Family Milk Cow Part 1: Time and Infrastructure

The next several posts will be a series on getting started with a milk cow. One of the reasons I started this blog was to help others who have or plan to have a family milk cow. As I have learned for myself, it’s nice to benefit from the experience of others and have an online reference for various issues that come up.

Sienna is our family milk cow. She’s a purebred Jersey.

Before You Buy

Before you bring home a milk cow, there are several things to consider and also some infrastructure that needs to be in place.  

Time

I think the biggest consideration is the time commitment. If you stick to the usual cycle of milking, your cow will need to be milked for 9-10 months out of the year. I have written about the different ways you can decide to milk her, so it’s not so much work or time. (Click here or here for those two posts.) However, usually, you’ll need to milk the cow at least once a day, and, in most cases, twice a day, morning and evening. 

From start to finish, it takes me about 30 minutes each milking session. An hour a day doesn’t sound like much, but that doesn’t count the time of transferring containers or milk, washing containers, making dairy products, etc. I haven’t actually clocked how much time I spend a week on the whole milk process when I’m milking twice a day, but the time definitely is substantial and seems like a part-time job. 

Also, unlike asking a neighbor or relative to feed your cat or dog when you go on vacation, there are very few people you can ask to milk your cow for you while you’re away. You either have to plan your vacations/trips around your cow’s dry period, have a calf* on her, or have a super dependable back-up milker that doesn’t go away with you. 

This is our barn. It’s nice to have shelter for milking.

Infrastructure

Help: Adding to what I just said, I think it’s absolutely necessary to have a back-up milker. In some cases, you can obviously use a calf* for this purpose. However, if you’ve already weaned or sold the calf, you need a person who can fill in for you. Not only is it nice to have someone to take the reins just to give you a break, but also in case you get sick or can’t be there at milking time for some reason. Hand milking a cow is a skill that not too many people possess, and not something someone can just “wing” on a moment’s notice. Even if you use a machine, a milking machine isn’t easy or quick to use. Basically, you’ll need a back-up person who knows what they are doing and how to do it the way your cow is used to. 

Land: The next infrastructure element I’m going to mention is pretty obvious — property. There is a wide range of what you can use to keep your cow, but it should be something safe with dependable fencing. It also needs to be large enough for her. I suggest doing some research to figure out how much acreage is needed, because it depends on many factors, such as what types of grasses you have, how much hay/grain/supplements you intend to feed, how many cows you have, their breed and size, etc. In my area of Texas, the suggested rate is 3-6 acres per cow unit (cow/calf pair) if you grow bermuda and/or bahia grass. Our cows are able to eat solely off the land until the first freeze. Then we have to start feeding hay until spring. (However, I always supplement my milk cow with feed and alfalfa when she’s in the stanchion.)

When I went to buy Sienna, she was in a small paddock with no grass. The owner fed hay year-round. I imagine the paddock also had to be mucked out periodically. Sienna must have thought she won the lottery when I put her on our 30 acres of pasture: Yay! Grass!

Water: If you don’t have a safe pond, creek, or spring your cow can drink from, you’ll need to fill water troughs for her. Lactating cows can drink more than 30 gallons of water a day in hot weather.

Shelter: You need a place to milk that will keep you out of the elements. There will be plenty of sunny, breezy days where milking outside may be preferable. However, there are also plenty of cold, rainy, super windy, or snowy days where you won’t want to milk outside. Remember, you have to milk for 9-10 months straight. That’s a lot of seasons to get through. This year, I’m starting in July. It’s going to be super hot, lots of flies, and it will always be light outside when I milk. But, that will completely change by December. I’m thankful I have a lighted barn where I milk. The barn is also nice for storage purposes, like for feed bags and equipment.

Upon buying my first milk cow, Callie, when I moved to Texas, I gave my husband a deadline to get our barn built. Callie was bred and due to calf in five months. The barn has to be built by then, I told him. Thankfully, it was. Of course, you don’t have to have a barn. Sienna’s previous owner just had a lean-to she milked under. As long as you’re comfortable milking there, I suppose any safe shelter will do.

Sienna stands in her stanchion while her adopted calf nurses.

Stanchion: Whether or not to have a stanchion depends on how your cow is trained. Having a stanchion is nice, because the cow is limited on how much it can move. Also, she knows exactly where to go to be milked. However, you can’t move the stanchion, so you can only milk in that ONE spot. My first milk cow, Tilly, was trained to stand for milking anywhere I tied her. I usually milked in the backyard. I trained my second milk cow the same way. I could milk her wherever I tied her up, which was usually just outside the barn. If the weather was bad, then I would tie her up inside the barn. Sienna was trained to be milked at a stanchion, so my husband built one for me. So, again, this choice is up to personal or the cow’s preference. 

*I want to mention that there are times that a calf cannot consume your cow’s entire yield. I talk about that here. You either have to wait until the calf is older, or have more than one calf on a cow. It depends on your cow and calf.

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