How to Get Started with Your Family Milk Cow

If you are considering adding a family milk cow to your homestead or are new to the world of home dairy, this discussion is for you.  We dive into the most commonly asked questions when it comes to getting started with dairy cows: breed, acreage, feed, health, and more.  If a dairy cow is in your future, start here!

The family milk cow is quickly becoming the new backyard flock of chickens.  More and more people are realizing the amazing benefits of adding a dairy cow to their homestead.

This month on the podcast, we are focusing on all things dairy cow.  Shawn and Beth Dougherty are the perfect couple to lend their voice to this conversation as they have over four decades of experience farming and perfecting the art of grass conversion through dairy ruminants.

In this episode, we cover:

  • Making the switch from dairy goats to dairy cows
  • What breeds make the best dairy cows
  • Other factors that may be more important than breed
  • What’s the big deal about A2A2?
  • Is your land appropriate for a milk cow?
  • The practicals of feeding a 100% grass-fed cow
  • Top features to look for when purchasing a dairy cow
  • What makes a perfect milk cow for a first-time owner
  • How important is disease testing?

E34: Embracing Hospitality in Your Kitchen and Family | Stacy Lyn Harris Homesteaders of America

About Shawn & Beth

Shawn and Beth Dougherty have been farming together since the 1980’s, for the last twenty-six years in eastern Ohio, where they manage 90 acres, much of it designated by the state as ‘not suitable for agriculture’.  Using intensive grazing as the primary source of food energy, they raise dairy and beef cows, sheep, farm-fed hogs, and a variety of poultry, producing most of the food, feed and fertility for humans and animals, on the farm.  Concerned that farming is so often dependent upon multiple off-farm resources, from feed, fuel and fertilizer to water and electricity, their ongoing project is to identify and test the means by which farming was done for centuries with a minimum of off-farm inputs. Their research has led them to identify grass conversion, especially the daily conversion of grass into milk by dairy ruminants, as a key to whole-farm sustainability, combined with the integrated nutrient feed-backs that are possible with a community of diverse animal and plant species, domestic and native. They are the authors of The Independent Farmstead, Chelsea Green Press 2016.

Resources Mentioned


Shawn & Beth Dougherty | Website | The Healing Land Conference

Homesteaders of America | Website | Instagram | Facebook | YouTube | Pinterest

Join us at the Homesteaders of America Conference in October 2023!

How to Get Started with a Family Milk Cow :: Homesteaders of America

How to Get Started with Your Family Milk Cow Transcript

Amy Fewell Welcome to the Homesteaders of America Podcast, where we encourage simple living, hard work, natural healthcare, real food, and building an agrarian society. If you’re pioneering your way through modern noise and conveniences, and you’re an advocate for living a more sustainable and quiet life, this podcast is for you. Welcome to this week’s podcast. I’m your host, Amy Fewell, and I’m the founder of the Homesteaders of America organization and annual events. If you’re not familiar with us, we are a resource for homesteading education and online support. And we even host a couple of in-person events each year with our biggest annual event happening right outside the nation’s capital here in Virginia every October. Check us out online at Follow us on all of our social media platforms and subscribe to our newsletter so that you can be the first to know about all things HOA (that’s short for Homesteaders of America). Don’t forget that we have an online membership that gives you access to thousands—yes, literally thousands—of hours worth of information and videos. It also gets you discount codes, an HOA decal sticker when you sign up, and access to event tickets before anyone else. All right. Let’s dive into this week’s episode. 

Amy Fewell So this week I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn and Beth Dougherty. And if you have ever been to any of our events or if you know Shawn and Beth, then you know they are an excellent resource of information for all things homesteading. They are the authors of the book The Independent Farmstead, and they are absolutely amazing homesteaders that are literally living what they preach. So we’re going to go ahead and get started with today’s topic. Our January theme is all about the dairy cow, the family milk cow. And you guys have been asking questions. We literally think that the dairy cow is going to be the next backyard chickens. And so I’m asking all of the questions this month. This first episode is with Shawn and Beth, and the next episode will be with someone else we’ve never had at our conferences or on the podcast before. So in this episode, I hope that you learn answers to questions about getting started with your family milk cow, including even the touchy topics like what diseases should we test for and are they even a really big deal? You know, there’s lots of fear mongering when it comes to milk cows, and I think this episode will help you see just how easy it is to get started, what you should look for in your family milk cow before you buy it, what their diet is, and everything else that you could ever imagine. All right. Let’s go ahead and get started with today’s podcast episode. 

Amy Fewell All right. Welcome, Shawn and Beth to the HOA podcast. How have you been? 

Shawn Dougherty Very good. Thank you for inviting us. 

Amy Fewell Good. Well, we’re happy to have you here. For those of you who don’t know, Shawn and Beth are frequent speakers at our HOA events, and we really enjoy having you guys there and all the knowledge that you share. So we are relaunching our HOA podcast, and I thought it would be great to have you guys as our very first episode talking about the family milk cow. So why don’t you give us a quick rundown on how you guys got started in family dairy, where you are at now, and just kind of who you are so people know if they’re not familiar with you. 

Shawn Dougherty For family dairy, how we kind of got started is we went the way a lot of people go: we started with the goat. We had briars and we brought a goat in and we were milking that.

Beth Dougherty A bunch of goats. 

