Raise Small-breed Milk Cows

If you want fresh milk and cows that are easier for beginners to handle, these small breeds of cattle are just the right size for a homestead.
Interview by Troy Griepentrog
Aug. 3, 2009
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These miniature Jersey calves are not only adorable, they’ll grow up to be efficient producers of milk.
PAT SCHOUT
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In 2006, Pat Schout and his wife, Elia, began homesteading in east-central Illinois. They wanted to raise their own food, including dairy products. They considered a milk cow, but didn’t know if they’d have enough pasture for a full-size cow and weren’t sure if they could manage all the milk a single cow can produce. A neighbor had discussed the option of small-breed beef cattle, and that gave the Schouts the idea to raise their own small-breed dairy cattle. They started with Jerseys (because of the high butterfat content of their milk) and are now working toward breeding miniature Holsteins.

Miniature cows cost $1,800 to $3,500 depending on the size, markings and color. (A good standard Jersey sold as a family milk cow will cost $1,400 to $1,800.) Although small-breed cattle may cost more initially, they have some interesting advantages. To learn more, we talked with Pat Schout.

How small are small-breed Jerseys? What about miniature Holsteins?

Miniature cattle are classified in three categories as measured by height at the hip. These three categories are (1) midsize miniature, 42 to 48 inches; (2) standard miniature, 36 to 42 inches; and (3) micro-miniature, 36 inches and under. Small-breed cattle range in weight from 500 to 800 pounds. In general, a miniature milk cow is a third to half the size of the standard milk cow. I find that the 42- to 44-inch height is the most ideal for a family small-breed milk cow. Smaller cows may present logistical problems — you might have to sit on the floor to milk them.

How much milk do they give? Is it the same quality as from a standard cow?

A standard-size milk cow in peak production can give 6 to 10 gallons of milk per day. What do you do with that much milk? That’s the great thing about small-breed Jerseys. My cows give 1 to 1 1/2 gallons per milking. This level of production provides enough milk for drinking as well as for making some cheese and butter on a weekly basis, plus a little left over to give to a neighbor or friend. The quality of the milk is excellent, with butterfat content of about 4.9 percent. I store milk in gallon Mason jars. Each jar of milk will have about 3 inches of cream at the top.

We make vanilla ice cream, mozzarella cheese, yogurt and butter. We do not pasteurize the milk because it destroys many of the nutritional benefits of the raw milk. I use a milking machine and carefully wash the udders and teats before milking. I have never encountered any negative side effects from the raw milk.

How much feed do the small-breed cattle require?

That all depends on your philosophy concerning cattle. I believe that cattle are designed to be grass-fed. The rumen (one of a cow’s four stomachs) has bacteria that make the cow an efficient converter of cellulosic material into beef and milk. If grain is introduced into a cow’s diet, different bacteria are required for digestion.

When not on pasture, I try to feed my cattle high-quality alfalfa hay along with some beet pulp for a protein supplement. I also supply them with a seasonally adjusted natural mineral supplement. If someone is inclined to feed grain for increased milk production (or just to have fat cows), there are guidelines and options that can be referenced in most any book on raising dairy cattle. In general, a small-breed cow is only going to consume a third to half of what a standard-size cow would.

How much pasture would a single small-breed cow require?

Depending on the quality of pasture, small-breed cattle will need half to 1 acre of pasture per animal. Ideally, it’s healthiest if the pasture can be divided into smaller sections and used in a rotational grazing pattern. These small cows don't require heavy-duty fencing — a single hot wire will be enough in many cases. Some people simply tie their small-breed cow to a tire and let it graze in the front yard. They just pick up the tire and roll it to a new spot as needed.

So are these “hybrids” of miniature breeds and standard dairy cows? Or do you select the smallest size “standard” animals to get the miniatures?

The cattle breeds that were introduced into the United States at the turn of the 20th century were quite small compared to cattle today. Cattle have been “bred up” to increase the size and the volume of milk and beef production. Some cattle still carry the genetics of their smaller ancestors. Our “breeding down” involves selecting these smaller-size purebred cattle and crossing them with a small-breed bull with proven traits. Through careful breeding and selection, desired conformation and purity of the breed is achieved. Fortunately, a few people have done much hard work to get the miniature Jersey breed to a good start.

