Keeping a family cow can be rewarding - endless access to raw milk, free lawnmowing service and fertiliser for your garden - but it comes with responsibility. Here are three things to consider before adding a family cow to your homestead.
Do you have time?
Depending on your cow, you may have to milk her twice a day for up to an hour. While this is not a huge time commitment, it is a regular one. You will be up early every morning, and you will need to be home every evening. Cows thrive on routine and will expect you to milk at the same times every day.
We have had some success with keeping the calf with the cow so that it can take most of the milk when we don’t need it. This way we reduced our milking to once a week when the calf was old enough to take the milk. But when the calf is young it will not be able to take all of the milk and you risk a cow developing mastitis (which can lead to death) if her udder remains full.
As you cannot predict how much milk your cow will make or how much the calf can drink, you need to be prepared to milk twice a day for at least several months she calves. Certainly if you want to continue milking high volumes you will need to be consistent in feeding and milking your cow twice a day.
Do you have enough feed?
People ask me if they have enough land for a family cow. Its not really the land that is important, but the pasture on the land and your ability to supplement with hay and grain. We have particularly poor pasture here most of the year, and we need to feed our cows hay and grain so that they produce enough milk for us and their calves.
This can become expensive (I am sure that store-bought milk is cheaper!). Even worse, it can be difficult for us to buy hay when conditions are bad in our local area. You need to be sure that you can provide enough feed for your cow to survive, and if you intend to keep milking her through times when you have no pasture (i.e. winter snow or summer droughts), then she will need extra feed for milk production.
As a rough guide, a lactating family cow will eat about one small bale of hay a day (and as her calf grows, it will eat a proportional amount of hay too). You will also need to feed grain of some kind to sustain the energy requirements of the modern dairy cow. The amount she needs will depend on the quality of the hay and pasture available and the type of grain you can access.
You can also consider growing root vegetables such as turnips and beets to feed your family cow when pasture is poor. Be careful with sourcing waste products such as old bread, spent brewery grain and waste from vegetable processing, as they are often poor quality and can contain harmful chemicals.
Do you have enough water?
A lactating cow can drink up to 100 litres per day (26 gallons per day). She will drink more in hot weather, if she is eating dry food or if the water is salty.
Sources of water for your cow include bore or well water, dam or pond water, town water supply or rainwater collection. It will pay to have your water source tested to ensure that it is low in salt, particularly when using bore or pond water (our local town water supply is from a bore and surprisingly high in salt).
In colder climates, ensure that water troughs cannot freeze over. If your water source runs out during the year, do you have an alternative emergency supply to ensure that you have enough water for the family cow and homestead?
A family cow is an investment. You need to prepared to give her the time for milking and pay for quality feed and water to get the return of a bountiful milk supply. If you can satisfy these three considerations then you are well on your way to keeping a family cow.
Liz Beavis is a small-scale cattle farmer and soap-making beekeeper in rural Queensland, Australia. On her Eight Acres Farm, she sells beef-tallow soaps, honey and beeswak, and is the author of Our Experience with House Cows, A Beginners Guide to Backyard Chickens and Chicken Tractors, Make Your Own Natural Soap, and the Solar Bore Pump Handbook. Connect with Liz on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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