Keeping Homestead Dairy Cows

Get grass-fed milk and other fresh dairy products when you keep a family cow.

Dairy Cow Resting in Field

Raise a dairy cow for delicious grassfed, organic milk.

Photo by Fotolia/Lars Christensen

Content Tools

With all the hype surrounding food safety and the hassles associated with obtaining unadulterated dairy products, it might be time to take matters into your own hands — with a little help from a dairy cow.

Whether you’re tired of worrying about herbicides, pesticides and bovine growth hormone in your milk, or you just desire farm-fresh, raw milk, read on and you might find that the world of milking — homestead style — is for you.

Keeping a homestead dairy cow is a big commitment that’ll get you one step closer to the self-sufficient life, free of factory-farming hijinks. However, it comes with costs. Aside from the cash investment of an animal and modest facilities, you’ll need to supply daily labor, wholesome feed, and you’ll find yourself tethered to your farm — at least while the cow is lactating. At first, the work may seem excessive and tedious, but it’ll soon dissolve into routine meditation as you develop a bond with your cow.

The Cows and the Calves

Cows produce milk in order to feed their calves. Once the cow has given birth, she must be milked daily or the milk will stop flowing. Individual cows and breeds have varying lactation periods, but count on around 10 months of milk production coupled with a new calf on an annual cycle.

To keep a dairy cow means figuring out what to do with her calves. If you desire beef, you can raise the calf until it reaches appropriate slaughter weight (typically around 1,200 pounds), and then take it to a processor who will kill the animal, butcher it and package the beef for you. If you don’t want to go this route, you can sell or give away the calf as a bottle baby, or otherwise find a home for it.

The Daily Routine

Dairy cows, like most domesticated animals, are creatures of habit. They enjoy a routine, and their happiness depends on it. The happier she is, the more milk she’ll produce on a regular basis. Therefore, your daily routine must be fairly regimented and will consist of feeding, milking, mucking and milk handling.

If you’re milking twice a day, your day will go something like this:

— Fetch cow from pasture
— Milk cow
— Return cow to pasture
— Process milk
— Muck out milking area
— Move electric fence
— Check fences and water/mineral supply
— Fetch cow from pasture
— Milk cow
— Return cow to pasture
— Process milk
— Muck out milking area

Feeding

A dairy cow needs two principal components in her diet to be healthy: roughage and protein.

Roughage consists of cellulose, for the most part, and can be supplied by pasture and various forms of hay. Grass hay and grass pasture can contain sufficient protein for animal maintenance, but for a lactating dairy cow, higher protein feeds such as alfalfa hay, grass-legume pasture or protein supplements will help sustain her milk production. In addition to sufficient roughage and protein, she’ll also need minerals and salt.

During the summer, the cow can get all the nutrients and protein she needs from grazing a lush pasture consisting of legumes and grasses, but in winter, when the pasture is sparse, good hay and supplemental protein are needed. If you can feed leafy alfalfa hay (2 to 3 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight = 20 to 30 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound cow = roughly half of a small, two-wire square bale), this will be all she needs. However, if you want to increase the cow’s milk production, feed a grain supplement in the form of chopped or ground oats, barley, corn or wheat every day, regardless of season. Carla Emery, author of The Encyclopedia of Country Living, says she supplements her milk cows with about a half gallon of grain morning and night, while they’re being milked, but even that is more than necessary.

Another method of supplementing your cow’s diet is with garden vegetables such as carrots, turnips, potatoes, beets, kale, squash, etc. Maintaining this year-round food supply requires planning on your part, as it takes a lot of vegetables to supplement a cow’s winter diet — about 25 pounds per day. (Some vegetables can affect the flavor of the milk. If you choose to supplement your cow’s diet with garden vegetables, be sure to take the animal off the vegetables at least two hours before milking to avoid any off-taste in the milk.) But, your cow will always “give back” to your garden in the form of manure that you compost and spread, rebuilding the soil year after year.

In addition to grass and winter supplements, a lactating cow can drink up to 20 gallons of water per day, so a fresh water source is needed in the form of a tub you fill each day by way of an automatic waterer, or a stream or pond.  

Milking

Ideally, milking should be timed at 12-hour intervals. A cow with a full, distended udder is not a happy cow (think of having a full bladder and nowhere to go); don’t inflict this on her by milking erratically. With the family cow, you have the option of milking just once a day by letting the calf help you out. Leave her calf with her overnight, separate them in the morning, and by evening, she’ll be ready to be milked. This means no early morning milkings if you have an office job. Or you can leave the calf with her all day, separate them overnight, and milk her in the morning. The calf may nurse beyond normal weaning periods using this system, but you won’t need to mess around with bottle feeding.

