Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"When are you gonna blog about the cow?"

So, we're thinking of getting a family cow. The one in the picture, in fact. (The little red one, not the momma...) How's that for a way to use those "economic stimulus" funds?

Crazy, right? With a baby on the way?

Well, we've got fenced pasture and a barn full of hay. And we do miss the unlimited milk supply we had with the goats. And cow's milk would be much more versatile for us. Not to mention that beef is a better fit for us than chevon. (We wouldn't actually be milking for at least a year and a half, in case you're thinking about the baby and getting ready to call the men in white coats.)

Goats really are better in many ways. They're more efficient and less picky grazers. They are smaller. Their milk is better for the lactose intolerant people of the world (which is actually the majority, by the way). Their manure is more manageable.

For us though, they were not a perfect match. And who knows, a cow may not turn out to be an great fit either. I tend to think otherwise, which explains the existence of this post, I guess. And for you long-time Green, Blue, Brown readers, this may come as no surprise.

And really, you rarely learn anything by not trying it.

We wanted a smallish, hardy, multipurpose breed. Unfortunately, yaks aren't in abundance around here. We kicked around the idea of Dexters, but they are hard to find in our area, a little bit pricey, and their milk is apparently naturally homogenized, which was one thing we didn't like about the goat's milk. We thought about a Jersey or Gurnsey, but they're fairly milk-centric. Not a bad thing, per se, but not quite what we were after. We even looked into mini-Jerseys, but they were too expensive. There are Angus cattle around but those are a meat breed, of course. Holsteins are readily available, but they tend to be more about "maximizing production". It brings to mind a joke about an old-time dairy farmer keeping a barn full of Jerseys for the milk, plus one Holstein in case they ever need to put out a fire.

In the end, the American Milking Devon ended up at the top of my list. Despite the name, they're good for both meat and milk, and even draft power if I ever got really ambitious. They're a very old breed, and they're said to do well on pasture and hay alone, even while milking. And there are a couple breeders within a reasonable distance to us. [If you want to read a cool article about this breed (from an admittedly biased source), check this out.]

So after asking around a bit, we found - among various other options - a heifer calf who is one half Milking Devon and one half Angus. (Well, mostly one half Angus. Maybe a little Holstein or some other breeds mixed in.) She's got the trademark red color of the Devons, with no horns and a slightly beefier frame. And her price reflects her non-purebred status, which is good for us.

A couple weekends ago, when we went out to take a look at her and her herdmates, the temperature was well below freezing, with a biting wind that sent e5 scurrying back to the car before we got 100 feet. The cows were not in the barn. They weren't in the field shelter or behind the windbreak of trees. They were just out basking in the sun like there was a nice September breeze wafting through...

We're still working out the logistics and the financials, but we figure we're spending over $1200 a year on milk now, and that's not counting our next kid's eventual consumption. It's not counting the continuing price increases that are sure to come. It's also not counting any butter, cheeses, cream, yogurt and other dairy products. Or the inevitable offspring a cow would produce, which could either be sold or, well, frozen. Given the fact that we've already got fenced pasture and a barn, we could certainly keep a cow like this for less than $1200 a year.

So it's under serious consideration. Just so you know.


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At 1/31/2008 12:14 PM, Blogger jewishfarmer said...

Hey Edson - how beautiful!! I want one. We're just about go goat (little teeny cute ones who won't break the children - nigerian dwarves) ourselves, but I wouldn't mind a cow one of these days.

If I were you, instead of thinking beef, I'd think "oxen."


At 1/31/2008 12:54 PM, Blogger e4 said...

Sharon - If I could figure out a way to train and equip myself and some hypothetical oxen, that would be the coolest! But with close to zero knowledge and zero local contacts, it's beyond my scope at the moment.

At the same time, I always have to come back to the fact that just a few years ago, I was in the heart of suburbia pushing a lawnmower.

Milking Devons are supposed to make top-notch oxen though.

At 2/01/2008 12:46 PM, Blogger CG said...

When I was looking at possibly getting a mixed use breed of cow to milk, my vet friend said, very frankly, don't. Get a milking breed. You can't milk a non-milking breed. Not the same temperament. I listened to him (and to my mother who praised "little Jersey's" she'd grown up with) since I figured he knew better than the folks on the internet with agendas.

