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