Keeping a Family Cow
by Ron Schmid, ND

Do You Want a Family Cow?

“ When you have a cow, you have it all.” - William Corbett, 19th century essayist

If someone offered you a cow tomorrow, you might well laugh. Where would you keep her? How would you learn how and find the time to take care of her? How could you handle all that work? How could you find time to milk her? A score of other questions would come to mind, adding up to a rather emphatic answer to the offer: “No way!”

And yet, you may well think that it would be nice to have your own cow, were it not for all those objections. Making a decision about a major purchase – and whatever you pay for her, your first cow may well be the major purchase of your life – depends on resolving objections. I hope to help as many of you as possible decide that you’re going to have your own cow. To that end, let’s examine your objections one by one and in the process learn a bit about cow care. We’ll end with some thoughts about the unique and wonderful benefits of having your very own bovine.

Your Home and Your Cow

“ A young fellow wantin’ a start in life just needs three things: a piece of land, a cow and a wife. And he don’t strictly need that last.”
– Old Saying

Life is a little more complex now than when those lines were first spoken. But it’s still possible to get back to simpler living in some ways. One definition of a decent place to live might be a place where no one will tell you that you can’t have a cow and a few chickens. That will take you at least a little ways away from most cities and towns to where land is more affordable.

A move to a place where you can have a cow doesn’t have to mean building a little house on the prairie, though. In nearly all of the country, there are places within twenty miles or so of even the big cities where cows are legal. Many municipalities are encouraging the survival of what small farms are left with significant tax breaks. In our Connecticut town, which like many once rural areas is now a mix of suburbia, small town, and small farms, we pay taxes on our thirteen acres as farmland, which is valued at a fraction of the land’s value were it to be subdivided into building lots. Yet as building lots in our area increase in value, our land becomes more valuable. This makes the farm an excellent long-term investment, an important practical aspect in considering buying a few acres in an area close to suburbs or a city.

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.

Your Health and Your Cow

Raw milk from a healthy, grassfed animal can, for most people, form the most important part of a marvelously healthy diet. I’m talking the kind of health that can pretty much eliminate doctors and insurance premiums. The raw butter, clabbered milk, yogurt, and kefir you can make can provide a majority of a family’s caloric intake. Not to mention the calf you can raise up every year for meat. Many frontier families literally lived off their family cow, and your family can too. Your homemade dairy foods can be complemented with meat, eggs from your chickens and vegetables to make a vital, life-sustaining diet. If you choose to make it that simple, that’s all you need. Raw animal fat and protein is a crucial part of such a diet, and raw milk is a perfect source.

Security is a very important reason you should have a cow. Secure your own food supply, and your own health. Will raw milk be outlawed where you live (if it hasn’t been already)? Will the farmer you get raw milk from now continue to have it next week? Next year? Five years from now? We asked ourselves those questions – and came up with a lot of maybes.

We decided that the most important thing we could do for ourselves was to take those “maybes” out of our lives. Having a cow requires a decision, two or more acres of pasture, and a fence. By far the hardest part is the decision. Once the decision is made, the rest tends to fall into place.

My decision to have a cow was heavily influenced by my belief that top quality raw milk and raw meat and organs are the most important health-building foods. Raw milk is also the ultimate fast food; I mentioned above enjoying a glass or two fresh from the udder as I milk my cow every morning. Both Joann Grohman, in Keeping a Family Cow, and Bernard Jensen, in Goat Milk Magic, have written of a freshness factor in milk just out of the cow. Dr. Jensen kept goats at his ranch and healing center in California for many years, and wrote that there was a healing quality in the fresh milk that was lost within three hours of milking. This is consistent with my understanding of some of Francis Pottenger’s experiments with animals that involved comparative effects of live grass and weeds with grass cut a few hours ago; animals on live greens had clearly better health.

It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This

The best thing about having a family cow is more intangible than the food or security aspects, and it’s kind of hard to explain. I think it has to do with finding a place, both physically and psychologically, that is all your own. Where you truly belong.

Cows are truly wonderful animals in so many ways, a joy to be around. They’re very social, hanging together in the pastures, grazing as a herd, grooming each other, expressing their discontent with boisterous braying when separated from each other. If you can, you’ll want to have at least two, for their sake as well as your own. From most of the windows in our farmhouse, we often look out and see our cows grazing or doing the other cow things they do. It’s a constant joy.

One day last summer, I took my tractor out in the south pasture and cut the grass down to about six inches because it had grown faster than our cows could eat it. The cuttings make great fertilizer, so it’s good to cut it when it gets too long. When I finished, I brought the tractor back out through the big wooden gate, and I parked it, climbed down, and leaned on a fence post. I looked out over our pastures. Elly came over, and a couple of her pet turkeys followed. We watched the sun sinking into the trees to the west. Dear and our other milker were grazing just a few feet away, turning grass into milk, and a couple of steers were out grazing across the pasture. Two calves came running full speed down a gentle slope, and one of them kicked up her heels in what I imagined was pure delight. The late afternoon sunlight was still warm on my face, and the smell of fresh-cut grass filled my head.

I said, “You know, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Elly said, “No, it doesn’t.”