Milking is a chore you will look forward to because by drawing the milk, you’ll bond with your animal and, at the same time, be harvesting the fruits of your labor.

After retrieving your cow from the pasture, tether her in your milking area and provide her grain ration. Always sit on the same side of your cow, at a right angle, while milking so she can predict the routine and feel at ease. If you have time, run a grooming brush over her body to remove loose hairs and calm her.

With a clean cloth and warm water, wash her udders, further relaxing her. Washing takes the place of a calf butting the udder in preparation for sucking; it enables the cow to “let down” her milk. (Cows have a reflex that prevents them from releasing milk when they’re tense, so if she’s not in the right frame of mind, she cannot be milked.)

Wash your own hands thoroughly. Use a stainless steel bucket or food-grade plastic container to milk into. Milk the first two or three squirts into a cup for examination for mastitis (strings, flakes or clumps), then discard. If you are uncomfortable with, or unable to milk with your bare hands, you might consider a hand-pump system such as the Udderly EZ, which deposits the milk into an enclosed container after you generate suction by squeezing the handle.

Milk Handling

Once you have the milk collected, it will need to be quickly strained to remove debris, and cooled to limit bacterial growth. To strain the milk, you can purchase a commercial milk strainer, or go the homemade route by pouring the milk through four layers of dish towels or cheesecloth over a large colander and bowl. 

If you prefer to pasteurize your milk, do this after straining, but before cooling. The easiest method is to use a home milk-pasteurizer machine. These machines can be purchased from several online sites, like New England Cheesemaking Supply ($295 for a 2-gallon unit), or search online for an easy stovetop method. 

Next, cool the milk to 40 F within one hour. Pour the milk into chilled, quart-size glass jars, and place in the coldest part of the refrigerator; or you can set them under cold running water, or set in a bowl of ice water, adding more ice as necessary. Store milk between 34 F and 38 F.

You can expect fresh, raw milk to last up to about a week (take care with cleanliness and cow health when consuming raw milk); pasteurized milk will keep longer, from 14 to 20 days, but if you have milk coming every 12 to 24 hours, drink the fresh stuff and use milk older than 24 hours for cooking, cheesemaking, etc.

To collect cream, let your milk sit undisturbed for 12 hours after cooling. Most of the cream will have risen to the top by this time (but will continue to rise for 48 hours), so simply spoon it off and store separately, or use a skimmer or cream separator. 

The Cycle of Life

Soon after giving birth to her first calf, your dairy cow will need to be bred, and she will freshen about nine months from the date she settles (gets pregnant). Her second heat after calving is an ideal time to breed her — that way you’ll only be milkless for about two months of the year. You will be milking —and her calf may be nursing as well — while she’s pregnant, up until about two months before she’s due to give birth — gestation is 285 days, or about 9 1/2 months. At that time she’ll need to be “dried up” (stop milking) to allow her body to prepare for her new calf.

As a homesteader, you likely don’t own a bull, nor do you need to in order to breed your cow. Your options include taking your cow to a bull for breeding, or artificial insemination (AI). The easiest method is undoubtedly AI, unless your neighbor just happens to have a suitable bull and you can walk your cow over for a visit.

A cow can only be bred when she is in heat, which comes around every 18 to 24 days and lasts for eight to 30 hours, averaging 16 hours. So, the window is short, and you’ll need to develop the observation skills to determine when the time is right. Signs of heat include mucus discharge, and redness or swelling around the vulva; excessive bawling; restlessness, etc. You can hire an AI technician to do the job, or you can learn to do it yourself.  

If you intend to raise your calf for beef, arrange to breed your cow to a smaller beef-type bull, such as an Angus. Either way, you’ll want to select a sire known for calving ease to minimize birthing issues.  

Another breeding option is to buy a yearling beef-breed bull, let him do his job, and have the bull butchered after your cow is bred — you will have freezer beef this year and next.

When the time comes for your cow to give birth, make sure you’ve done your homework and are prepared for problems — though dairy breeds usually calve easily — and have a calving kit ready. 

Consideration should be given to the season when your cow will calve. For the strongest calves, time the birth when spring pastures are lush.

Fencing and Facilities

Before bringing home your dairy cow, you’ll need to invest in a little infrastructure. 

Fencing

Three types of fencing “systems” are needed when keeping a cow: perimeter fencing around your property, permanent interior fences to define your pasture/paddocks, and moveable fence to control grazing. High-tensile wire, constructed of multiple strands of 12-gauge wire, is a cost-effective material for the perimeter fence. Five wires, with a minimum of three wires energized, will be a reliable fence.

