Raising a Family Cow

Winter 2005-2006
Eric Rector with Dexter cow and calf
Eric Rector with his three-year-old Dexter cow and her newborn calf.

So you’re thinking of getting a family cow. You’ve probably thought of many good reasons: fresh milk 10 months of the year, copious amounts of cream, peaceful moments in the barn with your head resting against the cow while milking and letting the rest of the world go by…and the list goes on.

But there are other points to consider. There’s milking, feeding, pasturing, straining and cooling your milk, washing utensils, cleaning the barn (and removing manure,) grooming the cowm, watering it by hand and raising a calf. Having a family cow is a great resource to have on your homestead, but it takes hard work. Here’s a breakfown of everything you need to know about raising a family cow.

Time considerations

So the rewards are great in keeping a family cow. But you need to keep in mind the requires for having a cow. It’s not exactly just any old farm animal.

So consider the time required to keep a cow:

  • Milking – 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night
  • Feeding – 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes at night
  • Pasturing – 1 or 2 minutes, if you have wired runs from the barn to the pastures
  • Straining and cooling milk – 5 minutes to wash, fill and date bottles
  • Washing utensils – 5 to 10 minutes
  • Separating the cream and cleaning up – 10 to 15 minutes daily or every other day
  • Making butter – 30 minutes (add more time for making other products)
  • Cleaning the barn and removing manure – about 15 minutes
  • Grooming the cow – about 5 minutes
  • Watering by hand – 5 to 10 minutes
  • Raising a calf – The time required depends on who feeds her: you or the cow. You’ll also want to teach her to lead and respect the fence. Allow 5 hours or more, total
  • Making hay or growing other crops to feed the cow will also take time, if you’re raising the feed yourself

So you’ll need two to two and a half hours for daily chores, and more time to train the calf and raise feed.

What breed to buy

The major factors to consider when choosing a breed for your family cow is how much milk you want each day and what size cow you want. Larger cows eat more and need larger and more substantial housing. Many folks choose a Jersey cow – the breed that looks like a big deer. They are the smallest (average 800 pounds) and give milk with the highest percent of butterfat of the major dairy breeds, two very positive characteristics. Remember that you need 10 quarts of milk to produce 1 quart of cream, and a quart of cream makes only a pound of butter or 1 1/2 quarts of ice cream. Jerseys can produce 6 gallons of 5% butterfat milk each day. This is a high producing animal.

When you choose your cow, you’ll likely buy an animal that has been culled from the herd for producing less – which is okay. You’d have trouble using 6 gallons of milk each day, and so a productive cow would be much more expensive.

Choosing a major breed makes your search easier and might give you more cows to choose from. Choosing some other, minor breed will take a little more work, but you might find one that is better for your situation. Here are some minor breeds that are available in Maine:


Registered cows measure 36 to 42 inches in shoulder height at three years of age and weigh approximately 750 pounds. Dexters produce meat and milk. For their size, Dexters are prolific milkers. They can easily rear two calves at a time or produce 1.5 to 2.5 gallons per day with 4% butterfat. The breed matures early, and you can produce its beef economically, which also has excellent flavor with good marbling. You can finish Dexter steers on grass at 18 to 24 months of age, without supplementary feeding, with an average live weight of approximately 770 pounds. Dexters are noted for their longevity and should breed regularly for 14 years or more. Calving problems are rare, and calves are quick on their feet, full of character and have a lively, inquisitive temperament.

Milking Devon

The Milking Devon is a bright red, medium-sized, triple-purpose breed (milk, meat and oxen) adapted to survive on a diet high in forage that lacks quality, and in severe climates. This healthy, long-lived breed thrives on good care and management. Average milk production is about 2 gallons each day when the calf nurses during the days but not at nights, or 4 to 5 gallons each day when a calf is not nursing. The butterfat content is 4 to 5% even when the cow gets little or no grain.


The Kerry is a small, fine-boned dairy breed that is mostly black. Cows weigh 780 to 1000 pounds and are horned. Milk production averages 3 to 4 gallons per day, with over 4% butterfat. Kerrys are hardy and long-lived, often still calving at 14 to 15 years of age.