Shawn Dougherty And we were milking them. And we all— I think the whole family kind of agreed that milk from the goats was not our favorite. And we thought, well, what about if we move up to a cow? And as anybody thinking about moving up to a cow, it’s intimidating at the beginning. I had actually milked. I had been at a place called the Lord’s Ranch in Vado, New Mexico many years before that. And I had spent a summer there, and I had milked cows there. So wasn’t the first experience I had with milking cows, but we struggled. 

Beth Dougherty The funny thing about it is that everybody thinks, “I’ll start easy. I’ll start with goats.” Well, in the long run, cows are a much easier animal to keep, to keep healthy, to find uses for the milk for it. For an American, most of us aren’t really trained for goat milk, and a lot of us don’t care for it. So it was after the initial fear involved with big animal—right?—it was way easier. And it has been ever since. It’s been not a journey without bumps in it, but it’s always been uphill. And we just— as soon as we had a dairy cow and we were getting milk in gallons instead of quarts, we made another discovery which is that you’ve got to do something with it. And that “something” on an integrated farm is get milk going to your pigs, your chickens. Quit buying dog and cat food, offer milk, and let them hunt. And we realized after a little while that that cow was feeding virtually everything on the farm, even the garden. When we ran into intensive rotational grazing—mostly through our friend Joel Salatin—that flipped the switch completely because it meant that our farm was now going to run on local daily sunlight. And vastly the majority of the food and energy on our farm now is yesterday’s grass just transformed largely through the guts of the cow into forms we can use it. 

Amy Fewell Yeah, that’s awesome. What kind of breed did you start with? So we just got a heifer calf from Joshua Fuhrmann and the Fuhrmann family a few months back, and one of my things, and a lot of what I hear people asking is how do we even get started with knowing what breed to go with or are there cross-breeds or should we look at registered or non-registered? Is there any specific way to get started with— while people are doing their research now to take that leap?

Shawn Dougherty Right. Our recommendation is always to find the cow that’s available. We don’t necessarily think that there’s one breed better than another. We wouldn’t start out with a Holstein. It’s too big for the family. 

Beth Dougherty Although the old genetics Holstein—the Friesian—is a smaller animal with a more reasonable production rate who’s got his— has been developed for grass, not grain. And we did have a Friesian-Jersey cross right almost from the beginning, and she was great. 

Shawn Dougherty So most of our cows are Jersey and Jersey cross. But I don’t think that— you know, we hear about Guernsey. We even have a Holstein out there in our lineup. What you want is a dairy cow. And what’s the difference between a dairy cow and a meat cow? 

Beth Dougherty And we have a Hereford out there. That’s what he meant— a Hereford. 

Shawn Dougherty I’m sorry. Yeah, yeah. 

Beth Dougherty So we have a beef cross out there. One of the clues is that dairy people tend to love their own breed. So whatever the breed is, the dairy woman and the dairyman says, “Oh, my breed’s great.” Which is a great attestation for just dairy cows are great regardless of breed. Some things to think about… Look at your terrain. If it’s really steep, then the smaller heritage breeds are probably a good way to go. I would say all the time the smaller heritage breeds are a good way to go because— I only reference science when it supports me anyway, right? And I’m going to reference science here, which is that the biologists and the agronomists will tell us that smaller animals are actually more fuel efficient. So to keep two smaller animals that eat what one large animal eats will actually produce more milk, manure, and babies for your farm than to do otherwise. So another thought is simply that these huge animals have only come about through breeding programs in our ag universities—right?—our land-grant universities to meet maybe their own goals, but maybe the goals of the commercial sector. A two story Holstein is not a good family cow. She’s too big. She eats too much. She’s too hard on your pasture. So we would tend to say find somebody near you who already has this. 

Shawn Dougherty And farms the way that you farm. 

Beth Dougherty That’s right. 

Shawn Dougherty And then get a cow from them, and don’t worry so much about breed. Just find one that is a milder animal that you can kind of gauge how much milk you want. And there are some high producers and then there are some medium producers and low producers. And you’re not going to even know necessarily if this is just a heifer. 

Beth Dougherty Because that’s a very individual thing. 

Shawn Dougherty And it’s going to change over time. So you may think you’re getting a low producer and then that heifer ages and you find out that she’s a really high producer. 

Beth Dougherty Right. We have an eight-year-old out there who—this year—kicked into high production. So there are a lot of variables. 

Shawn Dougherty The other thing is that you’re not married— I’m married to my wife and there is no going back on that. When it comes to a cow, you’re not married to her. So if you find for one reason or another that this cow is not working out, you can change her out for another cow. You can sell her at the auction. Or whatever money you put into that cow could be fabulous meat. So you’re not going to lose on this. 

Beth Dougherty Right. It’s a great way to calculate what you’re willing to put into a dairy cow. Figure out what you would be willing to pay for really high quality beef, and say, you know, an 800 pound cow, say she’s going to put 350 pounds of beef in your freezer, then there’s $10 a pound for high quality beef. You could say I have $3,500 to spend. Or you could just go down from that. It’s one way to sort of make sure it’s a win-win, but the chances that you’re going to have to eat this dairy cow are pretty low, too. Some things I would throw out, too, because we see this… A lot of times people are sort of trying to pull off two dodges at once. They want a dairy cow and they think, “And wouldn’t it be great if I was breeding some high quality mini tiny teacup Jerseys that would bring a whole lot of money when I sell them?” And it sounds like a good plan, except 1) you’ve sort of watered down your goal. So now are you going to get the mini Jersey whether she’s a good dairy cow or not? But 2) remember, when you start thinking boutique or fashionable animal, that it can be hard to find breeding stock, right? I don’t mean the females. You’re going to go buy a female because you want a milk cow. But when it comes time to breed her, it can be hard to find semen straws or a bull for that. So we go back to: what’s in your neighborhood? Who’s farming the way you want to farm? Go to Craigslist. I don’t know why, but it’s a pretty good source. I guess people like us use it. And start going through. Look at the way they describe the cow. The more details, the better. Don’t worry so much about whether she’s papered. Don’t worry so much about whether they had UC Davis test her for every possible genetic whatever, but look and see—even in the pictures—what does the background look like? Are we happy with the way that grass looks? Are they standing hock-deep in mud? Those are good clues. 