For interior fences and paddock dividers, one strand of electrified high-tensile wire works effectively on cattle trained to respect electric fences. However, if you plan to raise calves in those same paddocks, then two or three wires will be more effective.

Regardless of the size of your pasture — 1 acre or 100 — the best way to keep cattle on grass is with a rotational grazing system. This process involves dividing pastures into ever-smaller paddocks and controlling the cows’ access to fresh grass, often using portable electric fence. Depending on the size of your paddocks, you could be moving fences once a day or every few days. The recently grazed pasture recovers while the cow is off grazing another section.

Shelter

Dairy cows require modest shelter against cold winds, rain and snow. A simple shelter can be constructed from recycled materials such as old telephone poles, plywood, concrete blocks and corrugated metal. For some specific plans, check out How to Build Animal Housing by Carol Ekarius (Storey Publishing, 2004).

Milking Parlor

An outbuilding with a concrete floor that can be kept relatively clean and sanitary is an ideal place for milking. You can halter and tie your cow to a vertical post if she’s kind, or use a stanchion to restrain her if she’s not. Especially gentle and experienced cows can be milked standing in the field.

Get Your Dairy Cow

Selecting a dairy cow can be as simple as choosing the breed that predominates in your neck of the woods. Animals will be easily obtained, and the popular breed will be well-adapted to the area. When selecting a specific dairy breed, take into consideration its adaptability, longevity, disease resistance, disposition, calving ease, size, price, milk volume and cream content of milk, foraging ability and food-conversion efficiency, and whether its polled or horned.

A good dual-purpose cow will produce a good beef calf, provide him with enough milk, and produce sufficient milk for your purposes.

To acquire a dairy cow, begin by asking your circle of rural friends and get their advice. Chances are someone knows someone who is doing exactly what you want to do. You might find your cow or cow/calf pair at a local dairy farm, or check Craigslist under the For Sale/Wanted/Farm-and-Garden category. Oftentimes there are 4-H heifers listed for sale, or people looking to downsize their herds will be selling cows or heifers.

If you’re a beginner, try to not buy a first calver because you will both be learning: The cow will be nervous and may kick, and you will be unsure. You’d be better off to get an older cow with a placid nature. If you have a cow-savvy neighbor or friend, take him with you.  

If you’re set on acquiring a particular breed, check the classified ad section in rural-lifestyle and farming magazines, or go to a breed association website and locate a breeder within a reasonable distance from you.

Before writing a check or forking over the cash, do a visual inspection and ask lots of questions, such as: How old is she, and how many seasons has she been milked? Has she been hand-milked or machine-milked? Do you have proof that the cow is free of tuberculosis and brucellosis? Has she had calving problems? How many gallons of milk does she give each day; how much is cream? Does she have any health or behavior problems?

Also, feel her udder and teats: Are there any hard spots in the udder (signaling mastitis)? Are her teats nice and long for easy milking? If possible, milk her yourself or watch her being milked and examine the milk for signs of mastitis: stringy milk, clots or blood.

Keeping a dairy cow is one small step for a homesteader, albeit one giant leap toward self-sufficiency. 


Grassfed vs. Grainfed

How will your home-raised, grassfed milk taste compared with the commercial, grainfed kind you’re used to purchasing at the grocery store?

“First, because the cow’s diet is higher in roughage, there is a much higher cream content, which makes for a rich, delicious milk,” says Shannon Hayes, PhD in sustainable agriculture and author of The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook. “When you become acquainted with your personal cow, it is amazing to note how the flavor changes over the seasons. The milk, to me, seems to have a more mellow flavor in the winter months when she is on hay, but then takes on a bright, floral flavor once she moves to the grass in the spring. I find the transitions in taste absolutely delightful. Also, her milk has a buttery yellow color when she is on grass, owing to the carotene she is consuming.”

Hayes works on her family’s farm, Sap Bush Hollow Farm, in upstate New York, producing grassfed lamb, beef, pork and poultry. Her latest book is Long Way on a Little (Left to Write Press, 2012).


Step-by-Step Milking

1. Place your thumb and fingers around the base of the teat/bottom of the udder, and make a loose fist. 

2. Keeping your fingers around the base (keeping the teat closed off), squeeze firmly downward, applying pressure first with the upper fingers, traveling to the lower ones, forcing the milk down and out.

3. Release your grasp for a moment, letting the teat refill. Then repeat the process. Eventually, you’ll develop a rhythm and be able to milk both teats at the same time, squeezing one while the other is refilling.


