This is the next installment of a series about getting started with a milk cow. We’ve covered what you need to think about and prepare for before bringing home your own dairy producer. You’ve got a place to keep her and milk her, the ability to feed and water her, and all the right equipment. Plus, you’ve decided you’re ready to commit the time and money it will take, and you’ve even decided what breed you want. So, now what? Time to go shopping.
Buying the Cow
Finding the right milk cow can be a tricky feat. I’ve posted about this previously (click here). Probably the best way to find one is through someone you know or word of mouth. However, that may not be possible. You’ll probably have to search online or through farm ads in agricultural magazines/newsletters. A couple places you can start online include area newspaper classified ads, Craigslist, and Facebook. I wouldn’t recommend buying from a dairy auction, because you’ll have no idea what you’re bringing home. You should try to buy from a private owner. That way you can ask questions, see where the cow lived, get some accurate background info on her.
If at all possible, you should try to find a family milk cow with these qualifications: Obviously, you want her to be healthy. It’s much easier if she’s already trained to be hand-milked. Having her halter broke is a must. I would also recommend buying her when she is in milk. It’s ideal if she hasn’t had past issues with mastitis, but that is rare. It’s also important that the cow comes to feed (or when it’s called). Make sure she is at a decent age, not too old.
The best way to see if a cow meets these qualifications is to test her in person at the site where you buy her. If you can, make an appointment with the seller at their usual morning or evening milking time, so you can watch the routine and see if the cow meets your expectations. If you aren’t able to visit at milking time, when you do go, at least have the owner call up the cow to its milking location, so you can inspect its udder and teats. This should tell you a lot. You can see how easily the cow comes to be milked, whether or not she stands nicely during inspection, and what condition her udder and teats are in. Feel her udder to see if it seems hard or lumpy. This would be a sign that there has been past mastitis issues (or even current ones). The teats shouldn’t be cut up or have sores. Also, I’m going to mention teat size. Sometimes if the cow’s teats are too big or too small, it can make for difficult milking. (This will also depend on your hand size and what you’re comfortable with.)
If you don’t buy a cow when she is in milk, it’s going to make it much more difficult to tell what you’re getting. Also, you’ll have to wait until she calves to have milk, which could be a considerable wait, depending on if she’s pregnant and how far along she is. Plus, it will be more work to deal with balancing the calf’s feedings and your milking routine, especially if you’ve never done it before.
Whether or not you want to buy a milk cow that is already bred is another consideration. That depends on how long it has been since the cow calved and how difficult it would be for you to make sure she gets bred (with a bull or AI). Even if the seller tells you the cow is bred, it would be wise to take her to the vet after you buy her to have her checked. (It’s not usually possible to have them checked before you buy them. It’s not like you can take a home pregnancy test with you and have the cow pee on a stick. Although, that would be nice.) You don’t want to wait several months to find out if the seller told the truth about if the cow was bred and how far along it is.
Usually, a registered dairy cow is more expensive. However, it may be worth it to you. That way you’ll know for sure what breed and age she is. Whether or not to buy a purebred registered milk cow is something to consider, especially if you think about the future and what type of calves you want out of her.
It may take months of milk cow shopping to find the right one, or you may get lucky and find one right away. I will say it may be more difficult to find a cow that is trained to be hand-milked than one that is either a “nurse cow” or has been machine milked. (Click here for more detail on this.) If you intend to use a machine to milk or just use the cow to raise calves, then this is fine. However, if she has never been milked by hand and that’s what you intend to do, then you should realize you will have to train her. I’ve had that experience with the first two milk cows I purchased. It can be frustrating and time-consuming, which is why I recommend finding a trained one.