With your lack of experience and savvy, I'd also look for one who has actually been milked before. By hand. Cows are naturally less friendly than goats.

But why pay attention to me? I've just been milking goats and a cow for years now, that's all.

At 2/01/2008 2:40 PM, Blogger e4 said...

CG - If we could find a cow that had been milked already, especially hand milked, I'd be very interested. I've been looking off and on for a while and I can't find anybody within 100 miles selling such an animal. In fact, other than feeder cattle and big dairy culls, I can't find much at all. I've even been checking into animals that haven't been born yet.

I take that back. There was one Jersey and her calf for sale about 60 miles away. But they sold almost immediately. Personally I'd take a Jersey or similar that had been hand milked, and even pay extra for the privilege.

You are surely right that this isn't a perfect match for us. But give me a little credit here. I've done more homework than checking a couple web sites. In addition to a lot of reading (both online and books), I've spent many hours talking to various people about their experiences, their breed preferences, etc. Heck, we spent hours just talking to the owner of this particular heifer. He routinely sells his females (all variations on the same mix, all at least 1/2 Devon) as family cows.

I will add your thoughts to the mix. I do take them seriously, despite the condescending undertones. ;)

At 2/01/2008 6:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would have to disagree with cg. I have had many goats and many cows over the years, and I prefer the cows. I have goats now but that is only because I am on a small lot (not enough pasture for a cow).

I don't think one is better than the other. It's about personal preference (like dogs and cats). And your land etc. The only way to know is to try. And in my experience it's not hard to find buyers for a good milk cow. We had people fighting over our cows when we sold them.

Our first cow was a first time freshener too (she was 5 month pregnant when we bought her). I was very glad to have the time to earn her trust before her little one was born. Good luck!

At 2/02/2008 1:51 PM, Blogger Pat Meadows said...

Hi Edson,

I hope you get TWO cows if you do it at all. Cows are herd animals; they are going to be unhappy alone.

Or even one cow and one goat. Or one cow and one donkey.


At 2/02/2008 9:50 PM, Blogger e4 said...

Pat - Cows apparently do better than sheep, goats, or horses when kept solo. We've read/heard that from multiple sources. Maybe their size or the fact that they've been domesticated so long makes them feel less vulnerable? Or it could be that cows have historically been kept alone on a somewhat regular basis, so maybe it's a trait that's been bred in a little. I don't really know for sure.

I've also been told that having one cow rather than multiple, at least to start with, helps them bond to you (as opposed to each other).

We'll have to see how our pastures hold up, but two cows could very well be too much.

However... having said all that, I wouldn't mind getting her some sort of companionship. That may end up being in the form of borrowing one of the neighbor's horses or llamas, since I think they have more animals than pasture right now anyway.

Still considering all the variables.

We shall see.

At 2/05/2008 12:17 AM, Blogger Suzer said...

I had to laugh at Pat's mention of a donkey because all I could think of was Jinx the demon donkey chasing your little red cow all the way home crying wee, wee, wee! Good luck with the cow, and at worst it will make for a fantastic story, at best; milk, ice cream, butter, yogurt...

At 2/06/2008 9:12 PM, Blogger CG said...

I expect no one roots harder for you to succeed than I.

I would ask the farmer, owner of that heifer, if he routinely MILKS the females he sells as milk cows, and if the families he sells them to milk them successfully. I'd ask about their production and longevity of milking and butterfat. And breeding characteristics as the cross will change everything from the pure Devon characteristics. I'd frequent the local livestock auctions, call dairies for culls, ask my vet friends, and even call the extension agents (who are normally useless I admit but you never know). I would praise milk cow economics.

I would not be likely, however, to buy a half angus as a milk cow.

At 2/06/2008 9:43 PM, Blogger e4 said...

Thanks CG. We're learning. We're trying to do our homework. I've been poking around this since before we sold the goats.

For what little it's worth, the calf in question is not truly 1/2 Angus. It's more like 3/8ths with dairy breeds making up the rest. But that probably does not amount to much.

The nearest regular livestock auction is about an hour's drive away, and I don't have any confidence that I'd do well buying at auction. And I'd only be able to transport calves. And I can't find anybody to tag along and advise me in person.

