Small Farm Dreaming: The Start of My Dairy Cow Education

Although our ultimate goal is a small farm, right now our time and energy is wrapped up in farmhouse renovation. Here it is late February already, and we’re still gutting the inside of the house, because each time we pull off a layer, we find more rot…meaning more gutting…and replacing.

So the small farm part of all of this is on hold. Sure, we’re still pouring over seed catalog descriptions and giving the orchard a good look to see if we can expect many apples from those old trees in desperate need of pruning. But none of that is moving us forward on our own local food production.

Still, we learn. And this week I learned a lot about having a dairy cow! No, I don’t want to start any small dairy farms, but we want to be as self-sufficient as we can, and raise as much of our own local food as possible…including milk.

Lucky for me, Shelley at Whistling Train Farm in Kent, Wash., a small farm that used to be my CSA before I moved away from the city, provided me with an entire book’s worth of info in one email. I offer it up below for all to read, whether you plan to raise your own food or not. The more we know about how our food is raised, the more connected we can become once again to food, and the more likely we will be to support local food systems over industrial ones (I hope).

This all started with me asking Shelley about Jerseys and what it takes to have a milk cow. Her reply taught me a lot. Here it is…

“I have Dexters. I always thought I wanted a Jersey too, but snapped out of that fantasy. When I got my first Dexter, she came with another cow–1/2 Holstein/1/2 beef, and she gave 6 gallons a day. I kept up with the milking, after training her. I knew there was a problem when I had 6 5-gallon buckets of milk on the porch and nothing to do with it but feed it to the pigs. Which was fine, but when things get really busy, and on market days, I just couldn’t deal with it very well. When my first Dexter, Beauty had her first calf with me, it was a girl and I kept her. When that little beauty was getting close to calving, I sold the big cow to a family up north with 10 kids. They are very happy with all that milk. And they use it all up.

“The Dexters come from milking bloodlines. They give me a little over a gallon per milking at freshening, and taper down to 1/2 gallon when I dry them off before the next calf. Because they don’t make a huge amount of milk, I’m only tied to twice-a-day milking for about a month after the calf is born. After that first month, the calf is big enough to take all the milk if we all want that. But, I prefer to share-milk, meaning share with the calf. I can keep the calf with his/her mom all the time and just separate them for 12 hours when I want to milk. I separate at night, and milk in the morning, then let the calf stay with mom all day. On market days when I’m too hectic for milking, I just leave them together.
“After weaning (about 6 months, but this time they made it to 8 months before I could deal with it) I can milk just once per day and get a gallon. Of course, without the calf around, I have to keep milking at least once a day or she will dry up. There is a little commitment there.
“This whole share-milking thing is much trickier with a bigger producer, because it’s just not good for the cow to have all that milk left in the udder, and only a much older calf can handle several gallons of milk. And if you’re raising a little heifer, too much milk leads to fat in the developing udder, which leads to not as good milk production later. It’s hard to lose fat in the udder. Tell weight watchers that!
“The other thing is that the bigger producers can be more expensive to feed (more milk=more food) and can have more health problems. You would want to be sure you had a large animal vet nearby that likes cows and doesn’t mind driving over in the middle of the night to save your cow’s life. Dexters aren’t supposed to be susceptible to Milk Fever, but Beauty has had it three times, two of which required the vet coming out to IV her with calcium. I’ve managed to catch it in time, but you have to be a very keen observer of your cow’s behavior. I am able to catch it when it’s just a quiver in her hip muscle.
“As far as multiples are concerned, a milk cow is not single for long. You need a baby to have milk. Initially, a single cow can be best because you can have a lot of one-on-one time to bond and get to know each other. Ideally, you want a previously-trained milk cow (preferably used to hand-milking if that is what you will do) at the end of her lactation, when there’s not a ton of milk. Dealing with a newly-freshened cow with edema and never milking before is a nightmare.  Get used to milking and what her udder feels like BEFORE she’s hormonal and swollen. She will be more patient with you while you learn to milk. Beauty was SO patient with me. Patiently, patiently waiting for me to finish squeezing and sweating out those trickles of milk at first. It took me an hour to get my first gallon. She just turned around and sighed at me and went back to her cud.
“Not to say that it can’t be done in other ways. Just saying what will make it easier for you. It might cost you more up front, but it will be so worth it in so many ways if you can work it out. Absolutely make sure she’s been milked before, and you know what kind of production to expect. That doesnt’ mean going out to milk once in a while. It means milking for a good stretch of time–like a month–and getting to know production over the long term. Make sure there’s no history of mastitis. It’s a nightmare that never really goes away. It stays in the udder like a seed, waiting for the cow’s resistance to go down and then it blossoms.
“I love my Beauty though–she’s 14 this year and has given me 4 calves so far and is pregnant with her 11th. Her daughter is bigger, and also a sweetheart, due in two months with her 3rd calf.  And stay away from short legs. Just picture yourself milking under one. Tall legs are easier on the back.”
Thank you, Shelley, for the education! There is so much here I did not know! And I am fine with switching to Dexters. Since the Dexter is both a meat and dairy cow, it also helps me to know what we’ll do with any steers that are born. (Hint: beef.)

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