Do the smaller sizes create any biological problems (for example, miniatures in other species have associated health problems sometimes)? How do you guard against this?

There is a rare genetic trait called “chondrodysplasia” often referred to as the “bulldog” gene. It results in a physical deformity that often ends in the death of the animal. It's rare, and a blood test can identify this gene so you can check animals you’re interested in buying. I have not had any personal experience with this problem in my herd.

Using a female veterinarian is the best choice for working on small-breed cattle. Women’s forearms are usually smaller and therefore gentler on the cows for pregnancy checks and other breeding procedures.

The smaller size also requires some adjustments to equipment. For example, water tanks and hay-feeding equipment need to be shorter.

If all their body parts (udders and teats) are smaller, will I still be able to milk by hand?

The teats are not necessarily smaller. Some cattle just have smaller teats whether they are miniature or not. Because the commercial dairy industry uses automatic milking equipment, there isn't much emphasis on genetics for the length of teats. In breeding miniature milk cows for families, one of my main breeding goals is to develop qualities that lend themselves to hand milking.

Can miniature cows be mated to a standard-size bull? If not, how what’s the best option other than buying a miniature bull?

No. It is not advisable to breed a miniature cow to a standard-size bull, even if he is a smaller than most of his breed. A mismatch in size could cause a large calf, and the cow might need a cesarean to deliver the calf successfully.

A better option is to breed your cow using artificial insemination (AI). Semen is available from some nice miniature bulls, if you take the time to do some research. It’s important to carefully check the source when purchasing semen. Some people claim to have bulls that are a certain height, but may not provide accurate measurements.

I provide semen for my customers to breed any miniature cow that is purchased from me. I have semen available from several bulls. This enables people to be confident in the size of bull that they are breeding to their cow or heifer and to prevent inbreeding. Another option is to borrow or lease a bull, if someone in your area has a small-breed bull. Or someone may offer to keep your cow with a small-breed bull until she’s mated. Be prepared to pay a fee or at least the cost in feed and care of your cow.

Do you raise other breeds or plan to miniaturize other breeds?

In addition to the miniature Jersey, we currently raise Dexters, Irish Jerseys, Scottish Highlanders, Belted Galloways, Herefords and White Park. We are working on miniaturizing the Holstein breed and are currently at the midsize miniature stage. We hope to work on one or two other milking breeds in the future, possibly the Brown Swiss and the Guernsey.

Are there enough miniatures around so that they won’t become quickly inbred?

Several of the miniature breeds, such as the miniature Herefords and miniature Angus (often referred to as Lowlines), have been around long enough to establish registries and breeders lists. The genetics are diversified and inbreeding isn't an issue.

Miniatures of other breeds, such as the Holstein and White Park, are rare. There is no miniature registry established yet. Finding other breeders (who are working on the same breed and who will collaborate with you) takes some detective work. In these instances, inbreeding is more of a concern.

The miniature Jersey is somewhere in between. There is a registry, but the membership is small and, with a few exceptions, the number of cattle each breeder keeps is small. But the small-breed Jersey population is diverse enough that they won't become quickly inbred. Also, due to the popularity of the Jersey as a family milk cow, more folks are downsizing standard Jerseys using small-breed Jersey semen, which also helps with genetic diversification.


You can see more photos of the Schouts’ miniature breeds in the Image Gallery, located in the “Article Tools” box at the top of this page, and at Hickory Ridge Farms.

For more information on cows and goats for milk, read Ideal Small Farm Cows: Dexter Cattle and Want Milk? Get Goats.

Do you have experience with miniature cattle? Tell us your story in the comments section below.

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Post a comment below.

 

jenna
8/13/2013 10:43:23 PM

Sorry for double post???, but just to add, our vet is a female, but she wears a glove size of large, and she had trouble preg checking the Herfords, so She walked me through it, and now I also do the pregnancy checking. Just thought I'd add that.

