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Keeping a Family Cow
by Ron Schmid, ND

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Taking Care of Your Cow

“The dairy cow doesn’t ask for much, but she asks every day.”
– Joann S. Grohman, in Keeping a Family Cow

Okay, you’ve got your place, the pastures are green, the fence is built, and your REAL farmer friend just delivered your first cow. NOW WHAT?? How can I ever deal with this?

It’s really much easier than you think. A cow that has been treated well is a gentle, docile and intelligent animal that wants to please you. As a cow ages, her milk gets creamier, and she knows you better, and you her. One of my friends had a cow that died peacefully in the pasture last summer at the age of twenty-one. For the last eight years, she didn’t have any more calves, and her milk – two to four quarts a day – was for the family table. I asked my friend if she sent her cow to the butcher once she died. “No,” my friend said. “I buried her in the field. We had an understanding.”

Our cows are “house-trained.” That is, they don’t dump or urinate in the milk parlor while we’re milking them (see sidebar). I tell you this as an example of how very nice it can be to have a cow. Also: I just milk once a day, at a reasonable hour in the morning. No five a.m. business. No evening milking. Cows adjust nicely to one milking a day, and while you get less volume of milk, what you do get is cherce – creamier.

The most important consideration is keeping your cow, and her (your) milk, healthy. And you want her to have easy births, healthy calves. Here’s the formula: keep her out on pasture 24/7 until the cold winter months. Then give her all the quality hay she wants. Period. Grass is her natural diet. We don’t give our girls any grain, except a half-pound or so while milking. We mix in a probiotic and a vitamin-mineral supplement, just as insurance. They have a salt block to lick on, and plenty of water. In three years, we’ve never had to call a vet, and every calf has been born easily and healthy (usually overnight, while we’re asleep).

Feeding grain, even just a few pounds a day, makes for a lot more milk. Since we don’t feed grain, and milk just once a day, our milk volume is quite low by most standards. I believe the milk quality is best and the cows are healthiest on all grass and hay. Our girls give us anywhere from three quarts to three gallons a day, depending on the age of the cow and where she is in her lactation cycle.
But as far as the “milking chore” itself is concerned, well, it’s really a piece of cake. Here’s my routine.

In the summer, it gets light earlier, so I get up at maybe 6, maybe 7. Although cows are creatures of habit, you don’t have to milk at the same time every day. I call in Dear, our boss cow and main milker. She comes in because she knows there’s a treat for her, and because she’s ready to be milked. I put a rope halter on her and tie her to a post in the yard between our barns, then brush her and hose down her teats, scrubbing off any mud or manure. I dry her off and then let her be for a few minutes. She knows that’s her time to “do her thing” out there in the yard, (BEFORE we go into the barn for milking), for which she is richly congratulated upon execution. Then I bring her in to the milk parlor. In winter, the cleaning takes place in there.

Each morning, my partner Elly goes to a local market where the workers give her a couple of bushels of aging produce – lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and various other vegetables and fruits – for our animals. Once I settle Dear in her stanchion, we give her a bushel of greens to munch on while I milk her.

I milk her by hand into a pail. We never have more than two cows lactating at a time, and using a milk machine for just one or two cows and then cleaning it is more trouble than it’s worth. Besides, milking by hand is a joy in itself, very “zen.” You’re really tuned in with your cow. If you’ve cleaned her well, the milk is perfectly clean. I milk eight or ten ounces right into a cup to drink on the spot. This milk is appreciably sweeter than milk that is even ten or twenty minutes out of the cow, and I believe that as such it has nutrients and qualities that are lost soon after milking. This milk is like a hot latte, sweet and creamy and altogether delightful.

Once you have the technique down (and it ain’t higher math), milking takes only ten or twenty minutes. And your back gets used to it (and stronger from all the great raw dairy foods). You get a workout for your hands and arms. Even in cold winter weather, it’s warm under Dear – eight or nine hundred pounds radiating 102 degrees F from two or three inches away is a pretty good heater. And as I’ve used more and more raw dairy (and meat, but that’s another story) since we’ve had the farm, I’ve found that I’ve become increasingly resistant to cold weather, to the point where it really doesn’t bother me.

The milking done, I turn Dear loose in one of the pastures, then filter the milk and divide it into three lots. One is to drink today, and another goes into the “hot box,” our improvised clabbered-milk maker. The rest is saved to make butter and buttermilk.

Then I check the cows’ water, and that’s it for the day. The whole business takes maybe thirty minutes. In the winter, the barn needs cleaning, and hay needs to be put out in the fields in decent weather, or in the barn if it’s inclement. That’s another thirty minutes. But at a cost of thirty to sixty minutes a day, we have all the milk and clabbered milk and butter we could want, plus beef in the pasture (male calves) and a full freezer.

 

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