The Family Milk Cow


It’s a lazy afternoon in the pasture.

Having your own milk cow is one of the best food security tactics out there. In addition to the butter, milk, cream, cheese, sour cream and yogurt your family eats, a milk cow will also provide food for chickens, pigs and – of course – her own calf. Some may also feed other calves as well. Farmers often say the milk cow feeds everybody on the farm and that’s pretty accurate. A milk cow nearly always produces more milk than a family can drink – even in a family with a couple of healthy teenagers who can go through a quart at a sitting. If you do a search on the subject of dairy cows, however, you’re probably going to see lots of articles about how cruel the dairy industry is – using calves for veal, keeping animals on concrete, butchering the cows at a young age. In some cases, these things are true. However, there’s a big difference between a commercial dairy cow and a family cow.
A commercial dairy is a business operation – the cows must produce or they are culled: sold or sent to the butcher. The most common way to get milk and its byproducts is for the cow to have a calf once a year – and dairies have to do something with the calves. In the days before mechanization, male calves were valued for oxen. Today, they may be raised for veal or grown on to become beef. Some go into dog, cat or chicken food. On the ranch or farm that calf becomes the family’s beef supply – not for the current year, but for the year following. However, dairy cattle don’t make as much meat per pound as breeds bred for beef. Some of the heifers become milk cows, while others are treated like their brothers. Many dairies cull their cows by the age of five or six because their production is lower than that of a younger cow, or they have problems with lameness, mastitis or low fertility.

Maybelle and her daughter Hershey, who was half Dexter and half Jersey.

A family cow that is well-cared for can live to 12 or even older, producing a calf each year. Milk cows are more fragile than beef cows, partly because they have been specially bred to produce more milk. In order to have a supply of milk all year around, the cows in a commercial dairy are bred throughout the year instead of being bred in early fall for a spring calf. This kind of breeding cycle is not the healthiest thing for mothers or babies. Milk cows are also more susceptible to conditions like mastitis and milk fever, the latter because they produce such great quantities of milk and pull calcium out of their own bodies to do so. A milk cow takes much more careful management than a beef cow. Crossbred cows – those that are only half or three-quarters dairy breeds – tend to be sturdier and have better overall health. Milk cows that are crossed with other dairy breeds are also less fragile than purebreds. However, most commercial dairies have purebred diary cows, with Holsteins being the most common because they produce the most milk. Jerseys, Guernseys and the occasional Milking Shorthorn or Brown Swiss are typical family cows. These breeds produce less milk but a higher percentage of that milk is solids and butterfat, which is what you want for byproducts like butter and cream.
Milking one or two cows a day is not at all hard. An hour a day is about all it takes – and that includes washing the milker or bucket, straining the milk and so on. It’s also a nice time to relax and one of the few times on a ranch when you get to work sitting down!

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