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).

| June/July 2010

  • Cow and calf
    If you allow a calf to nurse instead of milking the cow twice a day, you’ll save time on chores.
    ISTOCKPHOTO
  • family cow - Man with cows
    Dominic Palumbo leads his family cows (a Normande and a Jersey-Angus cross) to pasture near Sheffield, Mass.
    PHOTO: JASON HOUSTON
  • family cow - milk glass on post
    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.
    ISTOCKPHOTO
  • Fresh dairy products
    Dairy products from your own grass-fed cow are nutritious and tasty!
    ISTOCKPHOTO/INA PETERS
  • Straining milk
    Strain milk before cooling it.
    JASON HOUSTON
  • Man milking cow
    Milking can be a rhythmic, relaxing routine.
    JASON HOUSTON

  • Cow and calf
  • family cow - Man with cows
  • family cow - milk glass on post
  • Fresh dairy products
  • Straining milk
  • Man milking cow

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.

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)


mahafakir
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.






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