I’ve had a milk cow for over a year now. My life in the country is divided into pre-cow, post-cow. I’ve said this many times–a cow is a life-altering event. It’s an experience that will push you, even if you’re tired, and make you grow. A cow will test your will, and take you on a daily adventure. You will handle a 1000-pound animal every day. Luckily, most milk cows are pretty docile. But don’t take that too much for granted because if you’re not paying attention, they might step on your foot.
Keeping chickens has grown in popularity in recent years. More and more people are keeping chickens, even in suburban backyards. Let me be the first (?) to say that I think the family cow is the next big comeback. People used to keep cows in town! It wasn’t at all unusual in “the old days” for a family to have chickens and a milk cow in towns and even cities. Back then, it wasn’t against the law. Lots of things weren’t against the law back then, such as raw milk. The growing interest in reclaiming our food, which perhaps started with the rise in organic gardening and also in canning and other “old-fashioned” preserving is a starting point for many people, which leads to a domino effect of taking the next step, and the next. In the 70s “back-to-the-lander days, it was just “wackos” (also known as hippies) who were into it. Whether it’s the economy or the ever-increasing sophistication and digitalization of society (or a combination), taking control of our own food isn’t a wacko idea for side segments of society anymore–nor is it relegated to traditional farmers, either. It’s mainstream, and it’s what I think of as non-traditional farming (despite its attachment to tradition).
I think of myself as a non-traditional farmer. The differentiation I make there is that not every decision I make comes from a true farming perspective. Farmers who make their living solely off the land have to take a more pragmatic approach to decision-making in many regards, including the animals they keep and their production level. I keep some of my “farm” animals in a somewhat pet-like way. (My goats, in particular.) I don’t put my hens in the pot if they’re not laying as much as they used to. And heaven forbid I should have to milk my cow twice a day. I realize that the way I keep my cow is not normal. Luckily, she came that way (milking once a day) or I might have been afraid to do it. I’ve tried Googling milking once a day, and you can’t find a whole lot about it, though there are some articles out there.
An article at Hay and Forage has this to say: “The once-a-day cow is a different cow. It’s more relaxed. Being milked is like a walk in the park; it’s not a job now.”
Another article, this one at The Stockman Grass Farmer, says, “…decline in volume has been more than offset by a rise in milk solids and protein and a tremendous decrease in feed costs.”
Note that in one of the articles, the dairy farmer (who takes his entire herd to once-a-day milking) found that the most risk of mastitis was with first fresheners. If you’re starting this with a cow on her first calf, extra care should be taken in bringing the cow’s production down. One way to do this is to gradually extend the time between milkings rather than go straight to once a day. Another way is to milk twice a day every other day at first before dropping down to only once a day every day. BP is an older cow, and I took her down straight to once a day with no problem. She is now regularly giving 1 1/2 – 2 gallons a day, in one milking. (Which is still too much most of the time. Get a pig. A pig is a perfect complement to a family cow. Or share it with your dogs and chickens. Take what you need, let go of the rest.) Also note that when a dairy producer refers to a first freshener, they are taking the calf away early and they are taking cows to once a day early in their lactation. A family cow where a calf is kept with the mother six months is not in that position and will be easier to take down to once a day than a first freshener that has recently calved.
The articles cited are geared to milk producers, not the small family cow owner, but you don’t find much about this idea online in the family cow world. (I was only able to find, through Googling, a few scattered discussions on forums. Here is one example. It appears to be a concept mostly adopted by Jersey owners, though one of the dairy producers above is doing this with Holstein-Jersey crosses.) I point to the above articles just to say, this isn’t a completely insane approach to cow-keeping. It is, in fact, an idea taking hold among dairy producers who are rethinking the labor/cost vs. end product of milking two (and for dairy producers, sometimes three) times a day when they can get better milk and a better cow–at lower cost and labor–by milking once a day. And I also found enough to know that there are family cow keepers out there who are quietly milking their cows once a day. Milking once a day does require a good knowledge of your cow and a watchful eye (as you make the adjustment) for mastitis (which hasn’t been an issue for me as I’ve transitioned BP). The benefits of milking once a day include lower feed cost, less human effort and time, less milk overflow (and waste), and even possibly less stress on the cow. And it’s a total shoe-in for the milk cow serving one family. I also think it’s the wave of the future as more non-traditional “farmers” (like me, I still think of myself as “farmer” in quotation marks) consider a family cow. It’s so much less daunting to consider a cow if you only have to milk once a day. It also makes the cost more affordable as the feed bill is lowered.
