How can a family cow be an ideal addition to your food storage and survival plan? We started our self-reliance plan with gardening. Then we planted a few fruits and added chickens. One day we realized that if we had a cow, we could truly be self-sufficient with our food supply. We now raise family sized milk cows with grazing genetics in Virginia. This article should persuade SurvivalBlog readers who own two or more acres, of the wisdom of owning a family cow. It should also answer questions we frequently hear.
Why a Cow?
Owning a cow produces milk, cream (butter, crème fraiche, sour cream, cream cheese), hundreds of cheeses, buttermilk, yogurt (which you can keep going for years), ice cream, meat (the bull calves), and manure for the garden and fields. Raw grass-fed milk is 500% higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is has health benefits for the heart, joints, and a myriad of other things. Raw milk has natural probiotics and enzymes to help you digest all the goodness in the milk. In fact, we learned that 90% of people who think they are dairy intolerant, are just reacting to the processing. We used to think that three in our family were allergic to milk but found out that they can all drink raw milk and have no reactions whatsoever.
Raw milk is probably one of the most nutritious foods on the planet and has all the amino acids. According to history, the famous Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan would ride a mare and take a mare into the rugged winter mountains and live on raw mare's milk for weeks at a time during his battle forays. One could survive quite a long time on raw milk. I know people who have done raw milk fasts for weeks at a time and their health thrived.
How to Purchase a Family Milk Cow?
One can choose to purchase a calf or a mature cow. There are advantages to both and some of it may come down to personal preference and/or budget.
It will be less expensive to start with a weanling. If one starts with a calf that has been “bottle” fed (as long as the calf has been fed with the bottle in a bottle holder the calf should not become too pushy. Otherwise, they tend to butt you as they would their mom. That is not "cute" when they get bigger. Make sure the calf has been raised on real milk for four months. This insures that the rumen will properly develop so they can digest forages as an adult and not need to have much grain, especially if you get what we call grazing genetics, which I will explain later. It also sets the cow up for a healthier immune system for life.
If you purchase a weanling, we suggest halter breaking and leading it while young. Also, touch her all over. Touch her on her belly, legs, udder, etc. Make her move her leg back like you would if you were going to sit down and milk her. Give her a voice command. I say, “Move your leg back”. Once your calf has bonded to you, it takes much less time to maintain that familiarity. If your calf gets too pushy, correct them as mama would. A smack to the nose, which is tender, and a sharp, “no!” usually works. Eventually they learn what "no" means.
You could also purchase a mature cow but be forewarned that unless they are hand-milking already, you may need lots of determination and patience to train them. Mentoring would be useful too. Sometimes a cow takes to milking almost right away once they get over their fear of people but it can take a good bit of patience if they were not what we call “gentled” as a calf. The obvious advantage of an adult is that you can enjoy your milk and other dairy products right away. Usually a neighbor or friend will donate money toward the care and upkeep of the cow to help pay for her, and take the extra milk if you have extra.
If the SHTF you can always breed her to a bull of any kind in the neighborhood but a cow will also keep lactating for years. You just will not get the peak production that a freshening brings on. However, you can live pretty well on 2 gallons a day, which is what the average Jersey should maintain with decent grazing and no grain. Especially after the second and even third lactation which get subsequently more productive.
Size is one thing to consider. You could purchase a miniature cow such as Dexter. I personally have not been impressed with them but do your own research. If you purchase a Dexter, make sure they come from milking breeding lines, as many Dexter’s are not milked and being bred for production. You could purchase a mini Hereford that will not give as much milk but as any beef breed, can be milked. Our favorite cow is the Jersey whether mini or full-sized. The minis as a rule do not give as much milk and to be honest, there is always some way to use extra milk. I will cover that later. However, mini’s work well for some situations such as smaller acreage, family size, and are sometimes not as intimidating to new hobby farmers. Minis will cost more as a rule. All Jerseys whether mini or standard have wonderful cream so we skim off ½ of the cream to use for our ice cream and butter and we still have great tasting milk. To me the most important factor to consider as far as intimidation goes is whether the cow was gentled (not spoiled) as a calf and whether it trusts and is bonded to people.