The Canadienne is well adapted to the Canadian climate, soil and herbage and does not require expensive, imported foods or intensive management. It is small (cows weigh 1000 to 1100 pounds), long-lived and has an exceptionally docile temperament. Canadiennes produce good quantities of quality milk (2 to 3 gallons with 4% butterfat) in relation to their body size and food requirements. The meat tends to be lean, and the light bone results in a high percentage of usable meat in relation to total body weight.

Dutch Belted

Dutch Belted are small-boned, so calving is easy. They have unusual longevity and fertility, high meat yield and friendly dispositions, so stock and dairy farmers using grass-based methods are interested in them. They can produce 8 gallons of milk a day with no grain when they’re not feeding a calf.

Milking Shorthorn

One of this breed’s greatest attributes is its versatility. These docile cows efficiently produce large volumes of nutritious milk during each lactation (5 gallons of 4% butterfat each day) and are large enough to have a high salvage value when their long, productive lives finally end. Their calves, born easily each year on regular calving intervals, are spunky at birth and grow rapidly. Those not kept for breeding stock and herd replacement make efficient gains and hang very desirable grading carcasses. They perform well on home produced roughage and grass.

Choosing a breeder

After choosing a breed, you’ll need to look carefully at the individual cow and the person selling her. Know your source or farmer if possible, or get a recommendation. Beware of the “cull” cow: Is she being sold because she produces a low volume of milk? Health or breeding issues may be more likely, so get the cow’s health history from the farmer. If she has had milk fever once, she will often have it at each annual calving. This is a life-threatening disease, so vigilance is important.

If you don’t mind waiting for milk, consider raising a calf to be your family cow. Breed her at 15 to 20 months for the first milk nine months later.

Characteristics to look for

  • The back should be relatively straight and not swayed.
  • The udder should be up close to her body; it should not hang down so low that you’ll have trouble getting the bucket under her; and it should be soft and pliable.
  • Teat ends should reach a level plane.
  • Legs should be straight.
  • Her pasterns (the part of her foot between the fetlock and the hoof) should have good spring.
  • Toes should be trimmed and eyes clear.
  • She should have a friendly, calm disposition, with nothing more than mild curiosity while you look her over. Watch her being milked at least once.
  • Have a veterinarian look at the cow if you aren’t confident in your own appraisal, and have her tested for Tuberculosis and Brucellosis.

If you don’t have much experience milking cows, consider buying a mature cow who is confirmed pregnant and is in the last third of her gestation. She’ll be comfortable with the routine, and her udder will be softer than that of a fresh cow.

Feeding your Family Cow

It’s critical to keep a cow close to a pasture for economic reasons. You can feed purchased hay to a cow year ’round, but that’s more costly. Depending on the quality of forages from the pasture, you’ll need 1 to 2 acres to feed your cow.

What and how to feed

Management intensive grazing (MIG) – a method of rotating pastures – will maximize pasture production. The cow eats forages in one paddock and is moved within 12 hours to three days to a new paddock, so that the old paddock regrows and plants return nutrients to their storage roots before the cow returns to it. Depending on the weather, the cow can return to the first paddock in 14 to 40 days. With MIG, permanent pastures become a wonder of biodiversity, so something will grow almost regardless of the weather.

Maine farmer Conrad Heeschen says that with good planning, you can pasture cows from early May to the first week in December. If you don’t like “grassy milk,” he adds, you can pasture the cow during the day and keep her in the barn at night. She’ll produce less milk, which is good if you’re trying to reduce her production, and the morning milk won’t have the grassy flavor.

What to feed them

Planting additional crops can extend the season for fresh harvest and decrease feed costs, if you have some flat ground that you can till. You can cut small grains or Sudan grass carry them to your family cow, or you can grow barley, oats or corn (and the stalks or stover can be saved for winter feed). Mangles, turnips and other root crops, or cabbage or winter squash can be stored and fed to cows in winter, and they will eat excess produce from the garden or orchard. Just be sure the bits are either large enough that they have to be chewed or small enough that they don’t get caught in the cow’s throat.

Cows are bred to produce milk. The cow you buy comes with these genetics. If you don’t feed her sufficiently, she’ll continue to produce milk and feed the calf that is growing in her uterus at a cost to her own body. So, unless you want a high producing animal that is expensive to feed, choose a small cow that has not been a superior milker or that is a breed that uses roughage efficiently.

