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The Most Honest Family Cow Advice You'll Ever Hear
Yep, that’s it. That’s my answer. It depends.
After raising several family cows of assorted breeds on different homesteads, that’s the best answer I’ve got for you.
Doesn’t seem really earth-shattering, now does it?
But it is a pretty radical kind of honesty these days when every homesteader and their mother has an opinion about the bestest/onlyest/healthiest/naturalist way to raise family cows. And they should know, after all, they’ve had one for a whole lactation or two now!
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I first dipped my toes into the glorious world of all things bovine- well let’s see, my 17-year-old son, who just walked in from milking and said he hates Indie (she pooped not once, but twice during milking tonight) was 5 when we brought Maybelle home so- 12 years ago… And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that it’s going to take the rest of my life raising cows before I really know anything, and even what I do learn can only be best applied to my cows, on my land, for my family.
Because my cows, like my family, are the product of a unique combination of genetics and are growing in this place with its own unique combination of plants growing in soil with their own unique soil nutrient deficiencies and excesses all of which are influenced by… you guessed it… our unique climate. How does someone living in Ohio tell a homesteader in Texas, Montana, Florida, Oregon, or Maine how to raise cattle on pasture?
Common Family Milk Cow Questions: The HONEST Answers
So what are my brutally honest family cow answers for those just getting started? Let’s tackle a few!
How many bales per day will a family cow eat?
You can generally gauge a cow’s needs based on her purpose (beef, dairy, dual) but there are several factors that can make reality a lot different from the projection. What is the quality of hay? How well hay was made matters. Does it have legume content? Is it all stems, has the grass gone to seed, are there many weeds? How much does each “bale” weigh? Are you using a feeder system with little loss or is some of the food actually being turned into bedding? How healthy is her digestive system? If it’s in tip-top shape, she will eat more. Will she be getting supplemental feed at milking time? Is she bred? All these considerations will affect how much hay a cow will consume.
No one consulted her about what Internet Expert said. If her needs are greater than their projections she will cut back on either production or flesh, depending on her genetic proclivity to do one or the other. You’ll be either disappointed with the yield, body condition, or feed bill because of unrealistic expectations, and if you bump her on down to the next farm you won’t be the first (or last) to do so for the promise of another cow who will meet the ideal that Internet Expert outlined.
How many acres do I need to raise a family cow?
Many of the same factors as the “bales per day” applies here. But you also need to consider the quality of the forage. How much work does she need to put into getting it? A cow that has to wander often between bites is expending calories that now need replaced, increasing how much pasture she needs. Are you rotationally grazing? That might help. (It will certainly improve your soil and therefore future grass if indeed grass is what you are actually growing in your pasture.) While rotational grazing will likely improve the quality of forage over time, an individual cow’s eating pattern can be very wasteful if she tramples it going from choice bit to choice bit. It takes time, years, to make these improvements. Find your stocking density slowly and always remember drought years can happen. Is your soil healthy and balanced? Healthy soil makes healthy grass and healthy grass makes a cow whose nutritional needs are being met efficiently.
How much milk will my cow give?
Genetics plays a huge role in how much milk your cow is capable of producing. A dual-purpose breed should give more milk than a beef breed and a Jersey should give more milk than a dual-purpose breed and a Holstein should give more milk than a Jersey. However, if you are calf-sharing, that baby may be taking much more than they need. A particularly good mama will hold back the rest from you. All of those sundry factors that influence feeding have bearing on how much milk she will produce. Are you supplementing? How much? What is the protein ratio? (Higher protein = more milk) Is she being picky and leaving those alfalfa pellets behind?
What’s the best breed for a family milk cow?
This is totally 100% subjective to what your needs are. Are you beginning to see how all these little details can influence your cow more than the breed? There is no breed that is the most efficient eater and “only” eats ½ a bale per day (or whatever the claim is.) There is no breed that will give you a guaranteed cream line or guaranteed production. Butterfat depends more on individual parents than breed and production is more the result of your husbandry. There is no breed that is the “most docile” and so on. Go ahead and learn what the breed standard is but be ready to be adaptable to a cow that isn’t the “ideal.”
Will I be able to digest A2 milk?
The fact of the matter is very little is known about A2 milk. The dairy industry (and therefore scientists) certainly aren’t putting money into funding good studies about A2 milk. What studies there are amount to self-reporting symptoms, results were not universal, and none that I found did more than speculate in regard to understanding actions.
And your small producers touting the benefits are purely anecdotal. That’s well and good. I’ve nothing against anecdotes and there absolutely may be something there (I hope there is! I hope A2 milk is allowing so many folks who thought milk consumption a thing of the past to rediscover it!) But until we more fully understand the mechanisms behind this and the individual factors affecting digestibility, whether in the man or from the beast, the best part about having an A2 cow is that, right or wrong, others are in the market for them. You will be able to sell your heifers or milk at a higher profit.
I do know this, my last 3 cows have all been confirmed A2/A2 milk, a Jersey (Holly), a Jersey/Normande (Heidi), and a Guernsey (Indie). And drinking Holly & Indie’s milk alone gives me stomach cramping, but I have no problems with Heidi’s milk. Go figure.
