Raise Small-breed Milk Cows

Small-breed milk cows eat only a third to half of what a standard-size cow eats, and they produce a more manageable amount of milk. Plus, they’re easier to handle because of their small size.

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by Flickr/Sevie Kenyon
These miniature Jersey calves are not only adorable, they’ll grow up to be efficient producers of milk.

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.

two small-breed jersey calves with two cows

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.

jersey cow and two white park cows

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.

jersey cow and two white park cows

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 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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