i'm going to go ahead and guess that very few of you actually need to know how to buy a family cow. but you have, by reading this, expressed interest in my life as a farmer and i oblige by showing you photos of our life, which i find to be rather pretty. (see above).
but there are times when farming is all about reading. and researching. and Trial and Error. and long car rides to distant farms to look upon others' animals in a discerningly fashion (or at least pretend as though you are). it can be about price haggling. or boasting. or trying to figure out if the woman you have just spent an hour with standing in cow manure is trying to pull the sheep's wool over your eyes.
and so, i thought, i would walk you through how to buy a family cow. not that we know. we still don't have one. in fact, we are going rather mad with the ever growing list of what you want in a cow, i wouldn't wonder if we gave up milk drinking altogether. but just in case you were thinking of buying one too. here is a rather pedantic and abbrev'd list of things to which you ought to pay close attention. if anything you might be interested in the juggle of things we have to consider while we are cow shopping.
for those of you who i lose after this have a Lovely Spring Weekend.
the first thing you must decide upon is ...
what kind of cow: the cow's milk that you drink from the superestmarkets are primarily holsteins. these cows are bred to produce. they milk over 10 gallons a day. they are not what you are looking for in a family cow. that is too much milk for a family. they are also a) huge b) bred for machine milking c) have a smaller ratio of cream to milk.
instead of a holstein, you must decide upon a jersey (PDF), or a milking devon, or a dutch belted, or a guernsey, or a milking shorthorn. if you do visit these links, please excuse the rough nature of each website, farmers are notoriously unimaginative web developers. if you plan on selling her calves you will also want to know if she is registered or registerable (get the paperwork!!).
the age of the cow: i'm not sure if this truly matters as cows can live to quite a ripe age, but surely, you don't want too old of a cow. and you don't want one that is too young either. as this will be your first cow you want an experienced but not aged cow.
when she will freshen: this is the term farmers use for when a cow will calve (have her baby) and start producing milk. the weight of this timing is entirely dependent on where you live in the country. but say you live in the mountains of vermont (read : cold winters) you would like the cow due to freshen in late spring. this is because it is most healthy for a cow to calve on pasture. and a calf will be most strong if it starts eating grass within the first weeks of its life, right next to mama.
how she has been handled: for your first cow you want a tame cow. a cow that is familiar with the Song and Dance of the stanchion. of you taking milk from her. of sharing her milk between you and her calf. you want a cow who has been hand milked. ---if you are going to have just one family cow, you needn't machine milk, the cleaning of the machine is more time consuming than hand milking one cow would ever be....AND it isn't nearly as peaceful and serene of a morning/evening moment with the sound of a vacuum pump--
her disposition: a farmer told us monday if you get one dem wild cows, she'll kill ya. she won't hesitate twice. she'll kill ya. wonderful. so, don't get a 'wild' cow. not that you would. but you don't want to have delusions of cow whispering for your first cow. you want to be able to approach her and feel safe. you want to be able to touch her udder without her kicking. ---this is not to say that cows are angry lumbering creatures that kill at will. i suppose some can be. but it is more to say that cows are huge. much LARGER than you will ever be, so show deference to her. respect her size.
what she eats: cows are ruminants. meaning they are biologically designed to eat grass. not grain. a little handful of grain at milking is pretty standard practice at most small farms. its like giving her a little treat to teach her that coming into her stanchion is a good and happy thing. thus associating milking with treats. but it shouldn't go much further than that. milk is healthiest when the cow is 100% grass fed. (fyi; holsteins that produce for big dairies are fed almost exclusively grain....not healthy milk)
talk to her vet: ask for the farm's vet and talk to her about the history of the farm, the farmer, and --if possible--the cow in question. there is no better 3rd party resource for the health and demeanor of the cow than this.
ask for references: this will most likely only be possible if you are buying your family cow from a farm that sells cows with some regularity. but ask, just in case, it could be very helpful to talk to somebody who has bought a cow that is of the same stock as the one you are looking at.
why are they selling her?: hopefully you can trust the farmer to give you a candid answer with this. it could be simply, that they need the money, but there could also be something there that you need to take into consideration like she isn't good with children or she is a bully to the barnyard.
read read read: our current favorite family book is keeping a family cow. other great books about milk and cows include the untold story of milk and the family cow handbook and the home creamery. experience with dairy and milking and cow husbandry will be, undoubtedly, a Learn as you Go process. but you must arm yourself with any knowledge you can find from books, if only to save face when a farmer mentions genetic testing for a2a2 and you can nod and say "we should pull some tail hairs" rather than awkwardly change the conversation and google a2a2 later.
if any of you cow folk have additional things to consider whilst cow shopping, please add away.