Have you ever considered owning a milk cow? It’s a bit more complicated than you may think. It’s rather trendy right now to have a backyard milk cow, but many people don’t realize how involved it can be. If you are thinking of having a cow and just milking it twice a week to get the milk you need for your family, here are some things you will want to know before diving in.
1 – A milk cow makes more milk than it’s own small calf can drink. Due to selective breeding, dairy cows make from 2-4 gallons of milk twice a day. Dairy farms want cows that can produce the most milk to sell, which is way more than a baby calf can drink. If you don’t want to milk your cow twice daily every day (they don’t take weekends or holidays off), then you will need to get more calves to drink the milk. Our cow, Chrome, recently calved and here are her new foster calves.
2 – Cows that produce 5 or more gallons of milk per day eat a lot. Our cows are on pasture 24 hours a day. We still feed 10 pounds of grain twice daily. We go through a 50-pound sack of feed every 2 1/2 days for each lactating cow. If you feed less, your cow will produce less and be VERY thin. Dairy cows are “bony” to begin with, and if they aren’t being fed enough, all of their body reserves will be put into making milk.
3 – Different breeds have different requirements. This photo is from a 4-H show. These giant cows are Holsteins from a local dairy farm. They produce almost twice the milk of a smaller Jersey cow. They are meant for massive milk quantity production. These ladies do not make great backyard cows. They are high maintenance, eat 30+ pounds of grain daily, and are a little less sociable than Jerseys.
4 – Udders are delicate and can be injured or become infected rather easily. I’ve seen mastitis that causes abscessing of the udder, teats ripped or injured, hot swollen quarters that require pain medication for the cow. If the udder is not milked out completely every 12 hours, that leftover milk in the udder will cause mastitis. Then the udder must be treated with antibiotics and the milk can’t be consumed by humans for 3 or more days after the treatment.
5 – Hand-milking sounds romantic and “Little House on the Prarie” but it is torture. Remember that we are milking out around 2-3 gallons of milk twice a day. Hand-milking not only takes 5 times a long as machine milking, but there are so many more chances for contamination and spilled milk. A milking machine can empty a full udder of 2 1/2 gallons of milk in about 5-7 minutes in a closed system that prevents hair, dirt, and spilled milk. If the cow kicks while you are hand-milking, she can knock over the bucket and easily dump your hard work onto the barn floor.
So why can’t we just leave the cow’s own calf with her and milk when we want? Because dairy cows are not beef cows. Look at this udder on this beef cow:
You can barely see it. This beef mama will only produce enough milk for her calf to nurse. A calf only needs 1/2 – 3/4 of a gallon of milk twice daily to thrive. That’s normal and natural for a cow who is only nursing her one calf.
For milk cows that have been bred (genetically selected) to produce mass volumes of milk for human consumption, that just doesn’t work. For that reason, homesteaders may choose dual-purpose breeds of cattle that only produce 1 gallon or so per milking. The other option is a dairy/beef crossbred cow. We have a 1/2 Jersey, 1/2 Hereford cow in our beef herd and she raises big, healthy babies every year. She could also be milked as she makes more milk than a normal beef cow.
6 – Cows must have babies to produce milk. Many people think since they are milk cows, they will simply make milk. Not true. They are no different than any other mammal. Cows normally lactate for 305 days. The cow must be rebred to a bull or with artificial insemination about 2-3 months after calving. She will then continue to produce milk until she is ready to give birth again. 60 days befor her new baby is born, you must stop milking her so that she can make colostrum for her next calf. That 2-month “rest” time is to allow her udder to regenerate itself and prepare colostrum for the newborn calf.
Colostrum is the “first milk” that contains the calf’s entire immune system. The cow puts every single immune item she knows about into this milk. The calf can absorb all of those immunity pieces directly from its stomach & intestinal tract into the bloodstream. Without quality colostrum in the first 24 hours of life, the calf’s chance of survival is low.
As with milk, the cow produces more colostrum than the calf can drink. I always milk the cow out after the calf has nursed for 24 hours, and then freeze the remaining colostrum for use in emergency situations – like the twin Hereford heifers that I posted about back in December. They received life-saving colostrum from my freezer because their mom could not provide it for them.
I hope this helps you. Owning a backyard cow is a lot of work, but in my opinion, the rewards are well worth the work!