Backyard Farming with a Family Cow
Cow ownership was once an essential part of American family life. The family cow provided milk, butter and cheese for consumption and sale. It also helped manage grass and pasture while serving as the core of the family farm.
We haven’t lived in that pastoral, agrarian world for generations. The growing popularity of backyard farming, however, is helping revive this American tradition.
Raising up a young heifer to become a good family milk cow requires time spent halter training.
The benefits of owning a family cow
Let’s start with one of the best, most obvious reasons to own a lactating cow: the unbelievable taste of fresh whole milk. The flavor is a revelation for anyone accustomed to store-bought milk, while the awareness of the milk’s hyper-local source enhances the experience.
The amount of milk a cow produces depends on its size and breed. Most hay and grass-fed Jersey cows will produce somewhere in the neighborhood of one-to-four gallons of milk daily. Grain-fed cows will produce more, but a hay and grass dietis more natural — after all, grass is what cows have been eating for thousands of years.
Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms and a famed grass diet advocate, often says he wants his “pigs to express their pigness.” That means providing the animal with a natural habitat suited to its distinct physiological needs. For cows, that means plenty of grass and hay.
Along with milk production, cows are an excellent grass and pasture management resource. Cows eat with single-minded intensity — typically around 12 hours each day — so they are extremely useful with regard to grass and weed management. Cows also improve soil on the pasture, while the addition of manure may greatly improve the quality of garden soil.
Caring for a family cow
While many people may believe a cow requires a vast amount of land, that’s not necessarily the case. Some animals can be accommodated by an acre of pasture. For those with less land, outside hay sources should be used as a supplement.
A small half-acre fenced in pasture is sufficient for this Jersey heifer (left) and her friend, a Jersey steer (right).
While having loads of delicious milk, cheese and butter sounds great, it’s important to remember that lactating cows need to be milked on a regular schedule, either once or twice a day….some dairies go for three. Though it may be a challenge to get used to it at first, milking becomes much easier once you get the hang of it and is quite an enjoyable experience.
Shelter for your cow is another important consideration. An animal exposed to the elements is usually an unhappy and unhealthy animal, so it’s important to ensure the cow has sufficient shelter. Those living in areas where the weather turns harsh should make sure their cow has a shed or barn that provides plenty of shade and relief from the wind and cold.
One of our Jersey cows comfortably rests on a bed of wood shavings inside a barn, protected from the winter elements outside.
Along with shelter, cows also need proper fencing, access to water and sufficient minerals in their diet. A well-cared for cow is a happy cow — and happy cows produce better tasting milk.
Buying a family dairy milk cow is a serious commitment, but it’s often a trans-formative event for backyard farmers. While there are a few start-up costs involved, the experience of caring for your own animal — and receiving amazing dairy products in return — is truly priceless.