Are you thinking about buying a cow? If you'd like more control over the quality of milk or beef you and your family consume, keeping a cow of your own could be an option for you.
Cows have been indispensible to humankind for centuries. Our major dairy and beef industries, of course, depend on the humble cow. But a movement away from those massive industries has been gaining momentum in recent years. Concerns about food safety, ethics, and the desire to raise a homestead animal often drive the decision to buy a family cow.
But owning and milking a cow is a long-term investment and a great responsibility, especially if keeping a large animal is new to you. Here's a checklist of important questions to consider before you take the plunge.
1. Do you have enough pasture to feed a cow?
You may be surprised at how many acres of grass a cow can consume. At minimum, a single cow will devour 3-5 acres of pasture during the summer season. This varies with your geographical area, depending on temperature and how wet or dry your land is. Ask your local Department of Agriculture for more information for your area.
2. Do you have a source for hay?
When the grass runs out or snow falls, you'll need hay to feed your cow. Whether you buy feed or put up your own, make sure you'll have enough to feed your cow through the winter and spring!
3. Do you have reliable feed and supplement sources?
Trace mineral salt blocks, as well as protein, energy, and mineral supplements, are essential for keeping a cow in the best health. Whether you use kelp or conventional sources, cows need this stuff. For example, here in northern New England, the local soil is very low in certain trace vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, which can be beneficial for the cow's reproductive health. Again, check with your local agriculture department to find out what you should be looking out for in your area.
4. Do you have a year-round water source?
Cows need lots fresh water! A lactating, or milking, cow can drink as much as 40 gallons of water per day. Also consider that in colder climates, an outdoor water source will likely be frozen. Carrying water from the house may be an option, but an insulated water source in or near your barn is more convenient as well as labor-saving.
5. Do you have a barn or other shelter?
For protection from the weather, plan to have have at least a 3-sided shed on dry ground for your cow. A shed or barn not only provides a little warmth and shelter from rain in snow, but also offers shade on hot summer days.
6. Are you prepared to deal with the waste?
A single cow can easily produce as much as 65 pounds of manure each day. That's over 11 tons of manure in a year! It's important to have a plan for disposal, whether it's a big compost pile or fields for spreading.
7. Do you have access to a large animal vet?
No matter how skillful you are with animals, there will be a time when a veterinarian is needed. To keep a cow healthy, some vaccinations will be necessary; and some states may even require it if the animal (or animal products) are to enter the food chain. Check with your state veterinarian for more information.
8. Will you milk your cow?
The breed of cow you choose will determine how much milk she gives. If you're looking for a cow for milk, consider a rare or heritage breed. These are traditionally multi-purpose animals, used for milk, horsepower and/or beef. A dairy cow like a Holstein or a Jersey will produce around 10 gallons of milk per day during their peak milk production - that's a lot of milk for even a large family to consume! A smaller, multi-purpose breed may only produce four gallons per day, which is still a lot, but manageable.
9. Do you have a plan for breeding?
A cow kept for milking will need to be bred each year. Will you hire a breeding service, or own a bull? Bulls require a lot of care, as well as strong fences. Dairy bulls are notoriously unpredictable, so consider very carefully before choosing to keep a bull.
10. Do you have a backup caretaker?
Once your cow starts milking, she will need to be milked daily and on a rigid schedule. If you want to be free to go on vacation, even for a day or two, you will need someone reliable feed, water and milk your cow while you’re gone.
The freshest milk (or beef)
Cows are loveable, fun, and entertaining. They're also a lot of work! But if you're prepared and committed to caring for a family cow, you'll be rewarded with the freshest, best quality milk or beef - and you'll feel confident knowing where it came from.