Jenna


jenna
8/13/2013 10:35:47 PM

Great article! I have dexters and mini Herefords. My husband and me also have a dairy farm with "regular" sized Holsteins. I'd like to comment on the subject of smaller hand/arm being better for reproductive procedures. When I first started my herd of minis, I decided to AI them as there are no mini bulls in my area. My husband had been doing the AI'ing in our dairy herd, and had good luck with them. When it came time to breed my first mini cow- actually heifer, he got everything ready and proceeded to ai her. He was VERY gentle and used lots of lube on his gloved arm, but he had a lot of trouble getting his arm in her rectum and holding her cervix. He did get her bred, but I quickly decided we had to try something different since it just caused to much discomfort for the minis with him doing it. Just for reference, he wears about a exam glove size large or even XL.  It just so happened our community college was putting on a AI course a few weeks later, so, I decided it may be best for me to learn to AI too, and do the mini's, I wear a size small exam glove by the way. So, I took the course, and proceeded to AI my first mini Hereford heifer shortly after. I too lubed my gloved hand/arm really good,took my time, and really didnt have much trouble entering her rectum and finding her cervix.  Now I'm not going to say they don't have any discomfort from me AI'ing, (hey your sticking your arm up their butt lol), but its  a lot less then a larger handed/armed person would cause, whether they be male or female.  I have since bred many of our Holsteins too, and in comparison, they dont even hardly know my arm is in them. So anyway, just thought i'd give a comparison of of our experiences.

Jenna


satwellkeister
5/4/2013 8:38:17 PM

Regarding the size of the vet's forearm: the forearm is inserted into the cow's rectum to locate and stabilize the cervix, NOT into the vagina.  The cervix can be palpated through the thin wall of the rectum.  The semen is inserted into the uterus through the cervix with a long, thin "straw" (for lack of a better word).  It is an uncomfotable process, to say the least.  The smaller the forearm, the better.  


Denise Moody
8/2/2012 6:17:37 PM
Interesting, but I wish these articles would mention the difference between small breeds and miniatures. We have Dexters, a small breed. I haven't tried milking but I have friends who have and say they produce wonderful milk. They also produce fantastic meat. This is the best of both worlds. And yes, Joe in Copalis, Dexters do just fine here in WA state! They forage well, and love a variety of green, not just grass. They are generally easy to handle and train. As for the 1/2 to an acre an animal, that is assuming the acre is in tip top shape and managed well. If you don't have perfect pasture you will need to supplement feed.

Lynne_12
9/12/2009 2:47:25 PM
We've been milking goats pretty much every day for 30 years. We expect our mature does to milk at least a gallon a day but most give two gallons. We have had 3 gallon milkers, too (Top Ten in the nation for their milk production). We also have cows. In fact, we've had cows pertty much for our whole lives. Before we became homesteaders 30 years ago, we were commercial ranchers/farmers and owned a grain elevator. Our cows are all "commercial" cattle right now but we also have/had some "dairy" cows with them. Our commercial cows have Holstein behind them, too. Sometimes we milk our commercial cows. Yes, the goats are better as far as ease of milking, more head per acre for foraging, etc. But the cows give us milk with cream that rises easily for making butter. And they give us beef for our 13 family members. Yes, we eat the goats, too (in fact, we have sausage in our freezer made from BULL meat and goat meat mixed together - nice and lean!), but we also like the beef. Recently we added a new young bull. He is half Dexter and half Jersey (standard). He looks like a miniature Jersey. We have also sold off our largest cows and kept the smaller cows/heifers. When the new bull gets fully mature (so he has his full height and can reach the cows), we will use him on our cows to "downsize" the next generation and raise our butterfat levels for making butter. We hope. All of this hinges, of course, on our being able to still HAVE animals in the near future - if the government forces mandatory NAIS on us, we will no longer be able to afford to keep any of our animals, including our homestead cattle. This system is DESIGNED to force independent animal owners out of animal ownership (over 30 species of animals are included in this program), leaving only certain corporate entities to feed all of us. Our family has been working to stop mandatory NAIS in our state for almost four years. They've now snuck it into the "food safety&