Shawn Dougherty And don’t get desperate and say, “I’ve just got to get this one because it’s the one that’s available.” You need to ask that farmer a lot of questions. Is she used to electric fence? Has she been grassed?

Beth Dougherty Is she really bred and do you have a vet certificate saying she is? 

Shawn Dougherty How much grain is there? One of the things that we are really all for is totally grass-fed. We don’t use any grain whatsoever. And somebody may say, “Oh, we bring her in and we just give her a little bit of grain,” and you say, “Well—” 

Beth Dougherty They say, “We give her a scoop.” Go look at the scoop and find out how big a scoop is. 

Shawn Dougherty Right. And then that adjustment back to all grass can be relatively easy, depending on how much grain she’s gotten. 

Beth Dougherty Mm hmm. In the end, the best cow is the one you can get your hands on. 

Shawn Dougherty That’s right. 

Beth Dougherty Even if she’s cockeyed and whatever, if you can start out with her and get your hands under the back end and milk her, she is probably a good place to start. 

Shawn Dougherty Right? 

Amy Fewell Yeah. That’s what we did when we found this heifer calf. So Joshua Fuhrmann—he’s going to be our next episode this month, and that’s what I did. I was like, well, there has to be someone in Virginia that breeds grass-fed dairy cows. And so that family has spent 30 plus years culling and just getting these great genetics. And so that’s definitely what we did. 

Beth Dougherty That’s wonderful. 

Amy Fewell And it was cheaper to buy a heifer calf than to buy a $2,000 milk cow. And of course, I’m on his list for that, too. But that’s an option, too, I think people need to know. So one question I have— the big thing right now is the A2 status. Is that something that you guys have done a lot of research on? When people are trying to find a family milk cow, they’re specifically looking for that A2A2 status. So I wondered if you could talk a bit about that. 

Beth Dougherty Mm hmm. So I can think of two reasons to worry about A2. One is that somebody in your family or for whom you’re going to be producing milk has a specific health need that can be addressed through A2 milk. So the first reason means I’ve done a lot of research, I already have a need for that in my family, and that’s why I’m pursuing A2. The other one is simply market value. You could decide, “Oh, I’m going to get an A2A2 cow because I want to breed her and sell her calves for more.” And if that’s easy, I say, by all means. But our food system is so full of problems, right? And those are evincing in everybody’s health in this incredible myriad of autoimmune difficulties, gastrointestinal problems. And most of us, I think, clutch at straws, right? Somebody tells us something that sounds good and we think, “That must be my problem. Now, I’m married to that problem— I mean, to that solution.” And I think we want to be careful when we’re trying to reintroduce this incredibly beneficial thing, the family dairy cow, into at least the homesteading culture that we don’t put too many obstacles in the way. And one of those obstacles would be, “Oh, I have to have an A2A2 cow because I heard somewhere that they were better.” 

Shawn Dougherty One of the things that I suggest that people consider is if you’re hand milking and this cow is all grass and no grain—

Beth Dougherty And you’re not homogenizing and you’re not pasteurizing— 

Shawn Dougherty You’re not pasteurizing, you’re not doing anything. It’s going from straight— it’s not going through a milking machine, but you’re going straight from stainless steel to glass, I imagine that you are eliminating 90% of issues. And unless you are sure, as Beth has suggested, that A2A2 is really what you need, I wonder if you really need A2A2. It’s going to certainly cost more to get an A2A2 cow. And I just wonder if you just tried to do the best milking that you could, I think you’re going to eliminate an awful lot of the issues. And then you can see. Yeah, we still have an issue. Okay, well, let’s now move to A2A2. But I would start with that. 

Beth Dougherty And if you’re one of those people who is absolutely dead certain that this is an issue, by all means, go buy an A2A2 cow. But if you’re on the fence or if you’ve just heard it somewhere, I think I would make that very secondary. 

Amy Fewell Good. Okay. So now we’ve talked about the breed and the A2 status, which is something that we get questions a lot here at HOA when people are looking for cows. The next big question— and Beth, I think you— did you write a blog post for us about this? I think— is how many acres are required for a family cow? And is one terrain better than another? So I know that’s a loaded question. Like when we ask about acreage, it’s kind of like, well, what does your land look like? It’s hard to answer. But in general, if you could kind of steer people in that direction on what they might need for these specific needs for a cow. 

Shawn Dougherty One thing that we are kind of surprised by is that our land is about as steep is anybody’s land. 

Beth Dougherty Steeper. 

Shawn Dougherty Right. 

Beth Dougherty Steeper than most people’s. 

