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.
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.