If you want fresh milk, nothing is fresher than milk straight from your very own dairy cow. Many beginning farmers aspire to keep a dairy cow in order to have a fresh supply of milk for drinking and for dairy projects, like cheese making or soap making. But taking on the care of a dairy cow can be a daunting task for first timers.
Before taking the plunge, you should know a few things about their upkeep. First, get some animal husbandry books and talk to your veterinarian so you know what to expect. For dairy cows, there are a few topics that are especially important.
1. Choosing the Right Breed
Every dairy breed has a different milk composition and average production volume. Holsteins, for example, are known for larger volumes of milk but have a lower butterfat concentration than Jersey cows. If you want to make cheese, you may want to consider a higher butterfat-milk breed, such as a Jersey. Your environment also plays a role in which breed would fit best on your farm. You should look for breeds that have evolved in similar climates to ensure they thrive.
2. Teat Care
The udder is the most important part of your dairy cow, but it is also the most susceptible to disease. To prevent udder infections, known as mastitis, keep your cow clean. This is especially important at the time of milking and right after, as this is when the teat sphincter is open and bacteria can enter the udder. The best way to prevent mastitis is by making sure your cows have clean bedding. Other techniques include feeding after milking so that the teat sphincter can close, proper teat cleaning, and applying a post-milking disinfectant to the teat. If your dairy cow’s udder becomes red, hot and swollen or the milk comes out with clots, ask your veterinarian to examine it.
Dairy cows have special dietary requirements that other cattle don’t. Most importantly, they require additional nutrient supplementation, especially calcium, to replace the amount lost in their milk. They also require larger amounts of water for the same reason. Read up specifically on dairy cow requirements, and test your feed to ensure your cow receives a healthy diet. I have personally seen more nutritional diseases in smaller farms than larger-scale farms because they often don’t test their feed’s nutrient levels.
Vaccinations are the best way to prevent disease and ensure your dairy cow is healthy and productive, but they’re not one-size-fits-all. A good vaccination protocol is tailored to your farm’s risks and management program. You’ll want to discuss the necessary vaccinations for your dairy cow with your veterinarian. Some vaccinations can cause abortions, including those for infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, bovine viral diarrhea and campylobacter (aka vibriosis), so discuss the risks with your vet. You can also vaccinate for scours and mastitis.
To keep your cow milking, it needs to calve every year. The best way to prevent calving problems is by matching the bull to the cow. A bull’s birth weight is important to prevent difficult births that may require a Caesarean or lead to other complications, such as hind leg paralysis. Another factor important in breeding dairy cattle is how much milk the bull’s mother produced, as this will impact a heifer’s future milk production.
6. Prepare For Calving
Before your cow is due to calve, have an emergency plan in place. If your cow has problems during or after calving, this is not the time to be learning about the process itself. Have a calving kit ready with colostrum, calving chains and handles, disinfectant, and obstetrics sleeves, and ask your veterinarian how to manipulate a mispositioned calf to make pulling them easier. I would caution farmers from using a calving jack or other methods for pulling calves other than by hand. A good rule to follow is to never pull more than 300 pounds, which is what an average sized man can pull when using their whole body. Any more pressure increases the risk of your dairy cow going down with hind leg paralysis. If you are unable to pull a calf by hand, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.
7. Keeping the Calf
Unless you are milking for quota and not for your own use, keeping the calf will give you more freedom than if you sell it. When you want to skip a feeding, you can let the calf suckle rather than milking the cow yourself. You will lose some milk, but unless you are trying to make money, this eliminates the most common dairy complaint of being tied to the cow and not being able to travel without hiring someone.
Get more advice about keeping cows on HobbyFarms.com: