If you are like many homesteaders, you may dream of one day owning your own dairy cow to peacefully graze your pasture, providing you and your family with fresh milk, butter, cream, yogurt and cheeses. With the ever-rising price of dairy, owning your own dairy cow can seem like a really bright idea. Having worked with dairy cattle for most of my life, I heartily agree that these creatures are rewarding to care for and valuable to own. However, I have also seen many homesteaders fail or give up on the idea of keeping a dairy cow because they were ill-advised or under prepared. Since the average cost of a dairy cow does not give the option of a second try for many people, this guide is intended to give you the information you need to make a wise purchase from the beginning.
Preparing Your Land
Before you start visiting farms and pricing cattle, you need to take an honest look at your land and facilities. Although an often-quoted pasture-to-cow ratio is two acres for each cow-calf pair, in reality there is no way to know how much pasture you will need without a personal evaluation. Latitude, soil quality, and rainfall will all affect how much acreage your cow will need. The best course of action will likely be to call your county extension agency to get an evaluation of your pasture to see how many animals it can realistically support.
Most people do not have to worry about sufficient water supply, but if your well is particularly shallow or prone to running dry, you will need to get this resolved before looking for livestock as well. Our cows drink on average 45 gallons of water a day plus more is needed for cleaning the equipment and barns, but this amount varies quite a bit.
The last thing to check before you look for cows is your fencing and housing arrangements. Cows are relatively easy to keep in a pasture providing they are well fed, so a few strands of barbed or electrified wire should suffice. Cows are very hardy, but you will need shelter available for extreme heat or cold. Cows are better able to withstand cold than heat; but cold, wet weather can lead to frostbitten teats, so have sufficient straw on hand to keep them dry at all times.
What is the Ideal Family Cow?
Once you are certain that you really want a cow and are equipped to care for one, the next question you will likely ask yourself is what kind of cow you want. Most people are familiar with Holsteins and Jerseys, but there are six major recognized dairy breeds in the United States. Ayrshire, Milking Shorthorn, Guernsey, and Brown Swiss are the others, with Red and Whites (a variation of Holsteins) sometimes considered a seventh. There are many other novelty and dual-purpose breeds besides these seven as well, such as Dexters and Miniature Jerseys.
Although Holsteins and Jerseys are more readily available due to their wide use in commercial dairying, I do not think they meet the needs of most homesteaders very well. The average Holstein, especially, will produce far more milk than a family can use, and the butterfat content will be low. Although it may take more searching, I believe that there are other cows that will be much better suited to your purposes.
The ideal cow for a homesteader will be one with a higher-than-average butterfat content whose peak milk production is about 5-7 gallons per day. A cow that aggressively grazes is also an added bonus. The homesteaders in my circle swear by Milking Shorthorns and Guernseys, although I have found that many different breeds and crosses can work nicely. Some people have successfully milked beef cows and are quite pleased with the arrangement, although it is difficult to find a beef cow with a docile-enough temperament.
Where to Find Your Cow
Whatever breed of cow you decide to purchase, finding a decent animal at a sensible price can take some searching. If you are familiar with the agricultural community in your area, you may have contacts with dairy farmers and trustworthy friends from whom you can purchase livestock. Buying directly from an honest farmer is a good option, and will allow you to inspect the prospective cow closely. Auction houses are also an option, but I would be wary of purchasing dairy cows there if you do not live in a strong dairy area. Buying cows at an auction can get you a great price, but you can also buy a big headache that will end up very expensive beef.
If you have your heart set on a certain breed, you may need to expand your search from your immediate area. The Internet is a great resource to find enthusiasts and breeders in your state. Another great place to find quality cattle is through 4-H and other educational programs. Fairs are the best place to find cows with exceptional temperaments and great genetics. These farmers often have stellar herds and you may be able to purchase an older or less impressive cow for a reasonable price.
Tips for Selecting Your Cow
The buying experience can be quite stressful, and knowing what to look for is a matter of experience. Your budget may limit the quality of cows available to you, farmers may try to unload their problem cows onto you, and by the end of the ordeal you can get stuck with a lemon if you do not know what to avoid. The following tips are meant to help by giving a quick overview of what my family and other homesteaders have found helpful in the past.
Mastitis: A cow with chronic mastitis is a real problem that often gets culled from commercial herds and can be very difficult to cure. Some cows seem to always have a subclinical case of mastitis, and that can lead to lower milk quality, behavior problems when being milked, and even an early death. To check for mastitis in a cow, feel her udder and massage it gently. It should not be hard or hot to the touch, and she should not flinch when you touch it. Also, check to make sure her milk is clear and free from flakes. Missing teats are also an indicator of previous bouts of mastitis, although they can be lost from accidents as well and thus are not always a bad purchase. If the farmer you are purchasing from performs testing on his herd, ask to see the report for the cow in question. If her somatic cell count (SCC) is regularly above 400,000, you will probably want to avoid this cow.
Lameness: Another common problem that can be a nightmare for farmers is lameness. Due to their immense size, a lame cow can be very serious and difficult to fix. Although some lame cows improve when they are taken out of concrete barns and can be quite a bargain buy, you should definitely get a vet to check out a cow that is limping to rule out any serious problems.
Temperament: Lastly, temperament is probably the most important thing to look for when purchasing a dairy cow. If you are planning to milk by hand, you will need an exceptionally docile cow with no bad habits. Insist on watching the cow during milking to look for aggressiveness. See how the cow responds when you approach her in the barn or pasture. An appropriate response will be indifference to mild curiosity, and the cow should not try to avoid you.