Shawn Dougherty Even when people come and see us, they said, “You guys say it’s steep, but this is really steep.” And our cows will do pretty well on this steep land. Now, the Dexters— we’ve had some Dexters, and man, they do great on this steep land. Our Jerseys will go up some of the steeper land, but the really steep land, we turn over to sheep and goats and let them do their thing. But in terms of the dairy cow, yeah, I think it is significant what you have, but you do not have to have just flat land. You can have land that is pretty steep and cows will go up and down it. They’re in four-wheel drive all the time.

Beth Dougherty Yeah. So in the United States, I tend to think of there being sort of two basic outlines, right? Either it’s a brittle environment or it’s not, meaning my rainfall is spread out more or less over the year or it’s very seasonal. The very seasonal rainfall would be considered a brittle environment. So we’re going to speak first to the non-brittle because that’s the one we experience here in Appalachia. And for most of the eastern half of the U.S., we’re looking at a non-brittle environment. And you’re right, I mean, there is no magic number, but we all need numbers. We just have to have something to start with. So I would say— and of course, then the second question is what’s growing there? And if you’re starting out, what’s growing there really should be what decides what kind of animal you’re grazing. Cows are going to make limited use of brush and briars. So we’re going to assume that we’re talking about some kind of a grass and weed, grass and forb pasture. It can be as scrubby as you like, but it needs to be something they can get into. A cow’s most tender parts are her nose and her udder and she’s not going to shove them among a bunch of scratchy briars. So if you have a grassy, weedy pasture, some numbers… It is perfectly possible to keep a cow— to stock at a rate of one cow per two acres or less if you’re raising beef. Now, dairy cows, they need greater volume as well as greater quality. If you’ve got a low quality pasture, the way you meet those needs is you give greater volume so they can be pickier, right? They can go through and pick up the more high-quality forages. But I still find that for most of— if you’re trying to graze through the growing season in central Appalachia, we’re looking at here, zone 6, that’s about the middle of April to as late as December, right? Somewhere in there. Might just be the middle of November, depending on where you are. But for that growing season, it’s perfectly possible that you can keep a family cow on two acres and just— part of the year, you’re going to have more grass than you know what to do with. Toward the end of the year, you’re going to be taking it off knowing that when this runs out, she’s going to go in the barn or in a sacrifice paddock on hay for the winter. But that two acres could keep you going for June, July, August, September, October, November, December. Seven months, maybe, without any trouble. And that’s not really a problem when you start looking— I know I’m jumping ahead to a question, but say you’ve got an 800 pound cow and she needs 3% of her body weight, 24 pounds of hay a day, plus some because you’re milking her, so we’re going to call a 30. Moderate-sized square bale. Say that square bale cost you six bucks, which around here would be high. 

Shawn Dougherty High. 

Beth Dougherty And you do not have to buy horse hay, fancy horse hay for an all-grass dairy cow. 

Shawn Dougherty Don’t have to have alfalfa. 

Beth Dougherty Depending on her habits and her breed and her history, first cutting might be just fine. First cutting is what we buy because we don’t feed hay very much of the year anyway. But that six bucks is getting you her milk, her manure, her calf. It’s paying for the fact that you had her all summer when she was free. So remember to spread that six bucks per day for a third of the year or five months, maybe, out over the whole year when you’re calculating whether she’s worth it. I don’t know if I’m being clear, but occasionally you have to spend money on a cow, but you want to spread—in your mind—spread that expense out over the 12 months that she’s actually performing for you. But when you start calculating that in and you realize, “Oh, so I’m getting three gallons a day part of the year.” An average of three gallons a day is what I’m figuring, say, for our Jersey crosses. “I’m getting an average of three gallons a day the whole year, and I pay six bucks a day for a small part of the year or less than half of the year.” So that two acres per cow is perfectly doable. Now, if you want to stockpile for the winter, that means hold out some of your pasture starting in mid-summer. Don’t graze them. Let them cure standing—mature grass that just cured standing—and then graze that in the winter. Probably three acres would do it. You wouldn’t really need double. You would just need some practice managing grass. 

Shawn Dougherty And then you’ll need hay as backup in case you have problems. 

Beth Dougherty In case there’s bad weather. 

Shawn Dougherty When we are doing— we’re on pasture all year round. There’s about three weeks when we’ve got ice on top of snow and that’s when we’re feeding hay. The rest of the time, the whole rest of the year, minus three weeks, those cows are only on pasture. 

Beth Dougherty And something that’s interesting to note about that, and I don’t know if we’re getting a little far afield, but something that’s very interesting to note about that is that standing forage in the winter is actually, by the evidence, the highest quality grass that they’re going to get. In November, December, January, February, that is higher quality than your high quality hay is. And the evidence for that is that the components—that is, the food part of your milk—will go up hugely. I’ll give you an example. Normally a gallon of our Jersey-Dexter cross milk is going to be about— maybe a quarter of that is going to be cream, on average. Except in the winter, it’s going to be more like a third of it is cream. And if I make cheese with that milk instead of getting like 8/10 of a pound of cheese per gallon, that means if I started with, say, five gallons of milk, I’d get something close to four pounds and a little bit more of cheese, right? I’ve got a cheese on the counter right now from not quite five gallons of milk. It’s seven and a half pounds. 

Amy Fewell Wow. 

Beth Dougherty So it’s well over 50% more than would be expected from a summer cheese. So as you’re figuring out what’s it worth to me to manage cows in the winter? To get access to—I don’t say ‘buy’—but get access to enough land to graze cows over the winter? Keep in mind that it’s not only free, it’s extremely valuable as food. Maybe that’s a little bit too much information. 

