a family milk cow

Remember back when, upon returning from Puerto Rico, we got three bottle-fed calves to raise for beef? And then remember how, a couple days later, we went back to the farm to pick up a heifer calf because we (I) thought it might be fun to maybe have a milk cow someday? 

Welp, Daisy’s preggo, thanks to a little rendezvous at a neighboring farm last summer, and now her sides are bulging out most alarmingly. I don’t know anything about pregnant cows — and her size is probably perfectly normal — but as any pregnant person, or person around a pregnant person (or animal) will tell you, there always comes a point in the gestating process when one begins to question just what, or how much of whatever it is, is growing inside there, and right now it looks like Daisy’s gonna be popping out a set of twins come April. Doubtful, I know, but she’s HUGE.  

Regarding the encroaching milk tsunami, I vacillate between excitement and profound dread. Having a milk cow is kinda a big deal, I think — everyone talks about it in hushed, knowing tones — and here we are just kind of sliding into it sideways, fingers crossed. There’s a very real chance that we’re in well over our heads.

Take, for example, the following reasons why a milk cow is most definitely not a good idea:

  • A Holstein (mix?) cow does NOT a family milk cow make. One is supposed to thoughtfully acquire an appropriately dainty breed of cow, not one that’s bred to be a milk producing machine, squirting out 5-9 gallons of milk daily. Oops. 
  • My husband’s lactose intolerant and hates farming.
  • Half the children — in other words, half the milk drinkers and half the chore dooers — no longer live here.  

BUT IN MY DEFENSE: What better time to tie ourselves down with a little farm project than in the midst of a pandemic? Also, my younger son thinks this is a fantastic idea and has agreed to spearhead it. Also also, a family milk cow is endlessly educational, providing a cross-disciplinary venture in horticulture, nutrition, husbandry, cooking, economics, and The Art of Waking Early. Plus, we have the land, the animal, the time, so why not?

(Don’t answer that.)

Not that it really matters how I feel — it’s happening — so we’re gearing up (some of us more begrudgingly than others). A couple weeks ago, my husband and son visited our neighbor-friend to observe his one-cow milking operation. My younger son has read a couple articles and made a supply list. Plans for the milking set-up are being cobbled together. I’m considering (or beginning to think about considering) purchasing a second fridge for out in the barn. And we’ll need a bunch of glass jars. Also, starter stuff for homemade sour creams and cheeses and such — once the milk hits the house, it’s MY domain.

For now, though, the biggest task is prepping Daisy for milking. She’s actually already pretty docile, but each day my younger son spends some time taking her halter on and off, leading her around, feeding her treats, and grooming her, especially around her back end so she gets used to having a human hang out back there. Next step: set up a stanchion to get her used to putting her head through and holding still while eating and being groomed. 

Once the calf is born, the (loose) plan is to, as per our milk cow-owning friend, separate Daisy from her calf every evening, milk her in the morning, and then leave the calf with her all day. Depending on how much milk Daisy gives, we may need to get a second calf to help drink it all (if Daisy doesn’t let it nurse, then we’ll have to bottle-feed the calf . . . I guess?), or we might have to get a couple pigs and feed them the extra. And we’ll probably be sharing lots of milk with family and friends, and I’ll be making tons of yogurt and ice cream.

To sum up: This could be loads of fun or it could be a disaster. Either way, we’re bound to learn something. Wish us luck!

This same time, years previous: object of terror, the quotidian (2.2.15), how we got our house, wheat berry salad, advice, please.


  • Karin

    I think it’s a fantastic experiment for your family! I’ve always wanted a milk cow or at least milk goats so I’m envious of your venture. What’s the worst that can happen? If you don’t love it you can sell her to someone else and it was still a great learning experience. Good luck!

  • buckshefusethiopia

    Love your project Jennifer! And also Elva’s helpful and detailed response. We’re considering getting a milk cow when we move out to the farm, and even if that might be a year or more away, I’m starting to take notes. You can be sure I’ll be poking around your cow project!

