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The Perfect Family Milk Cow
Buying a family milk cow is not a small decision. It’s an investment and a big responsibility. There are many factors to consider when you’re looking for just the right brown-eyed beauty who will provide your family with fresh milk, cream and potentially calves for meat.
I’ve compiled a list of things you need to take into consideration while you’re cow shopping (one of my favorite things to do besides chick shopping and seed shopping! Haha) I’ve also put it into a nice little printable guide that you can grab here and print off to make notes/check off each item.
The first thing to consider is time. Will you have time to milk your cow everyday? Twice a day milking is usually required when your family milk cow first freshens and the calf isn’t able to keep up with her milk supply. Unlike beef cows, a family milk cow is bred for high milk production, so they can’t be left for the calf to take care of it all or you will end up with a case of mastitis in your precious cow.
Twice-a-day milking does not have to last forever! You can gradually drop it back to once a day milking, but this needs to happen gradually so your cow and calf can adjust. Think supply and demand. Gradually lessen the demand and her body will naturally adjust the supply.
Planning on long vacations while your cow is milking? Better have a great friend or neighbor who is ready to milk for you (or a husband who will take on that task!). If you have any orphan calves you can graft on, this will definitely help keep up with her milk production and can give you a break from milking if both of the calves are able to keep up. The last thing you want is for your cow to develop mastitis while you’re vacationing!
What breed is she?
There are so many beautiful cows bred specifically for milking. My favorites are Jerseys, but Brown Swiss, Milking Shorthorn, Dexters, and Guernseys are all great choices.
Jerseys are a more petite cow and are famous for their beautiful big brown doe-eyes and fine features. I can’t help but love them. They have a high percentage of butterfat and make an excellent family cow.
How big is she?
Size can be breed dependent, for example a Dexter’s typical height is 34-46 inches. That’s a short cow, folks, but they’re super cute and, from what I hear, great milk cows.
Jersey cows come in a variety of heights. Standard, Mid-sized, and Mini. This site has a great graph on the sizes of Jersey cows.
Whenever I buy a new family milk cow, A2-A2 gene is what I look for. The A2-A2 gene is the oldest casein protein and can be found primarily in the heritage breeds. A2-A2 milk is easiest for the human body to digest. People with lactose intolerance or milk sensitivity find that they can drink A2-A2 milk without any problems.
Most commercial milk sold contains both the A2 and A1 proteins. The A1 gene was a mutation that eventually became widely spread among dairy breeds, and is predominantly found in Holsteins. A1 has been linked to several health problems including heart disease, autism, and Type 1 Diabetes.
You can read more about A2-A2 milk here.
What is her disposition?
You definitely want to meet your cow before you commit, unless you trust the breeder 100%. My first cow, Gigi, I met before I committed. Her owner had just one other Jersey cow, so I definitely knew I needed to see her before we sealed the deal to make sure I wasn’t getting some sort of wild cow. Although she definitely had her set of personality challenges, I knew we’d get along well.
The dairy I get my cows from now I trust completely when he says they have a good disposition. He knows what he’s talking about and my last cow from him was the sweetest cow ever.
You for sure want to ask if they are gentle towards children and other animals. My first cow, Gigi, hated dogs, so I never allowed my dog around her. Mabel could have cared less about dogs, and she was really gentle with little kids.
My first family milk cow was not registered. She was a dairy barn calf, that was sold to a small farm and then sold to me at a year old. I had no idea of her history or parentage. When selecting bulls to breed her to, I could only choose one based on what I knew of her and how she milked for me.
Mabel was a registered Jersey. This is beneficial in that I can look up her parentage and select a bull that will be compliment her strengths and balance out her weaknesses. I can also select an A2-A2 bull so that I know for sure her calf will be A2-A2, and I can use Gender Selected Semen. Yes! I can select semen that will give me a 95% of my cow having a heifer!
What is her calving date?
I prefer a warm season calver. My children are outside with me when I milk, so warm weather is important! We have two calving seasons for our Angus cattle, spring and fall. The cow I’ve got my eye on will be calving in June, which is perfect for us this year. Eventually I’d like to work her back to calve more during April so that if we have any orphan calves we can graft them on to her.