I prefer a full sized Jersey with the old-fashioned genetics and size. The smaller, efficient size that Jerseys used to be a few decades ago. Unfortunately, they are breeding the American Jerseys larger in later years and American Jerseys as a rule have many health challenges. We have been fortunate enough to work with a couple of organic farmers that have preserved the old style Jersey. You could also cross a Jersey with a beef breed such as Terrantaise (a French dual-purpose breed that has very rich milk) or Hereford to get the grazing genetics and better health genetics. Make sure the baby is dam raised or raised on real milk four months to develop the rumen properly. This will set up the immune system for life and help her to be an efficient grazer and not need large amounts of grain if any.
How Do I Care For a Family Milk Cow?
In our post industrial revolution confinement operation farms where all the food is made and brought to the animals, most people no longer realize that in much of the U.S. animals can be pastured all year. It helps if one learns the basics of rotational grazing and what is called stockpiling in order to accomplish this. There is no need to stock mounds of hay in the barn except for drought or very deep snow where the cow can’t paw down to the stockpiled grass. I also use a nice flake of green tender hay during milking time but if it could not be purchased, it would not be essential. Rotational grazing also in effect doubles your acreage as it creates healthier forage. The cow cannot just take what she likes and leave the rest. This will kill off certain plants and allow weeds to thrive. With rotational grazing you can reduce weeds dramatically and allow seeds that can lie dormant for many decades to grow such as legumes like red and white clover for example. When you create the right environment, you will find that you have more variety and healthier forage. This variety gives the cows a smorgasbord of nutrients necessary to go without grain.
When we started to use rotational grazing, we could not believe the difference in the quality and variety of our forage. We do spot spray the thistles but have been able to control all other weeds with rotational grazing. Also, in our case since we have growing calves and lactating cows, we keep ours pasture shorter than many beef herds will so we like to mow it on the high setting after they graze an aisle to keep the tender lush forages coming. In a TEOTWAWKI situation, this would not be necessary or even for a small hobby farmer.
We have split our field up into aisles. There is a corridor all the way across the front of the field that every other aisle has access to and it contains the water trough. We work on one aisle at a time. Each aisle has a gate handle at the front end. We open the gate to the aisle we are working on. Then we use three or four step-in posts (you can push them in the dirt with your foot and pull them out by hand, no pounding needed) for the single [electric] wire that we move. (You would use more if your aisle is wider.) Every day, we move the wire to give enough grazing for the number of animals we have in that field. You will get a feel for that as you move them each day. Don’t worry, they will let you know by bawling if they are hungry. During some times of the year, you will have to move the dividing line faster or slower. We use one line of the poly wire with several small strands of wire running through it. This is easy to work with and if it breaks, you can tie it in a knot to connect it. Knots do not affect the electrical current at all. On our cross line that determines the amount of grazing for that day, we use an alligator clip with rubber protector (purchased at local hardware) to hook onto the main aisle wires on both sides. This makes the dividing wire hot. Our aisles are all done with the cheap fiberglass posts from the farm store that have to be pounded in except the corner stakes should be T-posts, which are sturdier and will shore up the whole set up and you will have less frustration operating the “gates” to each aisle.
We always rest one section each year for a seven-year rotation. Another wards, in seven years we should be rotated back to the original plot to rest it again. Resting is done by grazing once early in the spring and then letting it grow all summer. This section can be grazed in the winter after all the plants have re-seeded themselves. This improves the ground and forage wonderfully and is a biblical principle with benefits now proven by science.
Fertile soil produces nutrient rich forage, which keeps the cow healthy, and the nutrition is passed on in the milk. One can do many things to improve the soil. I will list a few. The best thing to do is to have the local extension office or local feed store come out and take soil samples (or you may need to do it yourself with their instructions). You want to know the ph of your soil and calcium level to know if you should lime it. If it needs lime, do you need the high calcium lime or the high magnesium lime? You only know by testing. If you even consider doing chicken manure, test first. Your phosphorus could already be high and it would not be the best choice of fertilizer your field needs. The other improvement we do to our fields is to spray diluted milk, 3 gallons milk to 20 gallons of water , per acre and a very dilute solution of something called sea-90 (we get it from Countryside Organics but you could google it to find a dealer near you) which is a naturally mined sea salt that is very high in minerals. If I were only going to do one thing, it would be to spray the milk and if you can, the minerals during the spring and fall growing seasons each year. You can use a 4-wheel ATV and sprayer or a backpack sprayer for smaller areas. This will draw the earthworms and help to break up the soil and provide many benefits to your land. The milk feeds the microbes in the soil (the living part of the soil that makes nutrients available to the plants. Milk also raises what is called the brix, which is a natural sugar in the plant. This makes the plants more nutritious and palatable for the animals but since insects such as grasshoppers do not have a pancreas and therefore cannot digest sugars, they leave. It is simple and you can use your very own milk!