Preserving Milk

With your own dairy cow producing several gallons of milk a day, you will most likely need to get creative to put it all to use. After you’ve swilled milk and cream, and made cheese, yogurt, butter and ice cream, consider canning or freezing some for later use.

At certain times of the year — spring and summer when pastures are at their peak — your dairy cow will produce more milk; in late winter, you’ll likely have a shortage. Since the USDA does not recognize any proven safe canning methods, your best bet is to freeze milk during the “feast” in order to get through the “famine.”

To freeze your milk, strain and cool milk as instructed on Pages 51 and 52; before the cream has a chance to rise, pour the milk into straight-sided, plastic freezing jars (such as those sold by Ball) or zippered, plastic freezer bags. Your milk will keep in the freezer for six months or more.


Dairy Breeds

Holstein. Holsteins are the most popular dairy cow in commercial dairying due to their ability to produce large quantities of milk. Though you probably won’t need as much milk as a Holstein can produce each day, you might find this breed readily available in your area. Holstein cows are large, reaching 1,500 to 1,600 pounds at maturity. Because of their size, they’ll throw large calves, which may mean calving problems. Holsteins originated in the Netherlands and were adapted to the lush grass landscape there. They are good grazers, but don’t do well on poor pastures.  

Jersey. Jerseys originated on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, but have adapted to climates and conditions all over the world. Jersey cows are small, at around 800 to 1,200 pounds at maturity, but give a lot of milk for their size — three to four gallons per day in her prime. Jerseys have fewer birthing problems compared to other breeds. They are excellent grazers, will do well on medium to poor pastures, and they respond well to gentle handling. Jerseys make excellent homestead cows and will certainly become a pet if handled with kindness.

Guernsey. Guernseys also originated in the Channel Islands of England and are well adapted. Their gentle disposition makes them good mothers and easy calvers, plus they are good grazers who efficiently convert feed to milk. Guernseys are small cows, averaging about 1,100 pounds at maturity.

Ayrshire. Originating in Scotland and adapted to its harsh climate, Ayrshires are hardy and efficient foragers, able to survive on sparse, lower-quality pasture. A medium-sized breed at 1,200 to 1,300 pounds at maturity, Ayrshires are prized for their well-attached, symmetrical udders. 

Brown Swiss. Adapted to the rugged conditions of the Swiss Alps where they originated, Brown Swiss are considered the oldest dairy breed. At 1,300 to 1,600 pounds at maturity, they are quite large and may have difficulty with their first calving. They have gentle dispositions, are highly adaptable to their environment, and make fine homestead cows. 

Shorthorn. Shorthorn cattle are a good dual-purpose breed, meaning they have beef conformation but are also good milkers. They originated in Northeastern England, near Scotland, where they became popular for both meat and milk, and were used as oxen. Milking Shorthorns are a segment of the Shorthorn breed, and their bloodlines were developed in the 1700s to be leaner, blockier, and with good milking qualities. Shorthorns are rather large, and cows will average 1,100 to 1,300 pounds at maturity. Shorthorns are versatile, adaptable and excellent grazers that produce a high volume of milk from grass. 

Note: A note about beef versus dairy breeds: Beef-breed cows are much more skittish and excitable than dairy breed cows (as dairy breeds have been selected for their gentleness). Therefore, it’s not a good idea to acquire a strictly beef-breed cow (Angus, for example) with the intention of milking her. According to Carla Emery in The Encyclopedia of Country Living, “Beef-breed cows are not usually to be milked by ordinary mortals … you’d never be able to catch one to milk her.” If you’re looking for a milker, get one with dairy genes.

Breaking Down the Dairy Breeds: Milk Quality and Volume

Holstein
• Protein %: 3.2
• Butterfat %: 3.8
• Pounds/Year: 18,000

Jersey
• Protein %: 3.8
• Butterfat %: 5.0
• Pounds/Year: 15,000

Guernsey
• Protein %: 3.6
• Butterfat %: 4.5
• Pounds/Year: 15,000

Ayshire
• Protein %: 3.4
• Butterfat %: 3.9
• Pounds/Year: 17,000

Brown Swiss
• Protein %: 3.6
• Butterfat %: 4.0
• Pounds/Year: 16,500

Milking Shorthorn
• Protein %: 3.4
• Butterfat %: 3.7
• Pounds/Year: 16,000

Source: How To Raise Cattle (FFA Agricultural Education), MBI and Voyageur Press, 2007.


Karen K. Will is editor of Heirloom Gardener magazine, and co-author, along with Editor-in-Chief Oscar H. Will III, of Plowing With Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions (New Society Publishers, 2013).