Amy Fewell No. 

Beth Dougherty I don’t know, but for me, it’s hugely exciting. God planned this better than we can. 

Amy Fewell I think that’s great. And that’s why I love having dialogue like this because those are tidbits of information, like, I would have never known that. And these are not things that people write in books most of the time, and they’re not things that a lot of people talk about. And so that’s why I really enjoy you sharing that because people don’t think about that when they’re trying to run the numbers on their cows, especially wives trying to convince their husbands that they need a cow. And so that’s really interesting. I like that. That’s really cool. Okay. So bringing it back, we’ve talked about diet— which you covered that very well. Let’s go back to the cow real quick because these are some questions we get, too. So a couple of things: what are some visible qualities for people to look for before buying? So I guess it was this year, earlier this year, I helped a friend purchase a milk cow. And so we were kind of trying to go by pictures and then asking a dairy cow friend, like, “What’s her udder supposed to look like to tell if it’s a good udder?” You know, things like that. So what are some visible qualities that people can kind of look for with a dairy cow? Because there’s so much conflicting information between the industrial dairy industry and then the homesteaders that just need a good grass-fed cow. 

Beth Dougherty Right. Right. Because there is a big difference. 

Shawn Dougherty So we have written a couple of things. Our first is the book, which is The Independent Farmstead. And this book talks a lot about how we do things on the farm and the cows. But what has happened, after we wrote the book, people started emailing us. And we encourage people to email us. One of our goals is to help people over the hurdles that get them doing this homesteading work. And we frequently get emails— and I’m just going to give our email out. Please use it. It’s We encourage you to write us. We do write back. And again, what our goal is, is to help people over the hurdles that you can live the life that we have come to love. So the other thing that’s happened is that Beth is our primary writer. And when people would write in emails, she was finding herself writing the same thing over and over and over again. So she turned those into some little booklets. 

Beth Dougherty So we call them Independent Farmstead Field Guides to Inputs-Free Farming and Homesteading. This one is called Family Cow Basics, and it actually has a 15-point list in it of things that we would look for in a family dairy cow. So I won’t go over all of them because I know we have limited time, but some points to look for in a dairy cow… 

Shawn Dougherty Know, first of all, again, we mentioned this very briefly— what’s the difference between a dairy cow and a beef cow? It’s what that cow does with the calories that come in. If she’s putting that on her back, if she’s putting it into meat, she’s more of a meat cow. I don’t care what breed she is. And if she’s putting it into her udder, she’s more of a milk cow. Now, the milk cows also have a tendency to be— they bred into them a calmness. The thing we love about the— that Beth will talk about is a milk cow will run about 60 yards and then say, “That’s enough, I’m finished.” Where a meat cow can just run and run and run. 

Beth Dougherty They might be in the next county before you catch them. 

Amy Fewell That’s right. 

Shawn Dougherty So we really like that there is an attitude that they have. But the big thing is where are they putting their milk?

Beth Dougherty Their calories. Where are they putting their food? 

Shawn Dougherty Right. Sorry. Yes. So one of the things that we will do is we will go down and actually massage or touch the udder of the cow that we’re looking at. And if she jumps, if she’s anxious— 

Beth Dougherty If that hoof comes at us, she’s probably not a cow we’re going to buy. Especially with beginners, go ahead and get a calm cow. Dairy cows want to be milked. There is no other explanation for their conformity to our wills. They love to be milked. They come in to be milked whether there’s a treat in their manger or not. They like to be milked the way we like to get our backs scratched. All of you moms who have nursed babies—right?—you know about how relaxing nursing a baby can be. So you can sort of relate to why does this cow want this activity? She likes it. She likes that connection to human beings. So things that we would look at: the first thing would be how can we not drive across the country to do this? We’d look locally. How far locally? Well, we’d try and stay within the climate and the topography that we have. We once moved a cow for somebody— I don’t think it’s not five miles, might be five miles maybe. But the topography change was huge. She went from being on an exposed, open hillside with good drainage to being in a valley with very poor drainage. And she did not know the forages there. It was not a good choice because they didn’t make sure she was going from known plant species to known plant species. That doesn’t mean don’t move them 300 miles if you need to. Six hours is not too far if the similarities are pretty great, but those would be two things we’d look at right away. And those also help keep the cost down. 

Shawn Dougherty Yeah. Feet. You know, we don’t trim. We don’t do anything with their feet. Our cows are on grass all the time. We do find that they shed when they give birth. So there’s a natural process of hoof care. 

Beth Dougherty It chips back. About six months after they calve, those hooves which have grown out the way we ladies, our nails and hair get so thick and strong when we’re pregnant. Well, she can’t trim hers, so eventually they just sort of chip back. 

Shawn Dougherty But we would want to be careful about if she’s limping, if she has— you know, a grass-fed cow is going to be on her feet a lot. So if she’s limping, if you have problems, if you see something like that, that would be something that we would say you need a little bit more information. Why is this? Is this an anomaly or she always has a bad leg or something? 

