When we brought home our first milk cow, it was a comedy of errors. Everything that could have gone wrong did. We thought we had done our research and knew what we were doing (well enough).
We had settled on the Dexter breed and thought a cow would be a good fit for our 2 ½ acre homestead. We were shopping for a heifer calf. We weren’t quite set up for milking yet and a heifer would give us some time to purchase equipment and learn more about how to actually milk a cow.
Instead, we hit the jackpot and stumbled upon a good milker who was dry AND bred. That would give us time to get our gear together! She even came with a bell! How pastoral was she going to look?!
We asked all the right questions and got all the right answers.
She did try to kick when we tried to put our hands on her teats, but she just wasn’t used to being touched the field we were told. She’d be fine in the stanchion. When we got her home, everything went well… until the next morning when her udder was so swollen it looked like it was going to pop. She wasn’t dry! She had a gallon of milk in there and we had no idea how to get it out. (Let alone the equipment to milk & strain it.)
Thankfully, we had a friend who came by and gave us a crash course on hand milking and the rest was history… (Even the part where she wasn’t really bred and we had no bull, couldn’t find an AI Tech , and went back and bought the bull from the same herd.)
Sadly, our story is too common among homesteaders just starting out and thankfully it all worked out in the end, but the lesson learned is that there are a lot of things to think about when making the decision to add dairy animals to a homestead and it’s one that that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Dairy animals are creatures of habit. Transportation and re-homing is hard on them. They are a major commitment for the next decade or more of your life. But the rewards and value that they will add to your life are incalculable and they are worth every bit of blood, sweat, tears, and money that you put into them.
Of course, the first question you need to ask yourself is: Cow or goat? And it’s only a question you can answer for yourself, considering several factors (I came up with 12, in fact) before making the decision.
You also need to ask yourself if your schedule allows for the 1-2 times daily commitment of a regular milking routine? A milking schedule doesn’t have to be rigid, but you should have a general routine. You can use the offspring to help you milk once a day (or maybe even more if you have plans every now and then). A routine will help you have a healthier, happier animal, cleaner milking area, and increase your yields!
From costs, to how to pick the right cow, breeding, calving, milking, and more I’m going to walk you through the basics of cow ownership so you can get an idea of what it entails and whether it is a commitment you’re willing to take on.
Family Milk Cow 101
How Much Does it Cost to Raise a Family Milk Cow
This is a tough question to answer because there are so many variables, particularly in assessing the quality of forage in your pasture and how many months out of the year you will be able to graze it. Feed costs also vary depending on where you live, whether you feed non-GMO, organic, or need to have it shipped.
Initial Family Cow Investment
• The Cow
The price of your cow can vary depending on her age (heifers and old cows are cheaper), breed, pedigree, whether she can maintain her body condition while pregnant & lactating (100% grass-fed cows are more expensive), whether she has been halter broken, her A2 beta casein status (A2/A2 tested cows are premium), and the market where you live. In Ohio we can see prices of $500-$1000 for a heifer, $1500-$2000 for a bred, lactating cow, and up to $3000 if she’s A2/A2. (Which is a significant difference, but if you look at it as in investment and breed her to an A2 bull and sell her A2 heifers, she could pay for herself in a few years.)
• Shelter, if needed
A barn provides the optimal shelter, but a 3-sided run-in will be enough to protect them from the elements during storms and winter weather. Some hardier heritage breeds will do better with less shelter, but it is still wise to have some sort of protection so they will thrive in the winter. Illness and death is a real possibility for an unsheltered cow.
• Milking Stanchion, if needed
• Milking Pump, if using
There are pros & cons to using a milker instead of hand milking. Basically, you have to decide if you’d rather spend your time milking the cow or thoroughly cleaning the milker. Time-wise, it’s about a wash. After years of using a milking pump we just switched back to hand milking because we don’t really think the machine saves us too much time, we didn’t like the noise, prefer not worrying if it’s getting clean enough, and don’t want the deal with the maintenance costs.
