 acres or more may be necessary to support the pair.

Milking. Ideally, milking should be timed at 12-hour intervals. A cow with a full, distended udder is not a happy cow; don’t inflict this on her by milking erratically. With the family cow, you have the option of milking just once a day by letting the calf help you out. Leave the calf with the cow overnight. Separate them in the morning, and by evening, the cow will be ready for milking (this approach lets you avoid early morning milkings if you have an 8-to-5 job). Using this system, the calf may nurse beyond normal weaning periods (about eight weeks for most dairy calves), and you won’t need to mess around with the bottle feeding that would be required if you were milking twice a day and feeding some to the calf.

Dairy breeds can produce up to 8 gallons per day, although 3 gallons is more typical for a family dairy cow on a grass-only diet. The calf only needs about 5 quarts to 2 gallons per day if it has access to good pasture as it grows. You can assume the calf will drink half the cow’s daily production if you keep the two together about 12 hours a day.

Washing the cow’s udder before milking will help relax her. Equipment (and your hands) should be scrupulously clean, too. Several books, websites, and online videos explain the process of hand milking a cow.

After you’ve got the milk in a bucket, you will need to quickly strain it to remove debris and cool it to limit bacteria growth. To strain the milk, you can purchase a commercial milk strainer and paper filters, or pour the milk through four layers of dish towels or cheesecloth over a large colander and bowl.

If you prefer to pasteurize milk, do this after straining, but before cooling. The easiest method is to use a home milk-pasteurizer machine. These machines can be purchased for about $300 for a 2-gallon unit. For an easy stovetop method, read How do I pasteurize raw milk at home? 

Breeding and Birth

Soon after giving birth to her first calf, your cow will need to be bred. She will “freshen” (have a calf and start producing milk) about nine and a half months from the date she “settles” (gets pregnant); her second heat after calving is an ideal time to breed her. For the strongest calves, time the birth when spring pastures are lush. You will be milking (and her calf may be nursing) until the last two or three months before the cow gives birth. At that time she’ll need to be “dried up” (stop being milked) to allow her body to prepare for her new calf.

You don’t need to own a bull to breed your cow. Your options include taking your cow to a bull for breeding or artificial insemination (AI). The easiest method will undoubtedly be AI, unless your neighbor just happens to have a suitable bull and you can walk your cow over for a visit. You can hire an AI technician to do the job, or take a course and do it yourself. Another breeding option is to raise or buy a yearling beef-breed bull and have it processed after your cow is bred.

If you intend to raise your calf for beef, breed your cow to a smaller beef-type bull, such as an Angus. Either way, you’ll want to select a bull that roughly matches the size of your cow — anything larger and she may have trouble birthing a large calf. Dairy breeds usually calve easily, but make sure you’re prepared for problems.

If you want homegrown, grass-fed beef, you can raise the calf until it reaches appropriate slaughter weight (typically about 1,200 pounds, but smaller if you prefer) at about 2 years old, and take it to a processor who will butcher and package the beef for you. You can also sell or give away the calf as a bottle baby for a local 4-H project.

Fencing and Facilities

Although you could tether your cow to a stake and move it daily, it’s a bit risky for the cow. She could get tangled in the rope and be injured. If you can keep an eye on her most of the day while she’s tethered, it might be worthwhile so you won’t have to invest in fencing. Usually, building a perimeter fence is the best option.

The best way to keep cattle on grass is with a rotational grazing system. This process involves dividing pastures into small paddocks and controlling the cow’s access to fresh grass, often using an electric fence that you move every few days. Lush grass grows back in the recently grazed pasture while the cow is grazing a fresh section.

For interior fences and paddock dividers, one strand of electrified high-tensile wire works effectively on cattle that are trained to respect electric fences. But if you plan to raise calves in those same paddocks, two or three wires will be more effective.

Dairy cows require modest shelter against cold winds and rain or snow. A simple shelter can be constructed from recycled materials such as old telephone poles, plywood and corrugated metal.

An outbuilding with a concrete floor that can be kept relatively clean and sanitary is ideal for milking. You can halter and tie your cow to a vertical post if she’s gentle, or use a stanchion to restrain her. Especially gentle and experienced cows can be milked standing in the field.

Get Your Dairy Cow

A cow of any good dual-purpose breed (Dexter, Red Poll, Milking Shorthorn, Randall Lineback or others) will produce a good beef calf, provide it with enough milk, and produce more than enough milk for most families’ needs. Veterinarian D. Phillip Sponenberg says, “For home dairy use, a number of the heritage breeds make a lot of sense. They thrive on average pasture and produce plenty of milk for home use, and owners with even a single cow can make real and important contributions to the conservation of these genetic treasures that we may well need for future agricultural needs.” (For more on heritage-breed cows, check out the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.)

Ask around in your circle of rural friends, the local extension office or farm stores for advice on finding cows for sale in your area. You might find your cow or cow/calf pair at a local dairy farm, or check Craigslist. If you don’t have experience with cattle, try to buy an older cow with a placid nature.