Lynne_12
9/12/2009 10:49:57 AM
We've been milking goats pretty much every day for 30 years. We expect our mature does to milk at least a gallon a day but most give two gallons. We have had 3 gallon milkers, too (Top Ten in the nation for their milk production). We also have cows. In fact, we've had cows pertty much for our whole lives. Before we became homesteaders 30 years ago, we were commercial ranchers/farmers and owned a grain elevator. Our cows are all "commercial" cattle right now but we also have/had some "dairy" cows with them. Our commercial cows have Holstein behind them, too. Sometimes we milk our commercial cows. Yes, the goats are better as far as ease of milking, more head per acre for foraging, etc. But the cows give us milk with cream that rises easily for making butter. And they give us beef for our 13 family members. Yes, we eat the goats, too (in fact, we have sausage in our freezer made from BULL meat and goat meat mixed together - nice and lean!), but we also like the beef. Recently we added a new young bull. He is half Dexter and half Jersey (standard). He looks like a miniature Jersey. We have also sold off our largest cows and kept the smaller cows/heifers. When the new bull gets fully mature (so he has his full height and can reach the cows), we will use him on our cows to "downsize" the next generation and raise our butterfat levels for making butter. We hope. All of this hinges, of course, on our being able to still HAVE animals in the near future - if the government forces mandatory NAIS on us, we will no longer be able to afford to keep any of our animals, including our homestead cattle. This system is DESIGNED to force independent animal owners out of animal ownership (over 30 species of animals are included in this program), leaving only certain corporate entities to feed all of us. Our family has been working to stop mandatory NAIS in our state for almost four years. They've now snuck it into the "food safety&

John_159
9/8/2009 8:52:11 PM
A note regarding the debate over sexist bovine health care. As a man in the military, I am occasionally subject to a mandatory prostate exam. There are two examiners at my clinic, one a short, slender young woman with tiny pianist's hands (and, dare I say it, forearms), the other is a short, stocky gnome of a man (more of an orc, really.) He has stocky hands, even for an orc, on on those hands are five old, gnarled, silver-haired, twisted phalluses that moonlight as fingers. Incidentally his forearms are probably bigger too. Now, I know that it's shamefully, inexcusably sexist of me to imagine that my poor banana-fingered orc would be any less gentle, caring, loving even, while probing my body for cancer. I will choose the pianist every time. Without a second thought. As would any reasonable human, I believe. This is because reasonable humans dwell in reality, rather than in the magical land of PC. Thank you to Troy, who took the time to write this wonderful article that was very helpful to me- I had been considering the highland cattle for milk and now have more information and options. Thanks as well to other commentors for their info on goats. I don't think I'll go with goats because my family can't get past the taste- I personally like it. As for the forearm debate. I realize we all come home and plot ways to be more politically correct, green, pure, and saintly than the Joneses, but really, give it a rest.

Jo Kiekover
9/2/2009 3:17:50 PM
We live in Zeeland, Michigan on a 5 acre gentleman's farm. We have raised standard size cows for meat, but now I am very interested in the mini cows. Not necessarily for the milk but to raise a herd. Is there an area around western Michigan that we could visit to see these little critters.

kristina rose
8/19/2009 12:23:19 PM
As a 'not all that gentle' female, I have to agree with Cliff regarding the use of a female Vet for mini's. An arm is an arm, big or small-it depends on the user how gentle and careful it is. Do these mini calves come out the size of kittens? Really don't think an arm is bigger than the calf. It's too bad these mini's still cost so much because I do think they're wonderful but again I have to agree with Cliff, goats are best for the small farm. They can be bought for next to nothing at an auction if your not too picky & only looking for weed control or a little milk for butter. Goat milk is good for all infant mammals in a pinch. You can pay about $75-200 for something registered. Way better than $1,800. And they eat thistle! Hopefully those that can afford the novelty will get these cattle into average farms. I doubt it but look at mini horses, they can be found everywhere (my yard included) now, and some pretty good little horses. I recently bought my first cow, a Holstein mix bull calf for $35. He's naturally pretty small and very easy for us to handle. We think he's the cutest little steer in MN. An extremely affordable alternative to a mini. No one else really wanted him because he's small. The first bid was only $20. I really have to wonder if the market for mini cows will ever get out of the novelty pet stage. A cow is a cow. They get poopy butts and snot on you, step on your feet and can be overly affectionate or aggressive, no matter the size. Takes a special person to want that.