• Grain & Mineral Bucket
I recommend always at the very least “grain bucket training” your cow. This amounts to putting a scoop of grain in the bottom of a bucket a few times and shaking it, calling her while you shake. Let her snack on the grain and it will only take a few times before she comes running. That way, if she does get out of her fencing, having her know what that “shake, shake” means is the difference between you spending an hour fighting an ornery cow or 10 minutes walking her back and re-securing the fence. If you didn’t invest in a cow that that is 100% grass-fed and can thrive on only grass and hay while maintaining her body condition then you should seriously consider the ethics of supplementing her diet with a bit of grain.
Learn how to determine a cow’s body condition and why we feed our cow grain.
• Milking Supplies: Teat Cleaner, Teat Dip, Rags (Paper Towels or Shop Towels), Udder Butter, 2 Stainless Steel Buckets (1 “Clean”, 1 “Dirty”), Funnel & Filters, Half-Gallon Mason Jars
• Miscellaneous Supplies: Halter & Lead, Thermometer, Wound Kote, as well as a few less common items you might not have realized you need.
Get our complete list of family cow milking supplies.
Annual Costs to Keep a Family Cow
• Grain, if using
• Hoof Trimming
This is probably more biannual and depends on whether they will walk on hard surfaces to wear the hoof down at all. Untrimmed hooves can cause lameness and lead to more serious difficulties.
• Breeding Expenses
These include Artificial Insemination (AI) or a bull rental/barter. Which you choose depends on which you have available access to and it could be a wash price-wise considering you’ll have to keep the bull on your farm for a few cycles to make sure she takes. It costs us about $40 each time the AI tech visits. Or feeding a bull hay for about 3 months if we go that route. Breeding expenses also include pregnancy testing. If I could convince you of one thing it would be to always pregnancy test your cow. Don’t trust yourself to know the signs. She could be cycling quietly (or not at all). If you assume she is bred when she isn’t and wait until no calf comes, you just lost a whole year of feed expenses for no return. There are 3 options for testing: Veterinary confirmation (which is the most expensive and risky since palpation can in rare circumstances cause miscarriage); Blood testing (which can be tricky yet inexpensive); Milk testing (which isn’t always an option, but is also inexpensive.) Vet exams run us about $75 per visit (though it could be more or less depending on how far you are from the vet). We haven’t tried the milk test, but the blood test is about $5 per test plus postage.
How to Pick a Family Milk Cow
Cows can be considered dairy breeds, beef breeds, dual-purpose (or some even say tri-purpose if you’ll use them as oxen). Your typical dairy breeds are Holstein, Jersey, Guernsey, and Brown Swiss. Some beef breeds you’ll find are Angus, Hereford, and Belted Galloway.
Dual-purpose cows are breeds that are good for both milk and meat. These often make an ideal cow for a homestead because we don’t need as much milk as a dairy breed will give and then their calves can be raised for a higher yield of beef than a boney dairy cow would produce. Some dual purpose breeds are Dexters, Shorthorns, and Devons.
Common sense tells us that the bigger the cow, the more feed they’ll consume. Some claim that smaller cows like Dexters eat up to 50% less than more commonly found breeds. That wasn’t true in our experience and with the slightly decreased feed bill came significantly decreased yields. Which size cow you choose ultimately depends on your family’s needs. If you have a larger family a mini-cow might not be a good fit even though you might not need to buy as much hay. If it’s just you and your spouse, a Holstein is going to quickly make you need a second fridge.
• Grass or Grain-Fed
In recent years, there has been an increase in knowledge about the health benefits of eating beef and using milk products from cows that have been only fed grass. The problem is, in some cases the pendulum has swung far the other way and some will give their cows only grass in their diets.