Should I Buy a Heifer or a Bred Cow/Cow in Milk?
How much time do you have for and knowledge about training a heifer? Is your schedule reliable enough to provide a heifer with the routine needed to build trust for training? When you buy a bred cow or cow already in milk there is a high likelihood you are buying someone else’s problem. Or at the very least the product of their neglect (if the reason for selling is “I don’t have time anymore.”) As you gain experience and confidence with cows, you may no longer want someone else to put in the early work and buy an older, reliable cow. Purchasing a heifer gives you complete control of how she was raised and trained. Purchasing an older cow is disruptive to her routine, something cows are so dependent on, and many new cow owners are discouraged when the sweet laidback cow they were promised is a kicking crank. But training a heifer to milk is a lot of work and a longer investment before the reward of that first gallon. This is really only a question you can answer yourself.
Will I Save Money?
Are you getting raw milk retail or from a herd share? What is your price per gallon? Costs vary wildly all over the US and I’ve seen them swing from $5/gallon locally from an Amish herd share to topping out in the $20 range in cities. How much milk do you even need?
Right now my cost per gallon is about $3. We extracted 147 gallons of liquid goodness in October for a total cost of about $440. But I probably only need 15 gallons of fresh milk for drinking, baking, & yogurt per week (2 gallons per day plus a gallon for yogurt for 9 people, 6 of whom are adult-sized.) If I drove 5 miles up the road to and joined a herd share it would cost me $322 per month. We use about 6 pounds of butter per week which is running about $5/pound right now…which puts us up to $451. With the surplus 80+ gallons above our needs we basically get for free each month I’m able to make all of our butter and cheese plus fatten up some lovely hogs.
If you go all out and start off with a bred A2/A2, halter broken, confirmed bred family cow from a farm that claims grass-fed genetics, get out your fat wallet. You’re not paying for the cow so much as the work someone else put into her and the claims they’re able to make. Where do you live? Do you have access to the tools and equipment you need to care for your cow? Do you have to ship them in? What about shipping in feed? Will you be feeding her a specialty supplement? Are you going to go crazy with a mineral bar and romanticize the idea of her manure remineralizing your soil when you could, for a lot less expense and time, just test and amend your soil and let her graze her minerals with her calories? Are you going to machine or hand milk? Your hands won’t break, require specialty cleaners, or parts when they wear down. In fact, hand milking is the only method of getting liquid from the teats that will improve the machine doing the milking (you).
Will I need permanent fencing?
The younger the cow, the more agile and seemingly numb to the pain they are. Some calves just don’t seem to care at all for a poly wire zap. But don’t think you can trust permanent field fencing either. Our Stella managed to hop right on over it AND the electric wire. For the most part, we’ve had very good success with cows staying in a single strand of poly wire. We will use a double strand when there’s a calf in the field, but sometimes even that won’t stop them. You’d think electric netting would work in those cases, wouldn’t you? We know folks whose cow uses her horns to drop the netting and walk over. Generally, if a cow has plenty of water and the grass isn’t really greener on the other side, they’re content to stay where they are. We’ve been here for 5 years, are currently running as many cows, and have not a single linear foot of permanent fencing. Take that for what you will.
When Will She Have her Calf?
It doesn’t even matter if you AI’ed or she was only with the bull for one day. Unlike pigs (3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days), think of your cow like a human pregnancy. There’s a window and she will have her calf sometime during it. Stressing about it won’t make it happen faster.
It doesn’t matter when she had her calf last time, how full her bag is, when you see mucus (or how much), if she’s uncomfortably shifting or breathing funny. (The last time I was on Calf Watch the joke was one of the unbred cows sounded more like she was in labor than the cow that we were eagle-eyeing.) The only semi-reliable factor is monitoring her ligaments for softening. If you check out my Instagram highlights you’ll find one where I followed Indie through the last weeks of her gestation and you’ll be able to notice how unreliable that is until it is actually time. The mind plays tricks on you and sometimes just even the way they are standing will leave the ligament softer or firmer than it was since the last check.
Will I Be Able to Have a Life?
Do you really want one anyway? Cows are your new life and l don’t care how sassy your cow is, there’s still a lot less drama than out there in the people world, amiright?
Really though it depends a lot on your management, her level of production, and what stage of lactation she’s in. If you’re able to calf share without the little pig sucking your cow dry, then that calf will certainly buy you some freedom and flexibility. If she’s later in the lactation, let’s say after the first 3 months, and you’re not calf-sharing you can still push her for an extra hour or two (maybe even three occasionally) without much trouble.
By no means am I suggesting you shouldn’t ask for advice or seek out mentors. But choose them wisely. Source them locally if possible. And even still take their suggestions with a grain of salt, using your own discernment and experience to influence decisions. Folks raising livestock should always be flexible and mindful and allow themselves a good measure of grace when reality doesn’t go according to plan.
What are the burning bovine questions you have or wish you would have known? What have you been told that turned out not to be true?