Having a dairy cow is the ultimate in being a "real" farmer. I mean, you can produce milk, butter, cream, ice cream, sour cream, yogurt, and cheese right on your own farm. It sounds really good on paper. However, before you jump in and buy your first dairy cow, please take a few minutes to consider the following. Remember that a dairy cow is a large investment for your farm, not to mention an animal that is worthy of good care and your careful attention.
How Much Time Do You Have?
Because I share milk, keeping extra calves to empty my cows' udders, I don't have to milk twice a day, every day. However, this arrangement didn't come about by accident. In the first few weeks after calving, the calves didn't have a big enough appetite to drink all the milk that was produced. Additionally, I wanted my ladies to establish a great milk supply. Right after calving, I was milking twice a day, and after a couple weeks, I cut back to once a day. Now I milk two or three times a week.
However, I don't count on not having to milk. If I lose calves, end up with mastitis in one of my cows, or have some other issue going on, I will need to milk regularly. If you don't have much extra time in your schedule, you may not want to buy a dairy cow. If you are battling illnesses in your herd, sometimes it can take several hours a day to care for everything that must be done. If you want a milk cow you can't schedule your days so tightly that everything is thrown off if things don't go perfectly.
Hand Milking or Machine Milking?
Many people with milk cows enjoy the process of hand milking their cows. Honestly, this is the least expensive way to milk. All you need is a stainless steel milk pail to get started. However, you must consider your cow. Machines have milked many dairy cows for generations. The length of their teats is not important because they can be machine milked no matter how long or short the teats are. Finding a cow with four teats that are long enough to wrap your hands around can be challenging. And believe me, if your cow's teats are not long enough to milk with all your fingers, you will really struggle getting her completely milked out.
For this reason, I ordered a milking machine three days after my first dairy cows calved. The machine was not cheap, but I can use it for years. If you have a cow with short teats, you probably will need to invest in a milking machine.
How Much Money Can You Spend?
Buying a good milk cow isn't cheap and neither is feeding one. If you find an ad for a dairy cow in milk that is less than $1,000 be sure to ask plenty of questions. Ask how much milk she's giving, why they are selling her, is she bred or open, and whether she has ever had mastitis. If you are on a very tight budget, you may want to buy a young milk/beef cross heifer and raise her to be a milker. It may take a year or two, but you will definitely save some money.
Also, don't forget that feeding a milk breed is a bit different than feeding a beef breed. Most of them need some supplementation to keep their body condition. You will also be on the line for medical expenses for a dairy cow. We've found that the health of dairy breeds is a little more delicate than beef breeds.
How Important is Travel to You?
If you share milk, you may be able to travel at certain times of the year. However, that is the ideal world. In the real world, milk cows get an attitude and refuse to nurse an extra calf, they get mastitis and must be milked a couple times a day, and calves die unexpectedly. If making an annual family reunion is a crucial part of your year and you will cry for days if you miss a year, having a milk cow will seriously cramp your style.
To travel, you will need a good friend or a trusted family member who will go take care of your girl for you. However, one thing that I've found is that I still worry over my cows while I am gone. Traveling for more than a day or two begins to make me nervous because I can't see for myself how the cows are doing.
I really love my milk cows and I enjoy them so much. However, they are a great responsibility. I can't just leave town without thinking through everything that must be done for their care. I have to plan my days carefully to make sure I am home when they need something. Dairy cows are much higher in maintenance than beef cows, so before you buy, think about what they will demand of you.