The problem is many (most?) modern breeds have been bred to convert grain into higher yields over the last several decades which means that on a solely grass diet yields go down. But in some cows (and ours is one of them) the yield on a 100% grass-based diet stays the same and they take that off their own flesh, getting skinnier and skinnier. As responsible stewards of the life of this cow in our care, we have made sure to find a balance in a grain ration that allows her to maintain a healthy body weight while still producing milk.
• Quality of her Calf-Hood
The overall health and disposition of the cow you choose is not only affected by genetics and how you care for her now, but also how she was cared for as a calf. Did she get enough colostrum? Was she fed milk or milk replacer? Was she fed a lot of grain? How much positive human interaction did she have? Is she halter broken and lead trained?
• A2/A2 Beta Casein
One of the protein components in milk, casein can come in a combination of 2 forms: A1 and A2. So a cow can be A1/A1, A1/A2, or A2/A2. Which combination of components she has in her milk is genetic so some some breeds are more likely to have A2/A2 milk.
Holsteins mostly have A1/A1 milk whereas it is said most Guernseys have A2/A2 milk where Jerseys are all over the board. Of the 3 Jerseys we have owned over the years, one is A2/A2 and the other 2 were not. We tested our Milking Shorthorn and she is A1/A2.
Why does it matter? Studies are showing that the A2/A2 combination is easier to digest and many lactose intolerant people are able to drink A2/A2 milk. This may or may not be important to you if you don’t suffer from lactose intolerance, but it may be something you would like to still consider as A2/A2 calves have a higher market value.
A heifer is ready to be bred so that she will have her first calf around her 2nd birthday and in the spring. Calves born in the spring are the healthiest and have the best chance for a good start. You will already have been observing and charting her heat cycles which happen every 21 days (though you’ll see her start showing signs of going into heat around day 18.)
Signs of heat may include irritability and misbehavior, bellowing, mounting other cows (or being mounted by other cows), mucus or bloody discharge, a drop in milk production. It is said that dairy breeds are more difficult to detect heat than beef breeds.
Having a bull around is the best way to know when a cow is in heat. He was designed just for the job. If you’re using an AI tech to inseminate your cow you want him to show up as soon as you first notice her in standing heat. Which is easier said than done, especially without another cow. We’ve learned that our best bet is to call him in as soon as we observe heat symptoms and have him come out the next day and again 24 hours later if he thinks it is warranted. They can tell a lot more during an exam than we can from external observations.
Best time to Breed Cows for Optimal Pregnancy Rate
When Will My Cow Have Her Calf
Again, I can’t stress enough that you need to confirm your cow’s pregnancy. When you have everything riding on that one cow, a year is a long time to bet you’re observations are accurate. Once you know she’s pregnant, you can use a cattle gestation calculator to get a rough idea of when she will calve.
As the time approaches you’ll notice several things to indicate that birth is imminent.
Weeks Before Birth
• Her udder will fill with milk.
• Her vulva will become quite swollen and puffy. When she’s lying down the pressure of the baby will even open it up. (This can change from day to day. One day it’s swollen, the next it’s wrinkled. We’ve had cows calve within hours of observing both.)
• She may discharge some mucus from her vulva.
Days Before Birth
• Her teats will engorge, point out to the side, and maybe even drip colostrum.
• The tail head looks like it’s lifted up and the skin is stretched between it and the hip. She may be holding her tail off to the side.
Hours Before Birth
• She may be laying down without chewing cud.
• You see her contracting. She can be standing or lying down, straining at intervals, maybe stretching her legs straight out when lying down contracting.
• Her ligaments loosen as the baby moves down the birth canal. I think this is easier to observe in beefier breeds because suddenly look a lot like a boney dairy cow. If you handle your cow daily before birth it is easier to discern the difference. Feel the tight band that runs between her tail head and pin bones. It will feel like a tight, firm cord. About 24 hours before birth it will begin to slacken and drop into more of a U shape. You will be able to pinch it and wiggle it back and forth.
