Becoming totally self-sufficient is the ultimate goal for all homesteaders and preppers. However, building such a life takes a lot of work and it’s a never-ending, learning process. The ranch life provides many fulfilling moments, but its’ not for everyone. Today I’m going to share our experience of owning a milk cow.
If you own a few acres and you have the desire to drink fresh milk, then it makes sense to get a milk cow. The absolute truth is that a dairy cow involves a lot of work and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. You have to like the way it smells and the animal itself, to be honest. If you have other livestock, like chicken, pigs and goats, you may think that owning a milk cow isn’t that much different. Also, when the cow becomes the centerpiece of your homestead, you also have to plan what you will be doing with the milk surplus.
At our farm, we have a Holstein called Anna and my husband plans to get another milk cow next year. He is interested in getting a Jersey since we are also selling yogurt and cheese to friends or city folks.
Our cow gives us around 8 gallons of milk per day if we milk it twice a day. The thing I recommend before buying a milk cow is to actually taste the milk before bringing it back home. The milk tastes different depending on the breed. I personally prefer the milk from a Jersey or a Guernsey.
Another thing that makes me love the Jerseys is their relatively small size compared to other breeds.It’s easier to handle them and are perfect even for a small homestead.
The difference between hand and machine milking
If you plan or getting one or maybe two cows, I recommend trying the milking by hand before you look into other options. You won’t have to clean the milking machine, it goes much faster and the milk goes directly into a sterile stainless container.
If you use a milking machine,you have to make sure you clean it properly. The tubes can retain milk residues and in time will pick up bacteria. On the other hand, a milking machine has an in-line filter and this makes the job much easier.
In the end is a matter of preference and you should pick the one that works best for you.
One thing that is mandatory is to wash your hand before milking the cow. I’m using hot soapy water for my hands and I’ve been doing it for years. You will also need to wash the cow’s udder. For this operation, I recommend using a clean cloth that can also be dipped in hot soapy water. Some people prefer using bleach, but I’m not very fond of that method.
To make the cow drop the milk, you will also need to massage the udder in order to imitate the motions of a calf. Milking Anna takes almost 40minutes from start to finish. This includes the washing part, the filtering and refrigeration of the milk and the cleaning up process.
Cleanness is mandatory
I feel there’s the need to mention this and stress a little on this topic. Everything has to be spotless, from the barn to the room where you process the milk.
Once I milk Anna, I take the stainless container into my processing room where I have a stainless sink, a drying area and a refrigerator. I pour the milk through a stainless filter and then into sterile mason jars and refrigerate it as soon as possible.
You will need to cool the milk down if you want to retain the flavor and prolong its shelf life. Once the process is completed, I clean the equipment and let it air-dry. I’m using soapy water and a little bleach to clean the equipment, nothing fancy.
Over the years I’ve also learned that the lids of the mason jars need to be periodically checked.They can build up bacteria on the rubber ring around the edge. You can do a simple smell test and if you smell sour milk, you need to replace the lids. The lids need to smell clean otherwise you will taint the milk.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you should avoid using lids that have been on other jars. If you use lids from pickles, your milk will smell like pickles or even worse.
Milk cow care and feeding
On the ranch, we have a grass pasture that provides quality food for Anna. We give her hay during the winter months. Hay is a mix of grass and alfalfa and you need to pay attention to the amount of alfalfa your cow gets. I’ve noticed that too much of it will change the flavor of the milk.
We also spoil her with wet grain. We live the grain in water until it starts to sprout and they we feed her. This is a trick we learned from an old-timer and according to him and other more experienced farmers, it makes the grain taste better and it’s also more nutritious.
Sometimes we supplement the food with sunflower seeds. It helps Anna get the essential fatty acids it needs to maintain good health. And the “pièce de résistance”is a block of salt that hangs in her barn. She can lick it to get all the needed minerals.
Another thing you should be aware of is that severe distension of the rumen or bloat can occur when the cows first go on fresh pasture in the spring. It is caused by trapped gases that form when the grass ferments in the rumen. To resolve this, we introduce Anna slowly to spring grass around 3-4 hours a day and we also feed her dry grass.
Besides that, you should also know that mastitis can sometimes occur. This is an inflammation of the udder caused by bacteria. When this happens, you will notice that the udder gets hot and hard. The milk will come out chunky and will have a salty taste. To prevent this, make sure the udder is stripped when you milk.
Why all the effort?
Some people ask me if it is worth the effort to grow a milk cow. To be honest, the first two years seemed hard and I never thought I would be able to handle Anna properly. Now it seems an activity that doesn’t time me down and is just routine.
To get milk year round you will have to breed your cows, so they freshen. We usually do this four to five months apart. Besides this, I don’t see anything else as a hustle.
It provides us with fresh milk, we are able to make yogurt and cheese and we also make a little money when we sell the dairy products. As I said before a cow is a centerpiece at the farm and it is very nurturing. As my grandpa used to say, “cows are the foster mothers of humans and we should treat them with respect and take care of them”.
Since I’m pretty sure about people wondering which breeds are the best here is what I can tell you. The Jerseys, Holsteins and Guernseys are the most used in this country. However, the Red & Whites are also appreciated due to their milk being low in protein and butterfat. Another breed which is preferred since it can withstand difficult conditions is the Ayrshires. They can weigh up to 1,200pounds and they milk has a moderate butterfat content.
Ask yourself this before getting a milk cow:
When we first toyed with the idea of getting a milk cow, we needed some help decided. Since we had no clue where to start, we asked someone who has milk cows. They were able to tell us what’s involved in raising a milk cow and ask some questions that should help you as well. The answers you give to the following questions will help you decide if a milk cow is right for you and your family.
1. How much dairy products does your family consume? How much milk do they drink a day? The excess milk I often give it to the other livestock when I don’t have time to prepare it.
2. Can you have the time to milk the cow once or twice a day for about ten months a year? Can yous plit this job with someone else? You should maintain a tight schedule and not skip a day.
3. Do you have a barn or shed to house the cow and her calf? How about a place to milk her?
4. Do you have at least one acre of good pasture so that the cow can graze in rotation? How about a good source of hay and grain?
5. Can you handle mucking out the cow’s stall every day? Do you have a room or set-up to take care of the milk?
These questions should pretty much be enough to figure out if you’re ready for a milk cow.
If you want your family to have a fresh source of fresh, raw milk a cow may be the solution to your needs. However, no matter how much your family loves dairy products, you should first understand that a cow is a big responsibility.You need to have the land and tools to take care of a milk cow, but you also need patience and a tight schedule to make sure nothing goes to waste.
If you want to learn more about what raising a milk cow involves I suggest talking with someone that has been doing it for years. Our milk cow is a blessing for us, but learning the ropes hasn’t always been easy. Make sure you are prepared for such a change and if it makes sense for you or not.