I’ve felt, in a way, almost embarrassed to talk about taking Beulah Petunia down to once a day milking because it’s something that is spoken of so little–and often in opposition. (You’ll ruin the cow! I’ve been told that.) You have to milk a cow twice a day! I hear that over and over and over, online and in real life when I talk to people (especially older people who remember milking a cow when they were a kid). It’s just not true. (And you can milk once a day without a calf, too!)
I decided to write about it–because I really do believe the family cow is the next big comeback after chickens. Not suggesting a cow suits every suburban neighborhood, but there are certain types of subdivisions today that allow horses, for example. I think cows are next. Still, even people with large amounts of property in the country are often leery of getting a cow–despite their desire to provide their own milk. Cows have a bad rap. That twice a day milking thing. If you are thinking about getting a family cow and are afraid of all the work, I want you to know that you can choose to milk your cow once a day. (Another fable about cows–milking at the crack of dawn. You don’t have to milk at 6:30 a.m. Milk whenever you want, but make it regular. I milk BP around 9 or 10 a.m. If you work early, then milk later, around 6 or 7 p.m. Or whatever. Just be regular. Cows like routine, and so do their udders.)
Because BP calved in September–and she was bred when we got her, so that wasn’t my idea–I’ve had to extend the time till she’s bred again because I want a spring calf. I want her dried off in the winter. Why milk in the snow and freezing temperatures?
Here’s my milking year, and I want to lay this out so that I can show that not only do you not have to milk a cow twice a day, you don’t even have to milk it once a day except for a few months of the year.
Late December – mid-March (or so): The Dry Season. Cow is dried off. No milking. (Milk and butter in the freezer!) Vacation for the farmer. I’m planning the drying off sometime approaching Christmas. I have cookies to bake.
March (at some point): Calve. After calving, when the calf is little, you gotta help the cow out. The calf doesn’t eat that much. But hey, you’ve been missing fresh milk anyway. Give the calf a few weeks to a month and it’ll be a super milker!
April – September: The Optional Milking Season. Keep the calf on mommy for at least six months. Once the calf is up to speed and milking the cow adequately, you can milk whenever you want. I used an every-other-day milk share with Glory Bee as she got older. In the early months, when Glory Bee needed more milk, I would trade off morning and evening milking. As the calf grows, you have to do various juggling around what the calf needs and what you want, but you can always skip a day or a week or go on vacation. Throughout this period, milking is an option you take up on days it suits you, and eschew on days it doesn’t. I didn’t always milk BP every other day. Sometimes I skipped two or three days. I got as much milk as I needed, and took off any time I wanted.
October – December: The Milking Season. Wean the calf. Milk the cow once a day. Enjoy swimming in the cream. This is the milking season! Stock up in the freezer for the upcoming drying off period. If you bred the cow in June, it will be expecting a March baby and you’ll be drying off by the end of December.
And the milking year starts all over again.
Note that the majority of the year, you are either not milking at all, or milking is OPTIONAL. You can have all the farm-fresh milk you need–without milking any more than you want.
Now that is a milking schedule I can get onboard with. And I think it’s a lot more accessible to a lot of other people, not just me, who wish they could take the power over their dairy products into their own hands but might have thought they could never handle a family cow. All that milking twice a day practically all year! I love my cow, but I don’t want to do that….. And I don’t. It’s still a life change to get a milk cow, let me not diminish that. But the balance of work (and cost) vs. reward makes a significant, positive shift when you open your eyes to once-a-day milking combined with keeping a calf on the cow for at least six months (which yields the “optional milking” portion of the year). This is a family cow that takes into account the family, and that many of us work, run around to school sports, want to take vacations, and so on along with keeping a family cow. I see this as the modern family cow, and an idea whose time has come. And according to findings so far, this system not only can benefit the family, it also benefits the cow by putting it under less stress.
I’m in the midst of an extended “milking season” because Glory Bee was born in September, but that’s all right. It’ll be over soon enough, and I try to remember to enjoy it while it lasts. I’ll never have a milking season this long again. Last week I made a stirred-curd cheddar, a Romano, a Colby-Jack, mozzarella, yogurt, ice cream, sour cream, cream cheese, and butter. The milking season has its rewards.
A family cow is about to get trendy. You heard it here first.