You do not have to do these improvements to the soil. If you can, and you want your forages high in naturally occurring minerals and nutrients so you gain the benefit of that through drinking the milk and your cow has better health, go for it.
We also feed our cows a few supplements. Give free choice (always available) ½ kelp and ½ Redmond trace mineral salt. You can go to RedmondNatural.com to find a dealer of the natural trace mineral salt near you. Hopefully, that same place would have the kelp as well. If you keep both cool as possible and dry, they will last for years. The most important nutrient to prevent mastitis is calcium. (In addition, not overfeeding grain.) The kelp and trace mineral salt does not provide a source of macro minerals but only has trace minerals in a highly digestible form. For the macro minerals, you need to free choice something like Cattle Mineral Mix sold by Country Side Organics in Waynesboro, Virginia (they ship) or at least top dress a calcium supplement on their grain each day. Lancaster Ag in Pennsylvania is also a wonderful source of natural supplements. There are other ways to get the free choice supplements. One of those is thru Advanced Biological Concepts, which has a top-notch free choice system for cows and horses. Be prepared to pay a little more though. You can do a web search on "natural animal supplements" for your state or find natural farmers in your area and query them. We have done something similar to the above with all of our large animals for almost 20 years and have had maybe one or two incidences where we needed the vet for sickness.
As far as feeding the cow other than grazing, we give a very small amount of grain, mostly to top dress a supplement. For example, we would give our ½ mini milk cow about two cups and our standard sizes one quart. They do not need grain at all though especially if you get the grazing genetics going for you. Too much grain is not good and will shorten the cow’s life. Excess grain will make the cows system acidic and cause many health challenges that most confinement dairies think are normal occurrences. If you feed more than ½ or 1% of the body weight in grain, the starch-digesting bacteria overcome the cellulose-digesting bacteria. When that happens, they are no longer getting the nutrition out of their forages. More and more organic farms are going grain free and focusing on rotational grazing to improve their forages instead. We work with two different farms that only have the vet for pregnancy checks and routine testing, etc. That is unheard of on conventional dairies where the cows only have 1-3 lactations because they are so unhealthy. A note of warning: If you buy a cow that is being given a lot of grain, change their diet slowly. You may or may not be able to let her go completely without grain and stay in condition but try to get her down to not more than ½ of 1% of her body weight. To be sure, a dairy cow does not have to look like a beef cow and in fact, we do them a disservice trying to “fatten” them up, but you do not want them to thin either.
Another advantage of not overdoing the grain is that you never have to trim hooves, as conventional farms have to do. Our first cow was a cull cow. She had really long feet and we could not find someone to come out to trim them. We had her a couple of months and one day realized that her toes were chipping off. They literally fell off to be a normal length.
Is There a Once-A-Day Milk Cow?
Yes! We milk our cows once a day. If you are not pushing them with lots of grain, they can usually be milked once a day with some knowledge. If you are over-graining your cow, you will not be able to milk once a day. If you go out to the barn and her bag is tight and very full of milk, then you need to milk twice a day or cut back on the grain. We milk once a day and have no trouble with mastitis or ketosis which is the scourge of dairies and many family cow owners. We have the grazing genetics firmly in place and feed very little grain. The only time you really have to watch them is the first couple of weeks after calving until the calf is drinking enough. You can let the calf nurse or milk and feed the calf in a bottle and later a bucket. You can also let the calf have all the milk (after a month or so) until you need milk and then separate the calf for 12 hours and milk the cow for your milk. You can go on vacation or if you get too busy, the calf will eagerly milk for you. When we travel, we turn the calf with mom and go. We do not leave the calf with the mom full-time if the calf starts tearing the teats up. If that happens, we only let the calf nurse twice a day and keep them across the fence from one another the rest of the time. This way there will be very little separation stress and after the first couple of days, they get used to the routine and no longer call out to one another. When we travel, we still put the calf with the cow but then separate and put salve on the teats if they have teeth marks when we return. This usually works for short term even if it doesn’t work for long-term in cases where the calf has gotten to the size that they tear up the teats. Some calves can nurse until they wean at 9 months, for others, they have to be separated and allowed nurse once or twice a day after four months or so.