What to Do with the Calf
After she gives birth, it’s best to leave the calf alone and let nature take it’s course. Mama will softly moan to it while licking it clean. If she doesn’t seem interested in the calf you can place it in front of her to encourage her. This will really go a long way to bond mama and baby and encourage the calf to have a will to live, stand and walk, and start nursing.
If she still doesn’t work to clean the baby and especially if it’s chilly outside you may need to towel the calf off to get it dry. With one slow mama, I found that when I toweled off the calf, that was what peaked her curiosity most and made her start licking.
Keep a careful eye on mama and baby though. You want to see the calf begin to nurse and receive the benefits of colostrum by the time it’s a 2-3 hours old.
Calves aren’t passed on antibodies at birth like humans and are susceptible to pathogens and disease until they get colostrum. After that few-hour-old window, their gut begins to close and they start to lose the opportunity to get immunity from the colostrum. At the 2 hour point, I prefer to meddle and help the calf to find the teat and get sucking.
You’ll also want to watch mama closely for signs of milk fever for the next few days. Thankfully, we’ve never had to treat for milk fever but if you do you will need to treat your cow with calcium or she will quickly die.
For the first week after the birth, you’re not going to be able to drink the milk. It is still mostly colostrum which doesn’t taste too good. We leave the calf with its mama all day and don’t bother with milking during that time. She will look engorged and if you’re worried you can milk once a day to relieve the pressure.
After that first week, you need to decide if you’d like to milk once a day or twice a day and whether you want to bottle feed the calf or use it as a relief milker to give you a break when you need it.
How often you milk will be determined by your schedule and how much milk you’d like be getting. If you need more milk, you’re going to want to remove the calf and milk twice a day (about every 12 hours.) This means you will need to bottle feed the calf milk, but at least you can ration how much it gets.
If you choose to milk once a day, in order to get the most milk from her, you may want to separate the calf for half a day. For example if you want to milk in the evening, you would milk mama, and then let the contained calf out with her afterwards to spend the night with her. In the morning you would bring him in and contain him again until milking time. We usually start doing this after it’s a few weeks old because she’s making more than enough milk in the beginning of her lactation to meet everyone’s needs, but eventually the calf will start taking more as it grows.
Another benefit of once-a-day milking is that it reduces your grain costs in half without making too big a dent in the yield since the nature of a lactation is supply/demand.
A problem that sometimes happens when you’re sharing milk with a calf is that mama will “hold back” milk for the calf. Particularly, the rich hind milk where all the cream is. (Fore milk is the first milk that comes out at a milking. It is more watery and quenches baby’s thirst. The hind milk is more nourishing.)
When you go to milk your cow, you’re going to want to find a routine. The more she knows what to expect, the more smoothly milking time will go. Bring her close to the milking area before you get things ready for milking. She’ll learn what is coming and leave her urine and manure in the field before coming into the parlor.
We use 2 stainless steel buckets for milking. One is a dirty “ground bucket” and the other is the “clean bucket.” Periodically, we dump the milk from the ground bucket into the clean bucket in the chance something happens and the bucket gets kicked or spilled we don’t lose all of the milk. This also allows us to take a cleaner bucket into the kitchen for straining the milk.
After you bring her into the milking parlor, you will want to brush her if she’s dirty. Brushing is a great way to bond with your cow. To them, it’s the same as being lovingly licked by another member of the herd. It’s also a good way to check her body condition and make sure she’s getting enough to eat. I tend to brush before milking in the winter (when she’s dirtier) and after milking in the summer to apply and distribute homemade fly spray.
To clean the teats you’ll want to use a mild detergent such as BioKleen or Dr. Bronners. Our cow is genetically predisposed to mastitis (even when you wouldn’t expect it such as late lactation) so we use an iodine based teat wash which though it isn’t natural, is more effective at getting the teats disinfected. We use disposable paper towels or blue shop towels to clean the udder and teats to minimize laundry contamination. In the winter, you may need to use hair clippers to trim the hair from around the teats. Some breeds have hairier udders than others.