If you have a knowledgeable neighbor or friend, take her or him with you when looking at a cow that’s for sale. Before buying, do a visual inspection and ask lots of questions: How old is she and how many seasons has she been milked? Has she been hand-milked or machine-milked? Do you have proof that the cow is tuberculosis and brucellosis-free? Has she had calving problems? Does she have any health or behavior problems? If possible, milk her yourself or watch her being milked and examine the milk for signs of mastitis: stringy milk, clots or blood.

If you want a particular breed, check the classified ads in rural-lifestyle and farming magazines, or go to that particular breed’s association website and locate a breeder within a reasonable distance.

Annual Budget for Keeping a Family Cow

There are lots of variables in a budget for a family milk cow, but after you own the cow, have summer pasture, install the fence, and have basic equipment, the primary cost on an annual basis will be for feed. Bull rental (or semen), vet bills, and supplements are also variable costs. But the one-year estimates below show that keeping a cow can save you money compared to buying milk and meat at retail prices.

You can “stockpile” some of the pasture, saving it for winter grazing, but to maintain health and production, you’ll usually need to supplement the cow’s diet with high-quality hay when grass isn’t growing.

Calves raised for beef are usually slaughtered at about 2 years old when they’re approaching 1,200 pounds. But you can take advantage of summer pasture, and make or buy less hay, if you butcher the calf right before winter, when the calf is about a year and a half old and probably about 700 pounds.

Cost of alfalfa hay: $810. Assumes 42.5 lbs. x 200 days; $190 per ton in small, square bales

Value of milk available for human consumption: $3,000 to $5,215. 3.5 gal. x 270 days = 945 gal.; bottle-fed calf drinks 200 gallons in about two months before weaning; net 745 gal. at $7/gal., compares to premium, locally produced milk. Even with a more conservative $4/gal., the value of milk would be about $3,000. If you milk only once a day and allow the calf to nurse instead of feeding it with a bottle, the calf will drink more milk daily and can be weaned when it’s 8 or 9 months old. In this situation, you could expect about 470 gal. of milk for human consumption.

Value of grass-fed meat: $1,575. 700 lb. calf at 18 months old, producing 350 pounds of meat at $4.50/lb.

Annual value: $3,765 to $5,980 

— Troy Griepentrog

Dairy Cow Information and Resources

The Family Cow by Dirk van Loon; includes instructions and step-by-step illustrations for hand milking a cow.

Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle by Heather Smith Thomas

Pasture Perfect: The Far-Reaching Benefits of Choosing Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Products from Grass-Fed Animals by Jo Robinson

Dairy Heritage New and used dairy and cheese-making equipment.

Dallas Dome Dairy Dairy cattle and equipment for homesteads and farms.

Hoegger Goat Supply Home dairy and cheese-making equipment.

Portable Milkers Electric milking machines and dairy equipment for homesteads and small dairies.

Karen Kreb is a freelance writer, television producer and farmer in Osage County, Kan. Read Karen's blog, My Home Farm. 

jan steinman
4/13/2011 3:53:54 PM

(continued) 6) Goats tolerate lower-quality browse. Cows are designed for grass, whereas goats have a broader taste, and love scrubby growth that cows won't touch. They're great for clearing brush! 7) Goat babies are much more cute and fun than calves. (Yes, I know I'm treading on thin ice to suggest any animal baby is "better" than any other.) Given a few "toys" like wire spools and a stack of old shipping palettes, they'l entertain themselves and you for hours with their frolicking. 8) Goats often milk longer. We breed on a two-year cycle, whereas most cows are bred annually. Sorry to go on so, and I'm sure some passionate cow owners could go on equally as long about their favourite domestic animal -- just wanted to get the alternative out there!

jan steinman
4/13/2011 3:31:14 PM

For those who are a bit intimidated by a cow, I'd suggest dairy goats make a wonderful alternative. Some of this may be subjective, and disputed by cow-lovers, but here goes: 1) Goats are cleaner. Goat berries are much easier to deal with than cow pies, and much less likely to contaminate milk. I've NEVER known a goat to defecate on the milking stand, whereas I've known cows to let loose a big splashy one in the middle of milking. (Of course, you have to pay attention: if she's dancing around and not getting up on the stand, she probably needs to "go" before getting up there.) 2) Goats are more intelligent. This can be good or bad! As mentioned, this helps with milking hygiene, but also in controlling them, once trained. Our goats understand about a dozen commands. Of course, it also makes them better fence-breakers. 3) Goat milk is more easily digested, and has a composition closer to human milk. The fat globules are 1/5th the size of cow milk globules. Many people who think they are "lactose intolerant" can drink goat milk just fine. 4) Goats are easier to manage. When they step on your foot, it's a mild discomfort, versus a trip to the doctor -- no need for steel-toed boots around goats! 5) Goats make better pets. They love to go on long walks with us, and are very playful, some of them willing to play head-butting with you, or giving you free butt and back massages, or even playing "hide-n-seek." (continued)

