How to Start and Manage a Micro Dairy, Step 11: Choosing the Cows

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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My guiding principles for operating a micro dairy are keep things simple, then make them simpler and less time consuming, avoid fads, avoid the use of machinery whenever possible and let your cows do as much of the work for you as is possible. 

For me, the long term goal is to constantly refine my management practices and gradually reduce the amount of time and effort required to successfully run a Micro Dairy. How you achieve this goal at least partially depends on how much work your cows do for you.

I have milked just about every type of common dairy cow including Holsteins, Guernseys, Brown Swiss, Ayrshires, Milking Shorthorns, Holstein/Jersey crosses and other Jersey crosses. Of all the breeds I have milked and cared for, I prefer Jerseys for a micro dairy. Here’s why:

• Lower frequency of problems calving and calf size is never an issue when choosing a sire.

• Jerseys are a relatively small-framed cow that tends to be an easy keeper.

• Easier on barns and feeding facilities than larger-framed cows such as Holsteins.

• Good grazers and foragers. There may be specialty breeds out there that are better. Jerseys consistently do a good job.

• Heat tolerant. That said, I still provide my cows with the opportunity to find shade in the summer. Don’t listen to people who advise you not to.

• Better at converting feed to milk than most other breeds and their milk is high in butterfat and protein.

• Intelligent with responsive personalities, if properly raised.

• Jerseys are a common breed with a good selection of sires and genetics.

• Contrary to popular myths, Jersey bull calves make good beef, if properly raised.

Since 2001 I have cleared a lot of brush, saw logs and firewood off of approximately 10 acres of our land to create what I call “Wooded Pasture” which is now officially referred to as “Silvopasture.” Our Jersey cows browse well in the woods and are helping me gradually thin out the underbrush. They also do a great job preventing the brush from regrowing while encouraging the native grasses to take hold.

The cows have also done a remarkable job improving our open pasture. Years ago I read that it takes 100 years of careful stewardship to make a good pasture.  I believe it. I also believe it is important to let the grasses that grow in my pastures voluntarily to thrive and multiply. I do not believe in plowing and planting exotic grass that may be popular at the moment. I try not to mow my pastures with my tractor more than once per year to reduce soil compaction. The rest of the time I let the cows do it with their “4-inch cutter bars,” as my neighboring dairy farmer used to call grazing Jerseys.

Now, 12 years after rescuing my weedy and overgrown fields, they are becoming productive pastures thanks to my cows. For me, my Jerseys have been a good choice. But, regardless of the breed, before you buy your cows spend time with them to make sure that they are healthy and have good, workable dispositions because, if all goes well, you will be living with them for a long time.

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