I have an acquaintance who runs a small(ish) organic dairy who's been advising me, and he said to avoid Holstein dairy culls. That's what he raises, but he doesn't think they do well as family cows. And those are just about the only kind around. Well, unless we can get a Brown Swiss or Dutch Belted from an Amish family. (I had asked around about this too, because I think that would be an excellent possibility, but unfortunately, I have had zero luck to date.)

I've also asked for and received help from a few OEFFA members, one of whom put me in touch with this breeder. They have had success with the Angus/Devon crosses as family cows, though I haven't asked about butterfat. Pure Devons have butterfat similar to Jerseys, but I wouldn't necessarily expect that from the cross. Though the good news is that the 1/2 Devon calves were all thriving with their mothers on pasture and hay alone.

What we've been talking about doing if we do get the cross is to breed her back to Devon (or at least another good dairy breed), and keep any female calf that comes along.

And then again, we may decide we're just not quite ready for any cow. Maybe we make a bad decision in the end, but not for lack of trying. I'm counting mistakes as Small Farm University tuition.

At 2/07/2008 2:19 PM, Blogger CG said...

trying is always important. As are deep searching conversations with self about what has worked and why, and what hasn't and why.

I probably wouldn't take a Holstein cull as a family cow because of too much milk, not enough butterfat. Unless I got her amazingly cheap because in the end I'm a cheapskate. But I would take a Holstein bull calf to raise for meat. Dairy meat is some of the best you'll ever taste -- it just has a poor meat to bone weight ratio.

I would stay after those Amish contacts though.

I personally would like to get ANOTHER cow this spring, although I'm real glad I didn't buy her last spring when I went looking though.

Oh, on the auctions, you have to just go and hang out for a long time before you even think about buying. It becomes the day out, substitutes for the trip to the movies, the entertainment, the social event.

At 2/12/2008 1:59 AM, Blogger Catherine said...

Hey! I just wanted to drop you a note to encourage you, and let you know that we recently purchased (piecemeal) a small herd of 10American Milking Devons, so I'm sure that it must be possible for you to get one or more, too. We live in Texas, so for us, that awful drought in the SE had a silver lining, when these animals came available due to their pastures drying up. I don't know where you live, but why don't you check out the list of breeders, as well as the "for sale" section on the AMDC website ( as there's at least one registered 100% Milking Devon "family milk cow" listed there, right now! Talk to the breeders, as even if they don't have anything for sale, they may know someone who does. And remember, even if you don't have a truck/trailer, there are cattle haulers around that can help you out...that's how we got all 10 of ours!

There are so few (less than 500) of these rare and wonderful ruby red Milking Devon that it's awesome to be able to encourage and facilitate others' interest in the breed. We like them for many of the same reasons as you, easy marbling on grass, rich milk in more reasonable family sized quantities, possible draft, hardiness, heat and pest resistance, etc...but what we didn't expect was the gentleness, beauty, and indeed, elegance of the breed! They are gorgeous, pictures don't do them justice, and one of the breeders even talked about how they provide him with his "Ruby Therapy", just watching them in the evenings!

As for ease of milking...well, our experience is quite limited, so far. I'll be able to tell you more once our first calf hits the ground in the next week or two. Katie is our first Mama Cow to be, and though she'd never been petted prior to arriving in our pasture (less than 2 months ago), much less hand milked, she's already letting me and my sister pet her all over, and has even let us squirt a few streams of milk...and that's just out in the pasture with the herd! I think once she's in a milking stall, with her nose in some good hay, we'll get along just fine! So...keep researching the breed, and talk to the AMDC people. You dreams can come true! Ours are! Cat

At 2/21/2008 8:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps you've found it already, but is the home of Joanne G, author of Keeping the Family Cow, and there is a discussion board there with many very knowledgeably and helpful people.

If for nothing beyond support, its worth it.

Just a though.

At 2/24/2008 8:29 AM, Blogger Danielle said...

Just found your blog via Sharon's, and I'm enjoying reading about your adventures.

I've been going through the whole cow decision myself as well, and just ruled out Dexters. I've settled on a Jersey as our best bet for many of the reasons CG listed.

I learned to milk on a first freshener Nigerian Dwarf, and that was quite the experience in frustration. As much as I love the little NDs, I wouldn't recommend them to folks with a decent size family who want milk. I'd go with a larger goat and one whose milk I could taste before buying her.

-Danielle, who also uses a truck cap for a pasture shelter
Touch the Earth Farm


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