how to buy a family cow...(?)

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 cowother 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.


  1. thanks for the tips! a milk cow is my greatest dream these days. i am definitely buying 'keeping a family cow'.

  2. Wonderfully helpful, thank you!! Like Hannah, we have this dream, too. I'm thinking of starting with my goats first - kind of like a gateway milk that would perhaps make me brazen enough for a cow ;) I hope your cow finds her way into your lives very soon!

  3. oh i hope you both buy cows very soon so we can compare notes! jamie, you will love milking goats. there cheese and yogurt is unbeatable. our goat rosie used to let us milk her right there in the field. it was my favorite nighttime chore.

  4. Freshen is also the term some farm husbands use to describe what happens when their wife has a baby. Lovely. Bagging up? Yes, that too is sometimes used in reference to a human, about to give birth. And forceps, as described in a childbirth class? Oh those - just like pulling a calf. Yes, dear, just like pulling an f-ing calf.

    Someday, we will have a dairy cow. She'll probably come from my brother-in-law. We like to keep things in the family.

    Just yesterday, my toddler tried to get me to milk one of our cows - one of our rather feral beef cows. Not all cows are milkers, that is for sure.

    Best of luck with your search. Perhaps, as soon as you've moved to your new place, you'll find her. Your Dream Cow. I can't wait to meet her.

  5. @sophie that is hilarious. i have told nick under no terms is he allowed to compare me to a farm animal....but it has never stopped him. it drives me insane.

  6. Nick explained that you had asked him to stop comparing children to animals...as he compared Gus to some sort of farm creature. Truthfully though, I didn't disagree with him so don't go giving him a hard time about it.

    Also, HOLY COW* I feel like I'll never know enough about anything.

    *I couldn't resist.

  7. you should get a jersey belted! because they are cute. which is how i would choose a cow.
    obviously i will never be a farmer.

  8. Thanks for this post!
    ... I'm wondering though, about this "experience" you need your cow to have. If you purchased a baby cow (and waited the appropriate amount of time), would you have a hard time milking her? Is hand raising a milk cow out of the question?

    Good luck in your search!

  9. Lady lady don't forget the brown swiss(es)!

    they are large but so gentle and a lovely butterfat percentage

    in fact, my boss might be looking to sell some heifers--want me to ask for ya?

  10. We can't wait to get a cow for our family. We're in Ontario, and there's a breed called the Canadienne, which we'd love to help preserve. Rich milk like a jersey, but does really well in the north.

  11. @Lindsey one of the best ways (from my limited experience) to have a dairy cow is to raise her from a baby. bottle feeding her and handling her as much as possible. you absolutely want your dairy cow to trust you like that. just make sure she does know you are the boss.

    @lindsay q, yes!!! brown swiss! maybe we should look into buying one from your farm?!?

    @jesse i have never heard of Canadiennes but i'll definitely look into those, the more cold hardy the better.

  12. This is great! Thanks for taking the time to type it all out. =)

    Someday, when we buy a little homestead in Central Florida, I plan on surrounding myself with Nubian goats....or at least a few.

  13. A friend of mine, Wardeh, has blogged a bit about her experience with a family cow. Here's a post: http://gnowfglins.com/2010/12/13/rfqm-keeping-a-family-cow/
    Feel free to get in touch with her. She uses her cow just for family purposes but should still be a good resource.
    I love your blog, and greetings from Iowa :)


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