Beth Dougherty Right. So it’s easier to sort of describe what you’d go looking for and then say how you would compromise on that. So, like, what’s the perfect dairy cow? Well, let’s pretend she’s five years old. She’s calved twice. She’s pregnant with her third calf. Her hip bones and ribs show, but they are not standing out like racks. One place to look on a dairy cow— two places to look on a dairy cow to say, well, she’s bony because she’s a dairy cow, but is she too bony? Look at her shoulder blades, front legs up at the level of shoulder. It’s a straight up and down line. And if it stands out really sharp—this is the front edge of her shoulder blade—if it’s standing out really sharp, maybe she’s on the thin side. The pockets on either side of her tail head are going to deepen as she gets older. So the older the cow, the more indentation you’re going to see there. But if that’s very deep on a young cow, she’s probably on the thin side. 

Shawn Dougherty That not ruling her out though. I mean, cows— 

Beth Dougherty That doesn’t rule her out because you take her home and feed her better—

Shawn Dougherty You’re not going to get rid of the children because some of them are a little skinnier than other kids. So you just want to be aware. One of the things that is very significant to us is the coat. If it’s that fluffy teddy bear coat, that’s a really good sign. 

Beth Dougherty You can’t fake that. That by itself is a really good indicator of a high level of health. And one thing to remember about fat and thin is that a week—one week—can make a big difference in the body weight of a cow. Just one week of eating. So a cow that gets a limp, for example, and is lying down for three days into the stead of eating well, might be on the thin side. As soon as her foot feels better, she’s going to get up and put that weight on. 

Shawn Dougherty And it’s possible that your pasture is way better than the pasture she’s been on. 

Beth Dougherty If you’re rotating, it’s almost certain it’s going to be better. So things on our list: diet, we’d rather she be all grass. If she’s had grain, we’d rather she be younger than older. Because it’s easier to transition a younger animal off of grain. 

Shawn Dougherty It’s really good if there have been no complications with birth. 

Beth Dougherty We like a cow to be already accustomed to poly twine because that’s going to make training her easier. Now, all of these things are relative to or depend on how much experience the cow owner is going to have. Like if you’re buying a cow and you already know cows well, you might not be intimidated by the thought of training a cow to poly twine, right? I’m comfortable with her. It’ll take me a week to get her where she avoids that white string. You might be okay with that. These are sort of your point for beginners. Chemicals. We’d rather she hadn’t had any. 

Shawn Dougherty Yes, we don’t do any vaccinations. We don’t do any wormers. We don’t do— any of those things that you’re doing for your cow are very likely going to mask a bigger problem. So we don’t want them to be masked. We want to see if there’s a problem. And then the correction is possibly culling that animal. Or it may be that when they get on our good pasture with the minerals and things like that, that any problems will clear up. We don’t use any fly sprays or fly dust or anything. 

Beth Dougherty So her udder confirmation matters a lot to us. Too low, hard to get a bucket under, that’s a problem. What we’d like to see— on a young cow, we’d like her udder to be fairly high off the ground, so not hanging down too far. We like teats maybe the size of our thumb or could be bigger, well spaced out, pointing down, not out or in. No extra teats on the back. Or sometimes you’ll see a little extra false teat on one or both of the back quarters, those are permissible. But you don’t want one that works and you certainly don’t want one that you’re going to have to mess with. So you’d prefer that those not be there. 

Shawn Dougherty It’s also possible that one of those teats has already— they’ve had a mastitis problem or something like that. And one of those teats is now no longer functioning.

Beth Dougherty Oh you mean of the four main teats? Yeah.

Shawn Dougherty Yes. And not necessarily a no go on something like that. 

Beth Dougherty Not if it brings the price down. 

Shawn Dougherty That’s right. So if it brought the price down, she looks good every other way… She’s going to compensate. If she’s got one quarter that’s no longer functioning, she will often— 

Beth Dougherty She’ll make just about as much milk either way. It’s not going to mean that you get three quarters— you know, you get a quarter less milk because she’s still going to consume the same calories. And if she’s a grass cow, you’re not pushing her to produce the absolute maximum amount of milk that that udder is capable of. Grass won’t do that, right? Grass takes up a lot of space, so a cow that fills its belly has the right array of calories, fiber, minerals, vitamins, right? A cow that you stuff full of grain has a whole lot more calories to work with. She produces a whole lot more milk. But of course, the dietary array is wrong for her. There are a whole lot of problems. 

Shawn Dougherty It could be indicative that there was a mastitis problem, but that could have been bad management for a certain amount of time and doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s always going to have a mastitis problem. 

Beth Dougherty Right. With all the points that we have for a good cow, most of them we would say, you don’t have to check all these boxes. You just want to check most of them.

Shawn Dougherty You’re not going to find the perfect cow. Don’t keep hunting for the perfect cow. Don’t decide that I’m not going to get— we kind of equate it a little, I said, you’re not married to your cow, but we do equate it a little bit with your spouse, with the girl that you’re looking for or something like that. You may not find— I found the perfect wife, but you may not find the perfect one.

Beth Dougherty I’m looking at him. He knows he has to say that. 

Shawn Dougherty So you want to find one that’s going to work for you. And it’s probably not going to be ten on every column. 

