I’ll admit it… I’m totally prejudiced.
Try as I might to get all excited over green beans and squash, I’d much rather talk about milk cows and home dairying. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the gardening aspect of my homestead, but animal husbandry is just more of my thing I suppose… And did I mention that I have a pretty severe brown thumb? Yeah… that might have something to do with it.
I firmly believe the family milk cow is going to be the next status symbol. 😉 And heck, if you don’t have room for a cow, there’s no shame in a dairy goat (or sheep) instead.
Regardless of what species you choose, home dairying has got to be one of the most satisfying aspects of homesteading–even if you aren’t as prejudiced as I am.
However, since it’s been several generations since the family milk cow was commonplace, most folks have a bunch of questions on the topic. And that’s not surprising, since most of us (including myself) grew up with the white stuff from the store.
I’ve decided to collect all of my most-common reader questions related to milk cows and home dairying in one big ol’ post. Hopefully this will answer any questions you might have on the topic, and prepare you for a dairy animal of your own in the near future.
Common Family Milk Cow Questions
Should I get a cow or a goat?
This is a hotly debated topic, and honestly? I think it very much depends on the person and the homestead. My Cow vs. Goat post will help you to weigh out the pros and cons of each home dairy animal.
How much land do I need for a milk cow?
It depends on where you live and what type of pasture you have available. Generally, it’s recommended you have 2-5 acres per cow. And even though we have 60+ acres of pasture for our small herd of cattle and horses, we still end up feeding hay during the winter when the grass is dormant. If you plan on feeding hay year around, you can have a much smaller pen.
How much does a milk cow cost?
It depends on the cow and location, but dairy cows generally sell for $900-$3000 in our part of the country. The proven family cows cost more, while a first-calf heifer will cost less. Another alternative is to start with a bottle calf, but the turn around time is longer.
How much does it cost to feed a milk cow?
This is a tough question to answer… The cost of feeding a cow depends on:
a) How much pasture you have
b) What type of hay you are feeding
c) How much hay costs in your area
d) The type of cow you have
A general rule is 30-40 pounds of hay per day, per cow. (And again, that number can vary greatly). In our area (depending on the year) hay goes for around $150-$200 per ton (2000 pounds).
What should I feed my cow?
Since we personally are believers in the benefits of grass-fed milk and meat, we feed our cattle a grass-based diet. That means they graze during the summer/fall, and eat hay (usually a grass/alfalfa mix) during the winter.
Many dairy cow owners feed their cows grain to boost production. However, since we aren’t a commercial dairy, I’m not really interested in pushing our cow to maximum capacity. She produces more milk than we need on just a diet of quality hay.
What breed should I get?
It depends. Holsteins are the primary breed of cattle used by the commercial dairy industry. However, while they produce a very large quantity of milk, it has a lower butterfat content, and the milk may not be quite as nutritious as some of the other dairy breeds.
Our Oakley is a Brown Swiss, so I’m rather partial to them. The Brown Swiss is one of the oldest dairy breeds, and they are known for being kind and gentle. However, many homesteaders favor the smaller Jersey, which produces an impressive quantity of rich milk for its smaller size. Other good family milk cow options would be Guernseys or Dexters–a smaller breed that is making a comeback.
If you are interested in choosing your breed based on their milk componets and nutrition this article: Milk Components: Understanding Milk Fat and Protein Variation in Your Dairy Herd will be a big help.
Will I be chained to my homestead forever and ever if I get a milk cow?
You don’t have to be! We practice a share-milking program on our homestead and leave the calf with the cow for a portion of the day. This enables me to only have to milk once per day (during most of the year), and I can leave for the weekend when I need to.
Do you have to breed a cow to get milk?
Yes–in order for a cow to produce milk, it needs to have a baby first. Most cow owners breed their cow every single year so they have a fresh lactation cycle. However, you don’t *have* to do this. As long as you continue to milk, a cow can go for several years on one lactation cycle. But they must have a calf initially to get the lactation going.
Can I have just one cow or do I need a whole herd?