Sharon King
8/14/2009 12:43:59 PM
I have had 2 Dexter cows for 1 year now and really enjoy their personalities. We milked one 6 mo. after she calved, but didn't get as much milk as we'd hoped, not even 1/2 gal. per day. We're trying again for next year and have artificially bred both cows with mini jersey--very excited about the possibilities of hybrid mini milkers! One note I'd like to make is that the 1/2 acre of pasture seems a little unrealistic unless you are very good at intensive management (which I guess we're not). We had our 2 cows on 1 acre and had to buy about 12 round bales of hay to get through the winter with them (the one did have a calf on her). I was hoping to be more self-sufficient and not have to spend the money to feed as much through the winter, so do consider possible hay expense when looking at mini cows. Definitely less feed needed than full-size, but they do eat their fair share!

Cliff_8
8/13/2009 11:45:56 AM
Hi Cheryl, I'm sorry, but the notion of smaller female forearms being gentler on the animals is even more exactly gender-biased. It is like saying only women should be dentists or surgeons because their little limbs can get in there better. As I work in health, it really strikes me as horrible that someone would assume that gender plays any role in how well a care provider can provide care. I'd have to start assigning jobs to my nurses and support staff based on their gender, and that wouldn't fly too well with them or the union; I'd have human rights complaints in moments. Sexism is a nasty thing, whether it's pro-male or pro-female. Anyway, that's enough on that subject. Cliff

cheryl_28
8/12/2009 9:09:20 AM
The article did not recommend female veterinarians because females are more gentle. He recommended them because, in general, a female's FOREARMS are (typically) physically smaller than that of a male's. The SMALLER FOREARM is what is more gentle on a small cow, not the gender of the veterinarian.

joe in copalis
8/9/2009 11:45:32 PM
Anyone know a small breed of cattle that would take the cool and very wet climate near the ocean in Washington State?

Cliff_8
8/7/2009 4:09:55 PM
It's a good article, but having experienced cattle and goats, I would politely recommend people go with goats. A single doe weighs in at about 100 lbs and is much, much easier for an individual to handle. They can be easily trained to climb up on easy-to-make milkers so that their udders are at a convenient height. They have friendly natures and are easy keepers. If one spooks, you aren't likely to end up with broken bones. And you get about 2 litres per goat per day, so it's easy to adjust the number of goats you have to your needs. Since a 100 lb goat makes 2 litres of milk, I think they are more efficient pound-for-milk than cattle. Finally, at $1800 for a single miniature cow, you can by about a dozen goats. As to land requirements, I find that a full-size cow takes about 1.25 acres of graze. That means a small cow would take a third to a half that much. But I can put three or four goats on the land required for a single miniature cow. I feel like I have to add that the note that female vets work better with miniature cows because they're gentler is a very sexist and unwarranted statement. It's like saying that male vets are better for bigger animals because they're big and strong. I have used male and female vets and farriers on my farm and I don't find their gender makes a wit of difference. What matters is how well they're trained and how good they are with the animals, and that's a personal thing. Cliff

Star Berry Farm
8/5/2009 8:12:49 PM
Wow this is great! We only have about 4 acres of pastures and would love a dairy cow. Are there websites we can source a minature jersey in our area? We are in NC. Thank you, Star Berry Farm

Adrian_1
8/5/2009 2:08:20 PM
About how much room or space does a miniature cow need? If i am in California how can i get one?

Marian
8/5/2009 1:49:56 PM
One thought about the height being a problem in milking: Perhaps the cow could be walked up a slight slope (12"over4') to a platform at which a person could sit on the floor level to milk. Somewhat like I have seen goats on platforms? My future requirements of a milk cow would not be for major milk production. A gallon may be too much for me! But other benefits would be the grass control and fertilizer production for vegetable and fruit garden. A miniture cow may be an option for me. I am cosidering goats also for milk, grass control, vegetable scrap consumption etc. Until now I didn't even know mini cows were out there. Thanks for the article.

Laurie Barrow
8/5/2009 12:25:32 PM
A very good article. I would add really think about the reasons you want a family milk cow, before you purchase. The Dexter will give as much milk, almost as much butterfat. The meat from a steer is excellant and feeds out great on grass, with no additives. We think a feeder Dexter calf bulks up better than a dairy calf. If you look around, you can get a young cow for a bit less. Semen is readily available all over the US. The steers can also be used as oxen. You are also helping keep a breed of cattle that has been around for over a hundred years going. From our point of view, they are the choice for the small homestead where everything has to do more than one thing! L








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