Beth Dougherty Right. So that was udder. So with handling, you do want to handle her and you want her to be gentle. If she’s jumping away from you— I’m not talking about a cow that doesn’t know you and you could put your hand on her and she sidles away. That’s perfectly normal. But a cow that is in a stanchion for you to examine and you put your hand on her back, slide it down her hip, then reach for the udder— don’t grab at the udder because she’ll think you’re a coyote and she’ll kick you. But run your hand down her leg, reach around, put your hand on her udder, if her foot flies out and she’s aiming it for you, then maybe she’s not the best animal for you to get. Some other things: if you are determined that you’re going to lead this cow on a rope with a halter, it’d be nice if she was already trained. It isn’t necessary to lead a dairy cow on a rope with a halter. You can point— you know, they will train very quickly to know where the dairy is, to go there, get milked, go back to pasture. So you don’t necessarily have to have a halter trained animal, but if it’s important to you, you might check that one out. Point six: we’d like her to be pregnant. I mean, there’s two reasons there. One is, I mean, if she’s lactating, she’s proved that she can have a calf or she wouldn’t be lactating. But this person wants to sell this cow and you want to know why. And if it’s because he couldn’t get her to settle to breeding, then she has a very limited future as a dairy cow. In two years, you’ll be eating her, or less. So you’d like her to be bred, and you’d like to have a veterinary certificate that says she has been checked for pregnancy and she is pregnant. 

Shawn Dougherty It’s nice to have a calf with the cow when it’s possible. We prefer to have one that’s lactating so that you can get right into the milking. But again, when we— our first cow was a heifer. 

Beth Dougherty Just like yours, she was an eight-month-old heifer. 

Shawn Dougherty And she wasn’t even bred when we got her. 

Beth Dougherty Oh, heavens, no. 

Shawn Dougherty Right. So we had to go through that whole cycle of— we had to learn a lot along the way, as opposed to using the education of the person we’re buying the cow from so that she’s already been bred, she’s even lactating. And if you get a calf with her, it just makes it easier because then—and you leave the calf to calf share—you don’t have to be the perfect milker starting right off. You can be learning how to milk and you know that that calf is going to prevent mastitis from setting in because that calf’s going to take everything that you aren’t getting when you milk. 

Beth Dougherty So, again, this is our perfect cow. She’s five years old, expecting her third calf, she’s got her second calf under her to be your pinch hitter milker. She’s got a nice udder. One question is: how did the last people milk her? It’s not as though you can just sort of casually go back and forth between machine milking and hand milking. You can. But you’re not necessarily going to get the best results. We prefer to have animals that have not been machine milked. We could give you a list of reasons why we’re not in favor of milking machines for homesteaders or small farmers. Our principal reason for hoping that she’s never been on a machine is that our experience—limited as it is—has been that cows that have been milked by machine don’t necessarily have as strong a letdown down reflex as a cow that’s been hand milked. The stimulus is different and it seems to us that the machine milked cows we have had required more work on the part of the hand milker to get that milk out. Condition— Shawn already talked about that shiny coat. That shiny fluffy coat is a great indicator. Bright eyes, alert ears, head up, you know, not necessarily way back, but just not her head hanging. You want her to look interested in her surroundings. A few body notes: we don’t like horns. A horn does not have to be aimed at you to put your eye out. And you’re going to be in close contact with this girl a lot. Feet in good shape. You want the hoof wall to be more or less at that angle, but the older the cow is— I mean, I’m 59, so I already know about how your feet sort of get tired after that many years. The older the cow is, the more inclined that hoof wall is going to be. And that’s not really a problem. But you don’t want a flattened or a ski tipped hoof. Smaller cow. And this is noteworthy: you want her to look feminine. We have seen the results in like a full blooded Jersey that just somehow seemed to have an extra chromosome in there or something. We’ve seen butch dairy cows and they just don’t seem to do as well. 

Shawn Dougherty Didn’t breed back. There were a number of problems with that cow. 

Beth Dougherty So check for hidden problems. Ask the guy or woman who’s selling her, why he’s selling her. It may simply be I have more cows than the farm will carry. Every year there are more born, so I have to sell some. And that’s what you’re hoping for. 

Shawn Dougherty We do a lot of second hand shopping on a lot of things, way more than just a cow. And even who you’re buying it from, that really helps us tip a little bit. You know, that cow looks okay, but I have an awkward feeling about this person. And sometimes that will make the decision. Or I’m not sure how this cow looks, but those people are not just really nice, they seem knowledgeable, they seem to care. So I’m willing to take that risk on that cow. 

Beth Dougherty Right. And then price. There’s the tendency to think, “I want to get the very best.” And sometimes we feel better about a project if we think we really went out and spent lots of money on the best possible animal. And I would say that is probably unnecessary. And it’s easier to eat an animal or endure her loss—should that sad thing happen—if you haven’t spent twice as much as you maybe needed to. On the other hand, when you find a good cow that meets a lot of these criteria—

Shawn Dougherty She may be worth it. 

Beth Dougherty She’s probably worth spend— just figure this: if she’s a good cow, she may have 20 years of production in her. She might even have more. She certainly ought to have 12, 15 years of production in her. Average out that extra thousand bucks over all those years, and it comes to cents. 

Shawn Dougherty Your car won’t last that long, and it’s going to be a lot more expensive. 

Beth Dougherty She’s going to appreciate in value for a good while, get more valuable. But she’s going to drop you a calf every year. She’s going to mow your lawn and fertilize it every year. So that extra thousand bucks when you start factoring it into what she’s going to do for you in the end, it’s worth getting a good cow.

Amy Fewell I agree. 

Beth Dougherty We know. We bought some that weren’t. 

