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.


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)

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

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