Are you dreaming of adding a family milk cow to your homestead? It is a dream of many homesteaders, and I can see why. Having a milk cow on your homestead brings a multitude of benefits for your family. Imagine having 2-3 gallons of fresh, raw milk from your own grass-fed cow, every single day! If you are a mom, like me, the idea of being able to provide your children with wholesome, grass-fed, organic dairy products, and potentially beef as well, produced right on your own farm holds a special appeal.
Having a milk cow on your homestead is a huge step in the direction of self-sufficiency and food security. Just one cow is usually more than enough to keep an average family in milk, dairy products and grass-fed beef for most of the year. Not only that, the manure that a cow produces is like black gold for your garden, making your garden more productive, and who doesn’t want that?
You might even be able to make some extra money with your cow, too! While many states don’t allow you to sell raw milk, it can be easier to get permitted to sell homemade dairy products such as cheese, yogurt or kefir. If you don’t want to raise your cow’s calves for your own freezer, they can be sold for extra income as well. I’ve even seen folks sell sacks of manure to gardeners in the spring and fall. Trust me, you will have plenty of it!
Frequently Asked Questions About the Family Milk Cow
Does my cow have to have a calf for me to get milk?
Yes. Cows must have a calf to produce milk. However, with careful and consistent milking, many cows will produce milk for years without having to be bred again, so it is not always necessary for your cow to have a calf every single year.
What breed of cow is best for a family milk cow?
There are generally three types of cow to consider; beef cattle, dairy cattle, and dual-purpose cattle. If you want a cow that produces good milk and calves that you can raise or sell for meat, you want a dual-purpose breed. The dual-purpose cow probably won’t produce as much milk as a dairy cow, but that’s ok because you will still have more milk than you need for an average family. Some dual-purpose breeds to consider are Dexters, Shorthorns and Devons.
If you want a cow that is going to produce a huge amount of high quality milk and you’re not concerned about raising the calves for meat, you’ll want a dairy breed. Dairy cattle breeds include Holsteins, Jerseys, Guernseys, and Brown Swiss. Holsteins are the breed that is generally used by commercial dairies. They produce a lot of milk. However, Jerseys are also great producers, and the butterfat content is usually higher in their milk. They are also generally considered to be a very gentle cow.
How much does a dairy cow cost?
The cheapest way to get started is with a young heifer calf. They can be found for $300-500 in my area of the country. The big drawback to buying a young calf is waiting for her to get old enough to breed, and then waiting for her to have her first calf, before you will be able to start milking.
You could also start with an older cow who is ready to breed, is pregnant, or has already had a calf. The price will vary drastically depending on your part of the country, the age of the cow, and if the cow is a proven breeder and milker. I’ve seen adult milk cows in my area sell for anywhere from $900-$3000.
How do I feed my family milk cow?
Most folks with find that their cow does fine on just grass and hay. However, some high producing cows may have a difficult time maintaining their weight without supplementing their diet with some grain as well.
How much space will my cow need?
For a grass-fed cow, it is recommended to have 2-5 acres per cow, depending on the quality of the pasture you are running her on. If you plan to supplement with grain and provide a lot of hay, you can get away with having a one-acre pasture for her if the hay is good quality.
What type of fencing and shelter is required for my cow?
A barn is the ideal shelter for a cow. In climates with a mild winter you can get away with just a 3-sided cowshed. Some folks will tell you that cows don’t need a shelter at all, but in my experience, your cow will stay in much better condition and health if she has decent shelter from the elements.
Cows are generally much easier to fence in than goats. Most cows can be contained in electric or barbed wire fencing. However, if you spend much time talking to cattle farmers, you will find that there’s always that one cow who breaks through the fence all the time. Some experimentation and ingenuity, as well as diligent fencing maintenance, will be required in those cases. You can try adding more strands of wire, or using field fencing, for the stubborn cow who likes to escape her pasture.
What are my options for breeding my cow?
Basically, you have four options for breeding your cow. The easiest would be to have her artificially inseminated. This method will require perfect timing on your part, but once you get it figured out, this is certainly the easiest way to go. The biggest hurdle would by finding an artificial inseminator in your area.
You could also take the cow to someone who has a bull and leave her there for a couple weeks. This would be my second choice, and is a good option as long as you know the other farmer well.
You might also consider having the bull brought to your farm and left there with your cow for a couple weeks. I wouldn’t recommend this method, unless you have excellent fencing and are an experienced cattleman. Can you imagine having someone else’s bull break out of your fence and take off? Yikes!
The last option would be owning your own bull. This would not be a very economical option unless you have many cows you are wanting to breed each year.
How often will I have to milk my cow?
There are two ways to go here. You could take the calf from momma and bottle feed it shortly after it’s born. In this case, you would need to milk every 12 hours. You will probably end up with a lot more milk this way, but it will be more than the average family needs, and it will tie you down to your farm unless you have someone to come milk for you.
Many homesteaders choose to leave the cow and calf together over night, and then pasture them separately during the day. The cow only needs to be milked in the evening with this method. You will still get plenty of milk for your family, probably 2-5 gallons daily, depending on your cow. This method is less of a time commitment for you, is nice for the cow and calf, and might even allow you to get away from the homestead occasionally. I’ve heard of farmers who use this method going away for anywhere from a long weekend to a full two-week vacation using this method. They just let the calf stay with momma the whole time and keep her milked out. It is a lot easier to find someone to come feed and water your animals each day than it would be to find someone to come milk your cow twice a day!
What do I do with the calves?
For some homesteaders, the answer is simple. Raise them up and put them in the freezer. You can’t beat the taste of homegrown, grass-fed beef!
If you can’t bear the thought of eating something that you raised yourself, you will probably have to sell the calves to someone else who is most likely going to raise them for meat, or for the female calves, may be looking to raise a dairy cow of their own.
One thing to consider when choosing your breed of cow is that male calves from a strictly dairy breed can sometimes be difficult to get rid of. They are not great for meat because they are generally boney and don’t fatten up well. Depending on your personal priorities, this will be something to consider when purchasing your cow.
Hopefully this article has answered some of your questions about obtaining a family milk cow for your homestead. I believe that if you have the time and space for one, they are well worth the investment!