Amy Fewell You know, right? You definitely sometimes you get what you pay for, but then there’s also those kind of gems that kind of stand out. Okay, I’ve got one more question for you guys. And I know it can be really long. I’m only going to keep you for a couple more minutes. And the one question I have, because this is something that I think freaks out a lot of people, is about diseases. What diseases should people test for on their cow? Are there some diseases that can be transferred to humans? Or is this not a big deal as people make it to seem? If you want to talk about that for just a quick second and then we’ll go ahead and get off here and let you go about your day. 

Shawn Dougherty Our son is a veterinarian. And when we have problems and people ask us about different things. What was the last one somebody asked us about? 

Beth Dougherty BLV, bovine leukosis. 

Shawn Dougherty Right. And so we say to him, “So what do you think, James?” And James says, “Most of these problems are problems that express when the cow is put under stress, and otherwise, these are things that hang out there. Some cows have them. And you can really stress yourself out saying, ‘I’ve got to test it for all these different things.'” Our son is tending to say these are not really issues if you are taking good care of the animals. 

Beth Dougherty Well, and James aside, our son aside, we’re looking at two different problems, right? I’m worried about my cow or I’m worried about what might happen to people in contact with the cow. So we’re worried about cow diseases and worried about zoonotic diseases— diseases that can go to humans. The list of zoonotic diseases with cows is mostly not terribly impressive. I’m sorry. I want to put it that way because if you go do research on a hangnail, somewhere you will find somebody who will tell you that it could cause blood poisoning and you could die of it. 

Amy Fewell Right. 

Beth Dougherty Fact, right? That’s the kind of research that you end up doing online when you go to look up the BLV, bovine leukosis or brucellosis or tuberculosis, because you’re asking what’s the worst case scenario? And they’ll tell you. Now we’re already living—all of us corporately in the United States, eating from the food system—are living some of the scenarios that go with eating garbage food that’s been processed and had a bunch of chemicals used in its production and processing. And we already know that there are lots of bad results from that. They’re happening all around us all the time. The number of incidents of any of these bovine zoonosis problems is so much— I mean, the likelihood of their happening is so much lower than the likelihood that you’re going to get leaky gut from eating garbage, right? That the zoonoses questions mostly need to be put in that category. Yes, it is believed that you could get tuberculosis from a tuberculin cow. On the other hand, tuberculin cows haven’t been seen in this country in decades. So it’s not a very high likelihood that you’re going to have that problem. 

Shawn Dougherty So the question is also: why does the FDA then say that raw milk is dangerous? And that has to do with the process, how these animals are fed. They’re fed grains. They’re fed things that are not right for them. They are then— 

Beth Dougherty But then they’re milked through a milking machine and milking machines are— so milk collection systems in the commercial world are where a lot of the milk problems come from. You start with cows that have problems and then you use a milk collection system that does not clean out well, you’re going to have difficulties. But I just want to say again about bovine problems— whether they’re zoonotic or not, right? Whether people can get them or not, if you buy a cow that looks healthy from a herd that looks healthy and you bring it home and you take care of it in a natural way by rotating daily over grass pasture, especially a mixed native or naturalized, not a planted pasture, but a wild, wooly, woody, weedy pasture, you are doing the best you can better than anybody in the industry is doing for you, better than your neighbor down the road is doing for you probably. You’re doing the best thing you can to produce the highest quality milk on the planet. And milk is the food God made for taking care of all the baby mammals. It is the perfect food. That’s not the Doughertys saying it. It’s the Bible saying it. 

Shawn Dougherty That’s right. God said that you are going into a wonderful land because it is a land flowing with milk and honey, and that is the best foods for us. And so all of the scares, all of the fears just are not— 

Beth Dougherty So if somebody hands you a certificate that says her cow has been tested for BLV and brucellosis and Johne’s and TB, hooray. Nice. But do we recommend testing for that? No. And here’s why… Johne’s and BLV are really good examples. In this country, 86% or something of cow herds have at least one animal that test positive for BLV. Of those herds, something like 45% of the animals in those herds test positive for BLV. Almost none of them express it. Almost none of them ever will express it, meaning they can carry it, it’s there the way you have gut bacteria that maybe would count as parasitic on some of these if you got your feces tested, but you’re perfectly healthy, they’re actually keeping your immune system up. I’m not saying that BLV is keeping a cow’s immune system up to scratch, but I am saying it’s there in lots and lots of dairy cows. You start eliminating dairy cows because of BLV, the possible numbers go down a lot, by 50% or more. But if you take care of that cow the way she’s intended to be cared for, then the chances she’s going to stress and express that disease are very small. The real good food that we can make now is a bigger positive than the possible tiny chance that we’re going to see a disease in our animals later is a negative. Do the good you can do now. 

Amy Fewell Well, that’s comforting to know. Yeah, that’s one of the biggest topics online when people are talking and freaking out about diseases and stuff. So that’s really good information to have. All right, Shawn and Beth, thank you for joining me today. This was good. We got to some good topics, and I know we didn’t get to all of our list of questions, but I think, Beth, you’ve answered some of those questions on your blog posts that are on our website and also you guys’s website. And what we’ll do is we’ll link all that information in the show notes below and link to your website as well. And then Shawn and Beth also have some events coming up in the new year that you guys can check out. And then, of course, we’re having them back for our events in 2023. So thanks again, Shawn and Beth for joining us. 

Beth Dougherty Thanks, Amy. 

Shawn Dougherty Thank you. It was very fun. 

How to Get Started with Your Family Milk Cow Podcast with Shawn & Beth Dougherty | Homesteaders of America