Do you dream of milking your own cow? Having fresh, raw milk available on tap? The thought of all of that warm, frothy sweetness pouring into your bucket is very appealing to many but before you consider bringing a house cow into your daily life, there are a few things you need to consider.
A cow will need your care and attention daily, maybe even twice a day. However you don’t have to milk her every day. You can leave your cow’s calf with her in the paddock and choose when to milk. You might choose once a day (in which case you’d need to separate the calf each night) or once a week.
You’ll need to have enough grass, with the standard generally being 1-2 acres per cow. This will vary though depending on the quality of your pasture and the season. I was surprised at how much I had to move our cow to fresh pasture (as we graze rotationally), and even more surprised at the variation in milk supply. One day production would be 8 litres and the next it was down to 3. Time for a fresh paddock! Luckily I worked this out fairly quickly, and our cow now has plenty of grass at all times.
Can’t cows just eat grass and make milk? Yes, they can, however you may not get a high production of milk. But not every family needs 20 litres a day, or even 10. If 3-5 litres a day is all you need, then you may not need supplemental feed at all (bar a few treats for the milking parlour).
In our situation, we have lots of land but it’s not very productive yet—we are working on soil health. So I fed our cow plenty of hay during her first winter with us, and she also had some grain (whole barley soaked overnight then sprouted, preferably organic). It’s a small amount compared to a commercial dairy, yet she still produces a fairly good quantity of milk.
We also give our cow mineral supplements depending on what’s missing in our soils (which we found out from soil tests). As our soil and pasture improves, our need for the supplements and extra feeding will drop. My cows have a mix of dolomite, sulfur, copper, seaweed and salt, and sometimes boron and zinc if the soil test shows a deficiency. They also have apple cider vinegar (especially around calving time) and cod liver oil, vitamin C, garlic, arnica and comfrey for any ailments. I’m yet to use antibiotics, drenches or vaccinations, and hope to keep it that way.
HERDS AND BREEDING
Cows are a herd animal, but you don’t necessarily need another cow. You may already have a pony, donkey, goat or sheep, and the cow’s own calf will be good company for her.
Breeding is a big part of cow ownership. You’ll need semen for her once every year or two. You might have a friendly dairy manager in your area who will artificially inseminate (AI) your cow for you when the time is right, or you may be able to borrow a bull or take her to a bull nearby.
TIME TO COMMIT
I think the perfect scenario is to share a house cow with a neighbour or friend. You do need to dry off your cow a few months before calving, so that can be your yearly break from the daily chore (and time to schedule in a family holiday).
Not that it’s a chore to me. I truly love to hand milk cows (I’ve milked up to three cows a day now) and I believe my children will benefit from this healthy food for the rest of their lives.
BENEFITS OF KEEPING A HOUSE COW
Raw milk is the reason we have a house cow. I want my kids to drink milk which contains healthy bacteria, beneficial enzymes, and all of the vitamins (especially A and D) and minerals. Pasteurisation kills all bacteria, including the friendly ones, and greatly reduces the nutrient content of the milk, making minerals like calcium much less available to the body.
If you’re worried about raw milk not being safe to drink, take a good look at your milking process. Is your cow grazing green pastures? Is she getting enough supplements for nutrient density? Is she healthy? Are you milking into a clean bucket and storing it in clean bottles?
One thing that mystified me in the first year of milking was the lack of cream. I had purchased a Jersey cow with good breeding but wasn’t getting any cream. I searched for answers by asking dairy farmers, other house cow owners and reading books. One long night of searching on a house cow forum finally gave me the answer.
My cow was holding back milk for her calf, and therefore holding back the cream. She was more committed to raising a healthy calf than I’d given her credit for. I loved seeing my cow with her calf; hanging out together, grooming one another, sometimes butting heads. It’s something that doesn’t happen in a commercial dairy, where calves are generally removed from their mother after only one or two feeds.
I found myself in a situation where it was either wean the calf or get no cream.
Cream won the day, and now I can make butter. Our calf had a very good run before we slaughtered him for meat. That’s another decision you’re going to have to make, as cows don’t make milk without making a calf. If you’re not into sausages, you’re going to end up with a paddock full of cows. Selling the calf can be one way you can pay for food and supplements for your cow.
Clockwise from top: Happy cow with her feed while being milked; Frothy milk with milking stool made by Emily’s daughter; Straining the milk through cheesecloth removes any solids; Milking the cow in the paddock is possible when you have a quiet cow. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
DAILY MILKING PROCESS
7 am – 8 am My children are early risers, so I make them breakfast first and then tend to my cows. Cows love routine but they really don’t mind if you milk them at 9 am one day instead of 7 am. I’ve never had a roof to milk under, so if it’s raining I just wait until it stops or put on a raincoat. You don’t need a fancy setup.
- STEP 1: Mix the feed. This will change depending on the season. At the moment I’m feeding a scoop of oaten chaff, a scoop of soaked barley, half a scoop of lucerne chaff, and minerals.
- STEP 2: Call your cow. She may already be there at the gate or bail waiting for you, or waiting to feed her locked up calf. If your pasture is extremely lush she may be out grazing and ignoring your calls. With our first cow this would happen before she knew the drill, and I would have to go out and walk her up. Once she got to know there would be a feed in the bail, she would come running at the first call or sight of the feed bin.
- STEP 3: To make your cow stand still while milking you have a few options. Build or buy a milking bail or crush. We had a crush on our property already so I’ve always milked our cows in there. You could halter train your cow, then tie her up to a fence post. At the moment I have a very quiet Brown Swiss cow that I can milk in the paddock without tethering her. My Jerseys always need to be milked in the crush with one leg tied back or they would kick the bucket over.
- STEP 4: Once your cow is happily munching away, give her udder a good clean with a warm damp cloth. Give a squirt or two of milk onto the ground to release any bacteria plug from the teat, position your stool and bucket, and away you go. The technique may take a while to get used to (you just have to make sure you squeeze the milk down towards the bucket, and not back up into the udder), and it definitely gets easier the more often you milk. It’s one of life’s pleasures for me to get down under a cow, rest my head on her warm flank and squeeze out a bucket of frothy warm goodness. It’s meditative, contemplative, and the end product is something you can live on.
- STEP 5: ‘Inside Milking’ (processing your milk for use) can take as long as the ‘Outside Milking’. Release your cow and her calf, and take your bucket inside to filter through a muslin into glass bottles for the fridge. Now is the time to make fresh feta, ricotta, cream cheese, yoghurt or kefir, or let it stand so the cream can come to the top to be separated for butter. Make custard, warm carob drinks, or just drink it straight. It’s delicious, fresh, and definitely worth the time and energy commitment.
Emily Stokes lives with her family on their permaculture and holistic management inspired property on the NSW Far South Coast. Visit www.facebook.com/fermaculturefarm
‘Natural Cattle Care’, by Pat Coleby, (Acres USA, 2001)