When Do I Wean the Calf?
The calf can be safely weaned at four months. Their rumen is well developed and they are ready to just eat grass and good quality hay. However, if you want, you can keep the calf on until 9 months. Follow the suggestions above for nursing long- term.
Cows can be taught to tether. Start with a shorter rope 10- to 15-foot (cotton will not burn them if tangled) and only where you can keep a close eye on her. If you have a nervous cow, you should be right there to watch it. You can lengthen the rope as she learns to untangle herself and not to take off so quickly that she hits the other end and flips herself. I like to start with a calf but most adult cows can be taught to tether with time and patience. You can purchase a tie out kit from outback outfitters for horse camping. It is said that a chain does not tangle and loosens when they lift their foot. I have not used a chain.
This can be as simple as an electric fence but the perimeter fence should be woven wire or four-board fence for a TEOTWAWKI situation. For now, you could do a 3-strand electric perimeter fence with plans to make it more secure as time and finances allow. Talk to the most knowledgeable person at your local farm store for details about fencing. If you have electric, be sure you have a solar charger and extra supplies. Insufficient grounding causes 90% of electric fence problems so be sure to cover that with your farm store knowledgeable person. In general, the rods must be galvanized to retain conductivity and if the soil is dry or poor then you will need more grounding rods. Do not place the grounding rod to close to a building as it can electrify the building.
A good reference to read is Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef by Julius Ruechel. It is geared toward beef cattle but much of the information about fencing and rotational grazing and more is helpful for the family milk cow.
What to Do with the Extra Milk?
We find so many uses for extra milk that we can easily use all that one cow produces. We make cheese, butter, and yogurt as well as other dairy products. Many cheeses can be made with buttermilk and rennet, which are quite easy to store. Buttermilk can be kept going indefinitely as can yogurt. You must buy the cultured buttermilk from the grocery store. Add ¼-cup cultured buttermilk to ½ gallon of milk and let it set until it thickens. Make more using the same ratios (you can make less) each week. We buy yogurt cultures from CulturesForHealth.com. They specialize in cultures from around the world. The two that we keep going are cultured at room temperature. We don’t have to heat the milk or keep the temperature steady with a yogurt maker. We simply skim our milk to allow room in the ½-gallon jar and put in one cup of yogurt from a previous batch. If you make the next batch before the last one is too old, you can keep it going for a very long time. It is best to heat the milk to 160 degrees, make a pure mother culture, and use that to start your first batch. I freeze the mother culture in 1-cup batches so I can occasionally fall back to my mother culture if my yogurt gets to old before I make another batch. In TEOTWAWKI situation, you would just be diligent about keeping your yogurt going and keep it away from other cultures such as buttermilk and sourdough as the bacteria’s can compete with one another and weaken your strain.
You can buy cheese-making supplies from cheesemaking.com or hoeggerfarmyard.com, which is a goat supply catalog, but they have products for anyone who milks. They also carry my favorite cheese recipe book "A Cheesemakers Journey" by Mary Jane Toth.
Whey from the raw cheese making recipes, yogurt, and buttermilk can be used to make lacto-fermented drinks and veggie dishes such as kvass, kimchee, and sauerkraut. These products have more probiotics per serving than a whole bottle of probiotics from the store. Probiotics is one of our main treatment protocols for any immune system related issues as the gut is 75% of the immune system. Your food becomes you medicine. Two of my favorite books for this is Sally Fallon’s big book, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats and Real Food Fermentation: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen by Alex Lewin. With these two books, you will be able to preserve probiotic rich foods the traditional way. Be sure to have glass ½ gallon jars, 1 gallon jars, and or lead free crocks on hand.
We also use extra milk for fertilizer as mentioned above. We have never seen so many earthworms in our garden as since we have started putting on diluted milk as previously mentioned.
We feed extra calves, lambs, and animals such as the cat (mouse patrol), the dog (head of ranch security), chickens (bug patrol and chief egg layers) and I have even fed it to baby rabbits whose mama just couldn’t keep up with the large litter.
I hope you will consider adding a family cow to your homestead for your health and long-term food security.