2/2/2011 2:37:17 PM

What kind of article is this? Obviously not by a farmer. He says leave the calf with the cow all night and let it help itself to her milk all night and then separate them in the morning. People do not keep cows because they do not want to get up in the morning or do not want to feed the cow by a bottle. If you do not want to feed the cow with the bottle let the cow help itself to some of her milk. If you do not want to get early in the morning milk the cow when you do get up. I hope you get up some time before evening do you. Most people get up by eight even if they do not sleep until midnight. May be they wake up before ten AM. Won't they. The point is it costs money to buy a cow to feed her and you have to get as much milk from her as you can and can sell some milk to produce some income. Milking a cow is a lot of fun. Believe it or not it is fun for the cow also. A calf is very rough with her teats. It keeps on giving hard shoves in to her udder. It is very uncomfortable for the cow. Cow welcomes a gentle squeeze of her teats by human hands or even suctioning by machines than by calf suckling.

david mccartney_2
7/22/2010 6:36:18 PM

Pretty good article, but slightly off on the breeding part. Bull size has no correlation with calf size/calving ease. Best bet is to just hire someone experienced with AI. Cost of semen and breeding fee will only be about $20-$40. This is much cheaper and safer than buying and keeping a bull. As a dairy farmer for 25+ years, I would never recommend a holstein as a family cow. They are too big and will produce more milk than a family can effectively use. The bigger the cow, the more maintenance they will have. I suggest a Jersey as they are an easy keeper and will serve a family well. Also, contrary to what the article states, a dairy cow will need at least a little grain for body maintenance (5-8lb/day). Beef breeds can survive without grain, dairy breeds will lose body condition without grain unless you are a very experienced grazier.

7/2/2010 2:30:00 PM

I agree with Tabitha about Joann's book, very helpful! I also appreciate the information on the cost of feeding a cow, except that I live in Hawai'i and those costs are not accurate for our area. We bought a Holstein about 2 years ago and learned the hard way that it is much more expensive to raise your own milk cow on an island then the mainland. For us it isn't really about the cost, we have developed a loving relationship with our animals and she is now part of the family. I would just encourage each person that is looking at this option to investigate all the costs involved and learn all that can happen, we've had to learn the hard way and if it wasn't for "Keeping a family cow" online forum we would have been lost!

rosalie malik
7/1/2010 11:37:58 PM

To kill the calf who grew up in your house cannot be fun. It is total betrayal. Dont eat meat.Train the bull calf to plough and pull a cart load and save deisel!!! Rosalie

6/14/2010 8:37:51 PM

Very well organized, easy to read article. I guess my only comments are: 1) Why no common dairy breeds recommended? Jerseys and Guernseys are fine family cows. They are also more apt to meet expectations regarding cream and butter making, a huge part of the economy of keeping a cow. and 2) Keeping a Family Cow by Joann Grohman is by far the superior book on this subject, and it deserved mention. The accompanying forums are also a huge resource for any cow owner. I don't know where I would be with just Dirk van Loon's book! Keeping a cow is an adventure, and whatever your circumstances I recommend it.

6/10/2010 10:01:55 AM

The only question I have is how much space you need. I have a large yard, but I don't have a lot of grazing area.

todd reece
6/9/2010 1:05:56 PM

@Rachael.... Craigslist has an abundance of Farm and Ag ads.. Try to go a local farm equipment store or a Tractor Supply which is a nation-wide chain... Hope this helps

dan cunningham_2
6/9/2010 9:36:25 AM

To find a local cow, look for local livestock auction sales. Here in Colorado they are held weekly. Go to the sales until someone offers a calf that meets your needs, goals and try to buy it. Or you can ask the seller if they have other cows for sale or know others who do. They should know of other dairy farmers in the area.

6/4/2010 12:40:54 PM

My aunt and I are talking about going in together for a calf or two, but I cannot figure out where to find one for sale. I have contacted the extension office in our county and his response was to buy one from a farm. But, the farms around here do not always have the owners living on the property nor are they listed in the phone book. Does anybody have any idea how I would find calves for sale in Kentucky?

todd reece
6/1/2010 11:12:55 AM

Hi, Just agreed to go in with my brothers on 3 cattle for beef and I was wondering if it would make sense to try to convert some of my land (just shy of an acre grassed) into suitable pasture... My lower section (.5 acre or so) would be the main area for the cow to graze... Right now the grasses are bermuda, fescue, with a alot of clover and other lawn weeds. We have 4 chickens and are thinking seriously of getting either goats, llamas and/or a cow. We realize the land isn't big enough to accommodate many animals, and a cow would be probably a stretch by itself, so I'm trying to maximize the land with the appropriate animal.. Here is what we were considering: Goats for milk Llama for livestock protection (do they provide suitable milk or other benefits?) and the cow for milk/ meat/ sale of calves Thanks for any advice... my skin is pretty thick so any opinions are welcomed