A cow in good condition will produce milk for 9-10 months (if you get her bred back quickly) or longer, so take that into account as well. Will you want to be milking her in January-February? Or will she have a calf (or calves) on her that can take over completely by then?
If she’s bred, what is she bred to?
As I mentioned in the last section, you can now select semen based on certain characteristics. Mabel was bred to a Jersey bull that was A2-A2, but not gender selected. Jersey heifers are usually more valuable because you can raise her and sell her as a heifer or bred heifer. Bulls, not so much unless you are planning on putting him in your freezer!
You can look up all of the stats on whatever bull she is bred to as long as it’s registered. Another benefit of going the registered route! If she’s just bred to the neighbor’s bull, then you might be out of luck knowing for sure what you’re going to get!
Is this her first time freshening?
If she has not calved before, you will have more training to do on your part. A first calf heifer means she might need help figuring out what to do with her calf. Generally, their instincts kick in and they lick their calf off right away, but sometimes they need just a little encouragement.
You will also be the first one to milk her. If she’s a gentle, calm disposition you shouldn’t have any trouble, but if she’s a little nervous you might need the help of milking hobbles or a kick stop. She also might need to be stanchion trained or trained to stand when tied if she hasn’t been already.
Is she halter trained?
A halter trained cow is a must for me, especially when moving her from pasture to pasture. None of my cows have been halter broke when I bought them. I train them after they come home, but maybe that is something that you’d like before you purchase your cow.
Is she stanchion trained
This one might seem like it’s a silly question to ask if you are buying a cow who has been milked before, but some folks just tie up their cow to milk or don’t need to tie her at all if she is very gentle (and maybe that’s what your plan is). If you are purchasing a first calf heifer (a heifer who is pregnant with her first calf) then she will have never been milked before, but she still could have been trained to stand in a stanchion. Always a good question to ask.
Your cow will also need to get used to your stanchion and the building/area that it’s in regardless if she’s been milked in a stanchion before or not. Take this into account and slowly introduce her to it so she isn’t stressed out the first time you NEED to get her milked.
Hand milked or machine milked?
Mabel was such a gentle cow, but even so, it took her a few days to warm up to the idea of me milking her by hand. She was used to being machine milked at the dairy. They can adapt, but it’s one thing you need to take into account.
Length of ‘quarters’ (teats)?
Okay, this one is big. If you have small hands, then shorter quarters might work for you. I have mid-sized hands I’d say. Milking a cow is a workout no matter long or short the quarters are. Get too long and they are cumbersome, but too short and you’ll have to milk with your finger tips! I’ve done both, and right in the middle is perfect.
Is she milking on all four quarters?
Occasionally, a cow will have an injury to a quarter or develop mastitis that ends up in a “blind quarter”. That means she will not be able to produce milk on that quarter. With that said, a cow milking three quarter can produce just as much as a cow with four working quarters.
Is she a good mother?
If she has calved before, is she a good mother? Does she lick the calf off and let it nurse, or does she ignore it or bunt it with her head? You definitely don’t want the latter. All of my cows have been good mothers.
Generally speaking, Jerseys have a strong maternal instinct and will also ‘mother’ other calves who aren’t even theirs. But there is always the chance for a not so motherly Jersey.
Feet, teeth, and health history?
This goes along with the health of her udder. How are her feet? If she’s older, does she have any broken teeth or teeth missing? Has she had any health problems in the past?
Ask about Milk Fever. A cow who has milk fever once is prone to have it again. Milk Fever is caused by calcium deficiency and sets in immediately after calving. It is fatal if not caught in time. You can read more here.
What is her current feed?
Unlike humans, cows don’t need variety in their diet. As long as their nutritional needs are met, they should stay on the same diet without any major changes. You should find out what she is currently being fed and try to keep the transition to your home as smooth as possible without changing her diet too much. A feed change that happens too fast can cause discomfort and a belly ache for your cow (I’ve learned by my mistakes!)
Again, if you want all of this in hand for you while you’re looking for your new family milk cow, you can download this free and easy checklist.
Let me know how your cow search is going!