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Adding a Family Cow to the Homestead Farm

Updated: Jan 26

Some Quick Advice for the Ride of Your Life

If you are new to having a dairy cow or considering adding one to your farm operation or homestead, it is important to think carefully about your foray into homestead dairying. This commitment is not for the faint of heart, for you are ultimately welcoming a new family member to your home.

Your cow will live with you for many years and will more than likely provide future generations of cows for your farm, and perhaps a few beef animals or draft livestock (oxen) from the bull calves that are born.  When your cow is lactating, you will be milking her once or twice a day – which is a commitment, I assure you.

The rewards to having a family cow are many, and far outweigh the added responsibility. First, of course, is what may feel like an endless supply of farm fresh milk!  This milk is so delicious and cannot compare to the processed ‘milk’ that you find in the grocery store. The components (fat, protein, other solids) in your home-grown product will vary depending upon your cow and what you are feeding her, but you can rest assured that you will get more of all of those when you harvest this amazing food from your well-loved companion and farm partner.

Consuming your milk as a raw product rewards you with a nutritional profile of vitamins, enzymes, and fats that you will not find in pasteurized milk. Though some doctors or nutritionists will warn you about the dangers of consuming raw milk, there are many doctors and nutritionists who prescribe raw milk for their patients.

Make sure that your milk is harvested into clean containers, that your cow is healthy and happy, and that you have a system in place to filter and chill your milk as soon as possible. This will ensure a longer shelf life, and a delicious product. This is also a great time to familiarize yourself with ways to process your milk into cheese, yogurt, butter, and other delicious value-added products. Your family will love you for it, and you will be that much closer to self-sufficiency.

Learning How to Make Butter

There are many breeds of dairy cows, and within those breeds one can generalize on what to expect for temperament, size, color/markings, milk production, and more. Beyond those points, do not forget one of the most important ingredients when choosing your first cow; their personality. On our farm, we hand-milk our cows, so it is important that they are approachable, docile, and willing to stand still for us when we milk them. When using mechanical milking units, perhaps you will not need to be as picky, but a friendly cow will make your experience much more rewarding.

The volume of milk that you can expect to harvest from your cow will vary based upon the breed, what she is being fed, her age, and stage of lactation. You can expect to receive anywhere from 4 gallons to 10 gallons a day at the beginning of the cow’s lactation, and, if she is being fed quality feed and holding good body condition, you will probably be able to average about 3-6 gallons per day over the course of her lactation. Some of this milk you will be feeding to the calf at least for the first couple months (about 1.5 gallons per day), and if you keep the calf on the cow and let her nurse, you will find that even more milk will go to the calf and more of the butterfat!  (see Milk Production Graph)

Livestock Health & Nutrition

Healthy livestock are a reflection of a whole farm system, involving a number of elements to balance their quality of life with the rest of your farm. Preventive management strategies are the first step towards maintaining healthy animals and starts from the soil up; building soils that are biologically active, free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, containing a good balance of minerals, biological life (worms, insects, soil microbes), and organic matter. This, in turn, will produce high quality feed (hay, pasture, grain) for your animals.

As a general rule, you will want at 1-3 acres of land per cow to cover your forage needs during the growing season. The range in acreage depends on the health and productivity of your land and how you manage and utilize that acreage. Learning how to manage pasture as a crop is a skill, and there are many books, on-farm workshops, and webinars on the subject. A small listing of resources can be found at the end of this article.

Water is a significant portion of a cow’s daily nutritional needs. A dairy cow consumes from 10 to 30 gallons of water per day, depending upon her body size, stage of lactation, and dry matter content of her feed (well managed pasture is 75% water!). Make sure that the water they are consuming is clean and available in quantities to meet their daily needs.

The primary part of a dairy ration should be in the form of forages. If you feed grain, make sure not to overdo it, as a high grain diet is not natural for ruminants and can cause all sorts of metabolic issues. We feed a couple pounds of grain to our cows each time we milk them – which is not a lot, comparatively. Some farmers like to feed 5 – 10 lbs of grain each milking (average 15 lbs a day), and others choose to feed no grain at all.  

Meeting the nutritional needs of your family cow is only part of the equation; your cow(s) will also need an environment that provides clean air, sunlight, freedom of movement, protection from inclement weather (shelter), and pasture to graze.  A comfortable cow is a happy cow. Make sure your cows (and calves) have opportunities to lie down and chew their cud. If they do not have a clean, dry place to do this (with adequate space), this could put unnecessary stress on your livestock.

As a farm steward, good observational skills are important, and can catch an issue before it becomes a larger problem. Take time each day to look for signs of health and signs of "dis-ease" in your herd. Take note of visible signs of unthriftiness or discomfort. Note the characteristics of your animals when they are in good health to affirm what is working well. Signs of good health include a glossy coat, bright eyes, good body condition, good appetite, good milk production, low somatic cell count, alert disposition, and good mobility. The manure should not be too loose and should not have undigested grain in it.

An animal that is unthrifty may first show changes in attitude. She may be nervous or jumpy, she could be depressed, off her feed, or her water consumption may be down. Maybe she is not chewing her cud. Perhaps she isn't laying down, or is laying down and not wanting to get up. Is she hanging out with the other animals when she is out on pasture, or is she off by herself? How does her manure look and what does her breath smell like? Taking the time to watch your animals each day may be the best 10 minutes you ever spent.

Spring grazing has begun! Love to see the dandelion blossoms.

So has having a family cow been worth it for our farm? Absolutely! We have had our own milk cow(s) for 18 years, and knowing the cows who produce the milk, and the pastures that they graze in order to make this healing sustenance, brings with it a true sense of Food Sovereignty. This stewardship brings to our table a nutrient-dense food that fuels our bodies, minds and spirits and gives us the energy and enthusiasm to wake up each day for another dose of the Homestead Life. We are grateful.

Note: There are many books and other resources that discuss soil health, livestock nutrition and successful grazing models. Here is a short list of recommended resources for you:  

o   ‘Keeping a Family Cow’ by Joann S. Grohman

o   ‘The Art and Science of Grazing’ by Sarah Flack

o   Treating Dairy Cows Naturally’ by Dr. Hubert Karreman

o   ‘Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence’ by Bill Murphy

o   ‘Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animals’ by Dr. Paul Dettloff

o   ‘Cure Your Own Cattle’ by Newman Turner

o   ‘Fertility Pastures and Cover Crops’ by Newman Turner

If you are wanting to learn more about Having a Family Cow, or are interested in Management Intensive Grazing, or Butter, Yogurt & Cheese Making, feel free to join us at Earthwise Farm & Forest for our On-Farm Workshops covering these subjects and more.

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