Cows are definitely herd animals and enjoy the companionship of other cattle. However, there have been various times on our homestead when we’ve only had one cow, and they still seemed happy to hang out with the goats or horses for companionship.
How much milk do you get?
A lot! Again, the exact amount depends on the cow and what she is eating. Once we wean the calf in the fall and are milking twice daily, I can usually expect to get 3-4 gallons per day. And if we really pushed her production with grain, we could get even more.
How exactly do I get the milk out of the cow?
With a little bit of practice! 😉 Check out my “How to Milk a Cow” video for all the tips and tricks.
How do I keep the milk clean?
I usually brush off any hay or “dirt” bits that are hanging on the cow’s udder or belly before I start. I also wipe off the udder to remove any dirt or manure. This goes a long way in keeping the milk clean. However, it’s inevitable that you’ll end up with some dirt specks or bits of hay in your bucket at some point–I’m personally OK with that, and I just strain it and call it good. However, on the rare occasion that the cow sticks her foot into the bucket, or a big ol’ clod of manure lands inside, the milk definitely goes to the chickens….
Do you have to pasteurize the milk?
Can I sell the milk?
It depends on where you live. In the majority of states in the USA, it is highly illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption (crazy, but true)… However, there are a few states where you can–so be sure to check the laws first. Another option is to set up a cowshare or goatshare program, in which participants “own” a portion of the dairy animal and receive milk as part of the benefits of their ownership. This way, no money is actually exchanged for the sale of the milk itself.
How much time does it take you to care for your milk cow?
We have a small herd of other cattle and horses, so Miss Oakley generally gets lumped in with them. We feed large bales, so those have to be fed usually on a weekly basis with the tractor (during the wintertime.) Daily maintenance really doesn’t take much time–just filling up the big water tank and scooping poop out of the barn several times per week.
Milking usually takes around 15-30 minutes, depending on how full her udder is and how many times I get interrupted by children or dogs…
Do I need to have a stanchion in order to milk?
Nope! We’ve never used a stanchion or head-catch (contraptions that hold the cow still so you can milk) with Oakley. If you have one, it can be handy, but not necessary. It took a little work in the beginning, but she now quietly stands tied while I milk. Sometimes I feed her hay during the process, but not always. She’s usually happy either way.
Will I have to help her calve?
Probably not, but it’s a good idea to be prepared anyway, just in case something goes wrong. Find a large animal vet you trust, and keep their number handy during calving season. This post will help you watch for all the signs of calving (tons of pics!).
At What Age Should You Retire Your Milk Cow?
Commercial milk cows are retired between the ages of 6-7 usually, but a family milk cow can be retired at 10- 12 years of age. It really depends on the breed, and how they handle calving each year. If you notice that your milk cow starts having trouble calving on her own as she ages it is time to consider retirement.
Where can I learn more about family milk cows?
There are many different resources, but one of my all-time favorites has been Keeping a Family Cow by Joann S. Grohman (affiliate link). I’ve read it cover to cover several times!
I definitely don’t claim to be a “milk cow expert,” but hopefully this post gave you a little glimpse into the adventure of owning a family cow. It’s a lot of work, but totally worth it!
And listen in here for the full scoop on how we breed and calve our cows:
More About Home Dairy:
- How to Train a Heifer to Become a Family Milk Cow
- Caring for a Cow and Her Calf After Delivery
- Cheap Milking Equipment for Home Dairy
- From Barn to Fridge: 6 Tips for Safely Handling Raw Milk
If you are interested in adding a family milk cow to your homestead, but are unsure where to start then my new course Freedom Foundry might be for you.
-> Freedom Foundry is a community that I built, to help you learn different skills to become as self-sufficient and independent as possible. Each month the Freedom Foundry group focuses on a specific skill that will help you increase your independence. This April we will be talking about adding dairy cows to the homestead. Freedom Foundry includes a step-by-step playbook and video meeting with a professional. Click here to learn more about Freedom Foundry and how you can become as independent as possible <-