As a rule of thumb, a cow will eat 2 to 2.5 pounds of hay per day for each 100 pounds of body weight (about one 30- to 40-lb. bale per day). If you feed grain, the usual is 16% dairy ration, which will balance well with most pasture or hay. Another rule of thumb is to give 1 lb. of grain for every 3 lbs. of milk. If you prefer not to buy grain, just fill the extra carbohydrate and protein needs with some of the nutrient-dense feeds mentioned above, once quality forages have met a cow’s maintenance requirements.

Other considerations

Conrad Heeschen’s Jersey produces 3 gallons of milk each day early in the lactation, when a calf is not sucking, and 2 gallons later – with no grain being fed. By breeding family cows for many generations, his Jersey is adapted to this diet.

A good, ruminant-formulated salt and mineral mix and maybe some kelp are worth the money, especially if your pasture and hay fields have not had mineral amendments. Cows use a loose mix more efficiently than a less expensive block.

Also be sure the cow has a supply of good water; she needs water to make milk. Have water available all the time, in a tub at the barn or in the pasture. In winter provide at least one good drink in the morning and evening if water freezes in the tub.


For many reasons, it’s critical to keep a cow comfortable. You can house a cow in a three-sided shed, but if you’ll be milking her in the winter, you’ll likely want a more secure structure. The ideal is a 10- x 10-foot box stall where the cow lives and a stall or stanchion 3.5 ft. wide and 4.5 ft. long with a head gate for milking. Plan the structure so that cleaning it is as easy as possible.

For sanitation, whitewash wood inside the barn. Van Loon gives this recipe: Dissolve 3 lbs. salt in 1.5 gallons water, then add 10 lbs. hydrated lime. Mix this to a thick paste or add more water for the desired consistency. Add 1 lb. casein glue if you want a less flaky whitewash.


You’ll need a space of at least 10 x 10 x 10 feet to store 2 tons of loose hay, the amount needed for a year. To find the number of tons in a mow, multiply length x width x height (in feet) and divide by 400 to 500, depending on how long the hay has been stored. The figure will vary slightly depending on the type of hay.

You’ll need additional space if you’re going to buy bedding and grain. Remember that no system is perfect, and animals always escape at some time. Make sure the grain is in a container that the cow or calf can’t open, to avoid a sad end to the story.

Milking your Family Cow


You will have to milk twice a day 10 months of the year. The process needs to be regular, or the cow will be uncomfortable and her production will suffer. It can be done on two possible schedules: either 12 hours apart or on a 10- and 14-hour schedule, e.g. at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Milking once a day is possible if you leave the calf on for the day and separate it at night, then milk the cow yourself in the morning; but don’t do this when the calf is really young. Start separating when the calf is two months old; when it is fully weaned at four to six months, go back to twice daily milking, or let the cow’s production drop (by feeding it less grain, for example) and continue to milk once a day. Make such schedule changes slowly – cows are creatures of habit.

How to milk your cow

Milking begins with a calm, relaxed environment for both the cow and you. A cow that is very used to being milked can just be tethered to a post in the barn, but, more advisedly, have the cow in a stanchion to get both of you used to each other and to get her used to hand milking.

Invest in a milking machine only if you’re not strong enough to milk by hand. The machine doesn’t save time: Setting it up and cleaning it take as much time as milking by hand.

Cleaning and “let down”

First, clean the side of the cow you’ll milk on (usually the right side) with a brush or currycomb. Then get your stool, tie up her tail if it’s mucky, sit next to the cow and get comfortable. Have a bucket with warm water, disinfectant and a cloth ready. Paying special attention to the ends of the teats, wash the udder with a bit of gusto, partly to imitate a calf stimulating the cow. The cow’s hormonal response to this stimulation is to “let down” milk into the teat canal from the grape cluster-like structure, alveoli, within the udder. Let down lasts only about 10 minutes, so you need to move right along with milking.


