You are considering purchasing a milk cow and preferably have had some basic experience with large animals or knowledgeable friends to help you as you learn. A friendly milk cow is a most enjoyable addition to the family farm. Cows are appealing animals: curious to the point of humorous, good natured (most of the time), and soothing with their general bonhomie. You will likely find researching which bovine would best suit your family a great deal of fun. There seems to be a dairy type to fit every taste and farmstead. Whatever you decide, you want to find a cow that will be able to provide milk for your family for many years to come. Unfortunately, that is often easier said than done.
A proven breedable milk cow of any type suitable for hand milking and family use can be a rare thing, and often quite costly. Purchasing a good proven milker is really ideal for the novice, but on a working budget, that can be a challenge. You might check the local dairy to find your “family cow” in the form of a cow whose production is perfect for your modest needs but not quite up to snuff for commercial purposes; keep in mind she has probably not been handled much more than the attaching of the milking machine twice daily, and she could be difficult for the newbie to handle and retrain for hand milking. At auction, chances are pretty good that any milk cow going through the sale lot has some issue that makes her…. well…. end up at auction. If you can make do with an otherwise healthy, young, and proven cow that has lost a quarter (one of her teats no longer works), that might be an excellent option, as long as it is a clear case of injury or isolated mastitis that is unlikely to occur again with proper care.
However, many first time cow enthusiasts find the purchase of a heifer bottle calf of a week to a month old and hand raising the animal to be a family milker is the most affordable way, at least upfront, to fulfill the dream of the family cow. With a bit of sweat, equity, and patience, you can end up with a lovely cow that, in a few years, provides milk, cheese, and butter to your table and perhaps a stout calf for the freezer each year. While the farmers and dairies are likely to keep their best heifers as replacement cows, they may offer suitable bottle babies for sale if they have too many or plan to use the same bull breeding line for several years. And as the milk cow must produce a calf each year, the challenges of finding a young calf in early spring are not so much the cost or availability, but making sure that the adorable little creature with the sweet expression peering up at you from the back seat of your mini van will grow up to be a good milking cow.
The Freemartin: The Girl Cow Who Isn’t
More than one novice (and even a few old hands) have found themselves taken in by sellers who more times than not are aware a young calf they are offering is a “freemartin” and, with cheerful smile and outright deception, take the buyers money for this “future milk cow.” Caveat emptor truly applies towards your cow purchase when considering the effort and cost of raising and training a milk cow, and a bit of due diligence on your part can be the difference between fresh milk and disappointment.
A freemartin, or martin heifer, occurs in a twin pregnancy when the other fetus is a male. Twinning occurs by some estimates in 1 out of every 200 births, with half of those being calves of different genders. Because the two siblings are roommates, they begin to share the placental membrane at a bit over a month into gestation. It is believed that the exchange of antigens, cells, and hormone “washes” cause changes in the little girl cow’s early development which will render her sterile about 90 percent of the time. (The male calf, on the other hand, will likely only have reduced fertility.) There are varying degrees of development issues, including being born nearly normal, having a malformed or “blind uterus” (that, as the name suggests, leads nowhere), or having underdeveloped or missing ovaries. In some rare cases, partial male organs may also be present.
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She looks just like all of her little herd mates. She has the adorable big ears, knobby knees, giant soulful eyes, and, seemingly, all the external “lady parts” necessary for breeding and milking. She might be a bit small (as she should), but not necessarily. If she is sharing a pen with a male calf that looks nearly identical and seems of the same age, a warning bell should sound, but if she is mixed in a tumble of other young calves she is virtually impossible to spot.
It is possible the male fetus could die early in gestation and be slipped unnoticed or reabsorbed, making the breeder unaware that the surviving heifer calf is a freemartin when she is born. However, when calving day comes on the farm and both Jack and Jill make their debut, there is no mistake. For the beef farmer this is not necessarily a bad thing; often the heifer will put on weight more like a steer, and there are some who swear the meat is the most tender. But for the dairy farmer, it is a sight that generally brings a curse to his lips. The honest breeder will market the animal with full disclosure and appropriately priced, as there is a market, if not as pleasing a destiny, for these unfortunate lasses. A few will attempt to pass along the bad luck to an unknowing buyer. The less shifty will underprice the animal at the value of a male calf, not mentioning she is freemartin but generally admitting it if placed on the spot.
I experienced a situation where a seller had purchased four freemartin heifers as a lot at auction, then promoted, priced, and sold them as potential milkers, even being so bold as to state her vet had examined them and said they would make good “replacement” heifers, all the while knowing the little calves would never produce a drop of milk and the trusting buyers would end up disappointed.
Another situation I witnessed featured a Holstein heifer that was sold as a future milk cow at four months with claims of veterinarian exam for suitability. After nearly eighteen months and two failed breeding attempts, she was examined by a vet and discovered to be a non-breedable due to a malformed uterus, easily determined by a quick exam. Though she was not blood tested to confirm being a freemartin (as her destiny to the freezer was already clear), the diagnosis was undeniable. It was later determined by a chance encounter with another cow purchaser that this same seller had done this on at least three other occasions. Any possibility that the seller did not know the heifer may not be viable was dismissed when the two buyers compared notes and determined one had purchased two other calves from the buyer, determined they were both freemartins, and confronted the seller with this information well before this little cow was sold.
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Freemartins were once relatively rare, but they seem to have become more common; there is some school of thought that the shift to artificial insemination with cows being brought into estrus using hormones leads to an increase incident of twinning. (Imagine a race where all the competitors are placed just shy of the finish line—the possibility of more than one “winner” increases quite a bit!) For a farmer with a herd of milk cows, it is a disappointment; for the family or homesteader eagerly planning for their first family milk cow, it is heartbreak.
Unfortunately, as mentioned before, there are often no discernable signs that a cow is a freemartin and unable to breed, particularly at the milk calf age. As she grows, she may look more steer-like or develop long, odd twisting patches of hair on her vulva that look much like the genital hair of a bull, but that is later in life A weanling can sometimes have oddly shaped teats, small, underdeveloped, and shaped like pencil erasers. However, that can be a tough thing to distinguish for the novice, and by time such markers are evident, she is likely already spent many months on expensive milk replacer and is wandering about your pasture and has made a place in your family’s heart.
So Trust—But Verify
By far, the vast majority of farmers and cow owners are honest people. A few are not. Unless you are buying an animal from a friend or a highly reputable dairy or breeder whom you trust, it is always best to have a knowledgeable cow vet examine your potential purchase—no matter how charming and earnest the seller or how tempting the deal. Some old hands used to go to the sale with a pen and take a quick measurement of the cows neither region to catch a potential freemartin, as the vaginal depth might be quite short in one of these cows. However, goosing a young bovine in a public forum is not recommended for the novice and could result injury to the calf or pen poker, not to mention it is hardly the most accurate method. Sometimes a physical exam can suffice to identify clear cases, but the best course of action is always a lab test of the calf’s blood for the presence of the male Y-chromosomes, which is an indication of the condition.
The added expense and delay from such testing is well worth the effort, no matter how endearing the little critter; in the next few months of the heifers’ life you will have enough challenges with hand feeding and keeping the youngster healthy so they do not succumb to the common problems of respiratory illness or scours. Challenges lay ahead, but at least you are beginning the journey on the right foot with a little cow that has the potential to provide for you and your family in the years to come.
©2012 Off the Grid News