The first few squirts of milk have the highest bacterial count and should not be added to your milk. You can just squirt them onto the ground or into the dirty paper towels.
When you milk begin by pinching the top of the teat near the udder with your thumb and forefinger and then squeeze the milk down and out of the teat with the rest of your fingers. The top pinch is crucial to close the milk off from the udder so you’re not moving it back up instead of down and out.
When you’re done milking, it’s a good idea to use an iodine based teat dip to prevent infection. We have used lavender and tea tree essential oils in an udder butter balm, but for Holly, they’re not enough to prevent mastitis. The post-milking treatment is not necessary when a calf will be sucking on her when you are done milking. zws
When we do notice mastitis symptoms (flakes in the milk, hot, hard quarter, increased body temperature) we can confirm that with a California Mastitis Test kit, but if we so much as suspect, we use a strong mix of peppermint essential oil in an olive oil carrier. If caught early, this works every time. If the quarter is rock hard and the temperature is high, you may need to spend a few hours massaging and milking the quarter until it is softer. If it was successful, her temperature will go down. Milking her an extra time for a day or two after the mastitis was noticed to keep the quarter empty will help.
It’s not easy, but it works. It can save you a vet bill and antibiotic treatment. We’ve been able to use these treatments to clear up mastitis nearly every time. (We only needed to bring the vet out once for a mastitis case that happened after she was dried up so we didn’t notice it.)
Learn more about how to hand milk a family cow.
Safe Milk Handling
After you’ve milked the cow, the goal is to get your milk strained into clean glass jars and chilled as fast as possible. We use glass because it doesn’t tend to hold and transmit off-flavors as often as plastic and because there is zero concern of leaching or environmental affects from the glass.
I recommend investing in a stainless steel filtering systems. Disposable filters are safer and cleaner than laundering homemade cloth filters and there is more certainty that the weave isn’t going to let any unwanted particles pass through. We dealt with a lot of off-flavors in our first cow and I suspect this could be why. When we got our second cow we had bought the stainless steel filter and haven’t had any issues with milk flavor.
Exposure to air and slow cooling will also contribute to off flavors in your milk. We use half-gallon mason jars because we have found that the more often you open a jar of milk, the quicker it is to begin souring. We quickly cool the milk by putting it in the freezer and setting a timer for 1 hour before refrigerating it.
Drying Her Up
About 2 months after your cow has her calf, you’re going to want to rebreed her for next year’s calf. In order to keep her calving in the spring (instead of slowly migrating to a winter calving after a few years), you will want to aim to get her bred in her 2nd or 3rd heat cycle post-calving.
If she was not bred on the ideal time table, you don’t have to dry her up on the same schedule as though breeding was successful. Some cows will dry themselves up, but it’s not likely with a dairy breed. About 80 days before she’s due to calf you will want to start drying her up so that you aren’t milking the calf’s colostrum and to allow her body to rest before the marathon of birth.
Learn more about How to Dry up a Milk Cow.
Now that you’ve got all that milk filling up your fridge, it’s time to get busy enjoying it! From butter for your homemade bread to mozzarella cheese for your pizza, to yogurt, and so much more (even soap making!) you have almost unlimited options to how you can use the milk besides just drinking it with breakfast. Have fun and enjoy the fruits of your labor as you come to fully realize just how rewarding having a family milk cow in your life can be!
Quinn and her family have been homesteading in Ohio for over 15 years, many of which she spent sharing their experiences and encouraging other homesteaders at Reformation Acres until 2018. She is the co-founder of the SmartSteader homestead management app and Executive Assistant for Homesteaders of America.
Besides raising their main crop of 8 children, Quill Haven Farm revolves around the Queen of the Homestead, the family milk cow. In addition to cheesemaking and other home dairy, the cow also provides skim milk to fatten a few hogs every year, raise up a beef calf, supplement the feed for their flock of laying hens & broilers, and beautiful compost for their 14,000 square feet of organic gardens.