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.
Dairy breeds can produce up to 8 gallons per day, although 3 gallons is more typical for a family dairy cow on a grass-only diet. The calf only needs about 5 quarts to 2 gallons per day if it has access to good pasture as it grows. You can assume the calf will drink half the cow’s daily production if you keep the two together about 12 hours a day.
Washing the cow’s udder before milking will help relax her. Equipment (and your hands) should be scrupulously clean, too. Several books, websites, and online videos explain the process of hand milking a cow.
After you’ve got the milk in a bucket, you will need to quickly strain it to remove debris and cool it to limit bacteria growth. To strain the milk, you can purchase a commercial milk strainer and paper filters, or pour the milk through four layers of dish towels or cheesecloth over a large colander and bowl.
If you prefer to pasteurize milk, do this after straining, but before cooling. The easiest method is to use a home milk-pasteurizer machine. These machines can be purchased for about $300 for a 2-gallon unit. For an easy stovetop method, read How do I pasteurize raw milk at home?
Breeding and Birth
Soon after giving birth to her first calf, your cow will need to be bred. She will “freshen” (have a calf and start producing milk) about nine and a half months from the date she “settles” (gets pregnant); her second heat after calving is an ideal time to breed her. For the strongest calves, time the birth when spring pastures are lush. You will be milking (and her calf may be nursing) until the last two or three months before the cow gives birth. At that time she’ll need to be “dried up” (stop being milked) to allow her body to prepare for her new calf.
You don’t need to own a bull to breed your cow. Your options include taking your cow to a bull for breeding or artificial insemination (AI). The easiest method will undoubtedly be AI, unless your neighbor just happens to have a suitable bull and you can walk your cow over for a visit. You can hire an AI technician to do the job, or take a course and do it yourself. Another breeding option is to raise or buy a yearling beef-breed bull and have it processed after your cow is bred.
If you intend to raise your calf for beef, breed your cow to a smaller beef-type bull, such as an Angus. Either way, you’ll want to select a bull that roughly matches the size of your cow — anything larger and she may have trouble birthing a large calf. Dairy breeds usually calve easily, but make sure you’re prepared for problems.
If you want homegrown, grass-fed beef, you can raise the calf until it reaches appropriate slaughter weight (typically about 1,200 pounds, but smaller if you prefer) at about 2 years old, and take it to a processor who will butcher and package the beef for you. You can also sell or give away the calf as a bottle baby for a local 4-H project.
Fencing and Facilities
Although you could tether your cow to a stake and move it daily, it’s a bit risky for the cow. She could get tangled in the rope and be injured. If you can keep an eye on her most of the day while she’s tethered, it might be worthwhile so you won’t have to invest in fencing. Usually, building a perimeter fence is the best option.
The best way to keep cattle on grass is with a rotational grazing system. This process involves dividing pastures into small paddocks and controlling the cow’s access to fresh grass, often using an electric fence that you move every few days. Lush grass grows back in the recently grazed pasture while the cow is grazing a fresh section.
For interior fences and paddock dividers, one strand of electrified high-tensile wire works effectively on cattle that are trained to respect electric fences. But if you plan to raise calves in those same paddocks, two or three wires will be more effective.
Dairy cows require modest shelter against cold winds and rain or snow. A simple shelter can be constructed from recycled materials such as old telephone poles, plywood and corrugated metal.
An outbuilding with a concrete floor that can be kept relatively clean and sanitary is ideal for milking. You can halter and tie your cow to a vertical post if she’s gentle, or use a stanchion to restrain her. Especially gentle and experienced cows can be milked standing in the field.
Get Your Dairy Cow
A cow of any good dual-purpose breed (Dexter, Red Poll, Milking Shorthorn, Randall Lineback or others) will produce a good beef calf, provide it with enough milk, and produce more than enough milk for most families’ needs. Veterinarian D. Phillip Sponenberg says, “For home dairy use, a number of the heritage breeds make a lot of sense. They thrive on average pasture and produce plenty of milk for home use, and owners with even a single cow can make real and important contributions to the conservation of these genetic treasures that we may well need for future agricultural needs.” (For more on heritage-breed cows, check out the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.)
Ask around in your circle of rural friends, the local extension office or farm stores for advice on finding cows for sale in your area. You might find your cow or cow/calf pair at a local dairy farm, or check Craigslist. If you don’t have experience with cattle, try to buy an older cow with a placid nature.
If you have a knowledgeable neighbor or friend, take her or him with you when looking at a cow that’s for sale. Before buying, do a visual inspection and ask lots of questions: How old is she and how many seasons has she been milked? Has she been hand-milked or machine-milked? Do you have proof that the cow is tuberculosis and brucellosis-free? Has she had calving problems? Does she have any health or behavior problems? If possible, milk her yourself or watch her being milked and examine the milk for signs of mastitis: stringy milk, clots or blood.
If you want a particular breed, check the classified ads in rural-lifestyle and farming magazines, or go to that particular breed’s association website and locate a breeder within a reasonable distance.
Annual Budget for Keeping a Family Cow
There are lots of variables in a budget for a family milk cow, but after you own the cow, have summer pasture, install the fence, and have basic equipment, the primary cost on an annual basis will be for feed. Bull rental (or semen), vet bills, and supplements are also variable costs. But the one-year estimates below show that keeping a cow can save you money compared to buying milk and meat at retail prices.
You can “stockpile” some of the pasture, saving it for winter grazing, but to maintain health and production, you’ll usually need to supplement the cow’s diet with high-quality hay when grass isn’t growing.
Calves raised for beef are usually slaughtered at about 2 years old when they’re approaching 1,200 pounds. But you can take advantage of summer pasture, and make or buy less hay, if you butcher the calf right before winter, when the calf is about a year and a half old and probably about 700 pounds.
Cost of alfalfa hay: $810. Assumes 42.5 lbs. x 200 days; $190 per ton in small, square bales
Value of milk available for human consumption: $3,000 to $5,215. 3.5 gal. x 270 days = 945 gal.; bottle-fed calf drinks 200 gallons in about two months before weaning; net 745 gal. at $7/gal., compares to premium, locally produced milk. Even with a more conservative $4/gal., the value of milk would be about $3,000. If you milk only once a day and allow the calf to nurse instead of feeding it with a bottle, the calf will drink more milk daily and can be weaned when it’s 8 or 9 months old. In this situation, you could expect about 470 gal. of milk for human consumption.
Value of grass-fed meat: $1,575. 700 lb. calf at 18 months old, producing 350 pounds of meat at $4.50/lb.
Annual value: $3,765 to $5,980
— Troy Griepentrog
Dairy Cow Information and Resources
The Family Cow by Dirk van Loon; includes instructions and step-by-step illustrations for hand milking a cow.
Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle by Heather Smith Thomas
Dairy Heritage New and used dairy and cheese-making equipment.
Karen Kreb is a freelance writer, television producer and farmer in Osage County, Kan. Read Karen's blog, My Home Farm.