Start gently in case a teat or udder is sore. Gently squeeze the top of the teat (closest to the bag) between your thumb and first finger. This closes the top of the teat. Then close the next finger, then the next, then the next (one at a time) over the teat, squeezing the milk out the end of the teat. Release your hold and allow more milk to enter the teat, then repeat the previous movements. You’ll soon develop a rhythm. Every cow fills her teat back up at a different rate (depending upon how full the udder is); you’ll need to figure the rate as you go along.

When you get the hang of it with one hand, begin to work on two teats at a time – either the two front then the two back, or the two on each side – alternating one then the other. Squirt the first stream or two from each teat onto a clean spot on the floor or in a strip cup to see how the milk looks. It shouldn’t have any lumps or be off color. Also the first bit of milk out of the teat is the most likely to contain bacteria that can cause milk to spoil faster.

After the flow begins to decrease, begin to do one teat at a time using the other hand to massage the udder above. This will “strip her out” well and get the richest part of the milk in the udder. Get out as much milk as possible to prevent a disease in the udder called mastitis. If you have the calf on the cow for part or all of the day, this is not so important, as long as you’re sure that the calf suckles all four quarters.


Breed your cow annually, preferably in the summer for a spring calf if this milking schedule works for your family. Having summers off from milking is good if you have other farm chores, but is not good for optimizing the conversion of grass to milk. Having a midwinter break, with calving in the spring, gives both the cow and farmer a natural time to rest.

When choosing between artificial insemination (AI) and a bull, you’ll have to get the timing right and pay for AI, while a bull will have to be located, fenced and fed, and you’ll have to feel comfortable being around a bull. To recognize a heat, see if the cow is “standing” for mounting from other cows, has a clear discharge from the vagina, or has “moony eyes” and lower milk production (if she’s in milk). Breed at the standing phase, if possible. See Van Loon’s book (below) for information on how long fertility lasts.

Health Care

Learn how your cow behaves. Watch her. How often does she eat, drink, lie down, belch and chew her cud? After you learn what is normal for your cow, you’ll quickly recognize signs of illness.

Major diseases that dairy cows can get are:

  • mastitis – an inflammation of the udder
  • ketosis – a metabolic disorder resulting from rich living
  • milk fever – a calcium deficiency after freshening (having a calf)
  • hardware – getting a nail in her reticulum (the front compartment of the stomach)
  • ringworm
  • lice
  • internal parasites
  • pink eye – an inflammation of the eye
  • hairy hoof warts – a viral disease causing a wart-like protrusion between the digits

In conclusion

The benefits of having a family cow might moooooove you to purchase one. But remember that there’s a lot more that goes into raising one. Choosing the right breed, making sure it has ample housing, a pasture to graze, the right feed and ample healthcare are just some of the parts to raising a family cow. MOFGA has a full list of accepted practices, products and ingredients for raising livestock.

Now that you know how to raise a family cow, it’s time to learn about how to raise other organic livestock.


Diane Schivera, MOFGA’s assistant director of agricultural services, specializes in animal science. You can reach her at 207-568-4142 or [email protected].


I strongly recommend two books: The Family Cow by Dirk van Loon (Garden Way Publishing, Charlotte, Vt.) and Keeping a Family Cow by Joann Grohman (see www.real-food.com/). Each has valuable information. Van Loon’s is more straightforward and practical, while Grohman’s is more extensive, with extra cautions and philosophy.

Also, you can sign up for The Family Cow list serve at https://familycow.proboards32.com/index.cgi; and good articles appear on the Internet from Mother Earth News, including “The One-Cow Family Meets the One-Family Cow,” by Hank Rate (Issue # 2 — March/ April 1970; see also Issue # 15 — May/June 1972); and from Backwoods Home Magazine, including “Finding, buying, milking, and living with the family milk cow, by Jayn Steidl Thibodeau at www.backwoodshome.com/articles/thibodeau36.html.

Douglass, William Campbell II, M.D., The Milk Book: The Milk of Human Kindness Is Not Pasteurized. Rhino Publishing, S.A., 2003, at www.drdouglass.com/.

The Weston A. Price Foundation at www.westonaprice.org (especially for the benefits of raw milk).

Thanks to MOFGA members Polly Shyka, Prentice Grassi and Conrad Heeschen for contributing to this article.


Looking for more dairy resources? Check out our Basics of Cheesemaking video course taught by Eric Rector!

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