  • Elva

    I have a cow, Jane, who is an Ayrshire cow. Having a cow is GREAT!!! Don’t let anyone tell you differently. I am a single person, and here is how I do it. Jane has her calf in either May or June. She calves outside on pasture, unless it is rainy weather, in which case I would bring her in and let her calve in a large area, so that she has room to move around. Calving is usually something best not to interfere with, as they do it better themselves. Dip the naval of the newborn and make sure the calf nurses within an hour or so. I milk Jane outside wherever she is. I do not use a stanchion, as for Jane and me, there is no need, plus, stanchions are annoying. For a new milk cow, I would probably just put a halter on her and tie her. I do not feed any grain, but have great pasture and move my cattle daily. In the non-grazing season, I feed really great hay and also baleage. During the grazing season, I just let the calf stay with Jane all the time, and I recommend that you do that too for at least the first couple of months. Then as the calf gets bigger, you might want to separate them at night. I just make sure I get up early, and I usually get to milking before the calf wakes up and steals all the milk. Once the cow has really bonded with the calf, you could just leave the calf and skip milking completely if you want to go away for a day. Most likely, your cow will not have too much milk, as she will adjust to what you and the calf are taking, plus there will be less milk in the first lactation. At the end of the grazing season, which is early November for me here in Upstate NY, I house the cattle in a barn where they can go in and outside as they please. I have hay in the barn and baleage (round silage bales) outside for them. At night, I bring Jane in her separate quarters, where she is away from her calf, who by now is a sticking hog and would consume all the milk if he could! In the morning, I milk as much as I want to, and then I put her with her calf and the rest of the herd. When I go to milk her, I always clean her teats with a dry cloth, if she is clean, or a warm wet cloth if she has decided to lie down in a pile of manure (yuck). Then, before I start milking, I ALWAYS put some salve on all of her teats. I use Working Hands, which I also use on my own hands, as it is made for people.. It is that hand cream that comes in that round, green container,, and all drug stores or dollar stores seem to have it. It is non greasy. I liberally apply that to her teats. This is important, as sucking calves can make their teats really chapped and sore. I only milk out the amount of milk that I need, which makes my life easy. If you can help it, DON’T feed grain. The milk will be healthier for you, and this will keep the cow healthier. Try to rotate your cow to fresh grass every day in the grazing season. Use electric polywire and fiberglass fence posts. It is really, really easy, to do. If you can’t rotate to great grass, use some alfalfa hay mixed with your grass hay or even alfalfa pellets. Have some good minerals for her too and lots of clean water. As for the milk, which is fantastic, i drink it (at least a half gallon a day) and also use a half gallon to make yogurt every day or every other day. I do not pasteurize the milk for drinking or for making yogurt. When I make yogurt, I just heat the milk to 110 degrees, put in some starter or store yogurt with live cultures (about three tablespoons, and then put it in a cooler about the size for a six pack of soda. I surround the container with the warm milk with hot bottles of water and leave this for eight to ten hours. Then I stir it, put it in smaller containers and refrigerate. It is really, really good and good for you. I use any extra milk to raise feeder pigs, but if I didn’t feel like having pigs, I would just let the calf drink the milk. Your cow’s own calf should be enough to consumer all extra milk for at least her first lactation. The calf will grow stronger, bigger, and faster than any calf raised by a bottle. Maybe in years ahead, you might want an additional calf, but that can be a trickier proposition. Even though I have laying hens, raise meat chickens, and raise lambs and beef cattle, my milk cow, Jane, is the most important member of the farm, aside from the Border Collies!! I wish you good luck with this endeavor, and don’t hesitate to email me with any questions, and you can also email me for a phone number, and I would be happy to help at any time, day or night!

  • katie

    I mean, what’s the worst that happens? You have extra milk? Just like having a garden when you have extra veggies, right? Extra fruit in the fall? You compost the extra, one way or another. The human construct is that it is waste if we can’t use it but really, it all returns back into the system. At least, that’s how I would justify things like this to myself…

  • Kim Sayers

    There is a youtube family (Homestading Family) that has tons of experience in having a family dairy cow and, more importantly, how to tackle the dairy deluge in the kitchen. Good luck!

  • Lissa

    “Not that it really matters how I feel — it’s happening”. This will be my mantra for awhile. :). Looking forward to all the posts about this.

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