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    Want A Milk Cow? | Spring 2013 Out Here Magazine

    Be prepared to care for a calf, as well

    two cows with their heads together
    A milk cow will be more content if she has a buddy or two, such as another cow, a steer, or even a goat or pony.
    Out Here

    By Heather Smith Thomas

    Photography by Greg Latza

    As many families find self-sufficiency success with chickens, goats, and other livestock, they invariably start thinking about getting a milk cow for their dairy needs.

    Besides enjoying fresh milk, you can make butter, cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt, and more by having a dairy cow.

    If you can provide enough milk for your family and make some of these extras with a cow that produces a couple of gallons of milk per day, then having a milk cow is certainly doable, provided you feed and house her correctly and milk her twice each day.

    But if you prefer higher milk production from a cow —cows can produce an average of four gallons per day, depending on the cow — then she must have a calf each year, which means more work for your family.

    Cows produce milk in the first place, of course, to nourish their young. Milk cows reach peak lactation soon after calving, and the volume of milk then gradually decreases over the next months.

    If she's not producing a calf, she won't produce as much milk without the stimulus of a new baby to trigger maximum milk production again.

    So if you want that maximum milk production, plan to deal with breeding her on schedule, feeding and caring for a calf, letting her milk dry up for an appropriate amount of time to keep her and her calf healthy, and feeding them correctly.

    It takes a little more than nine months' gestation to create the new calf. The fetus grows the fastest during the last trimester, and especially during the final weeks before birth, which is much more demanding on the mother cow's body.

    During this time, it's best for the mother if you give her a break from milking. That way her body turns its focus onto nourishing the calf growing inside her, and the mother's body likewise prepares for birth.

    Continuing to milk during her final weeks takes a toll on the mother's body and her ability to prepare colostrum — a thick substance high in nutrients and antibodies — for the new calf on the way. Also, her milk loses its good taste if she is forced to continue milking while trying to prepare for her new calf.

    Then, about 40-60 days after calving, the cow should be bred again. Milk production will decline steadily during her pregnancy until she again is dried off for the final two months of the nine-month gestation period, the calf is delivered, and her milk production peaks once again.

    Experienced dairy farmers use this time — about two months — to "dry up" the mother. This resting period allows the mother's body to regain her maximum body condition, store a little fat, and be adequately prepared to give birth and produce a lot of milk for the newborn.

    Then, about 40-60 days after calving, the cow should be bred again. Milk production will decline steadily during her pregnancy until she again is dried off for the final two months of the nine-month gestation period, the calf is delivered, and her milk production peaks once again.

    After she calves and the calf has nursed the colostrum with rich antibodies for him for a day or so, separate the calf from her. He can live in a pen or separate small pasture as long as the fence is adequate to keep him from getting back with mama.

    The calf can be fed on a bottle with part of the cow's milk and part milk replacer, or he can be allowed to nurse her twice a day. He should nurse one side while you milk the other.

    You might choose this type of arrangement if you don't want to bother with feeding him a bottle; the calf grows nicely on half of her milk, and as he gets bigger there might be times you can leave them together and skip a milking if you will be gone somewhere. Otherwise you must plan on milking the cow every day, twice a day.

    You may choose to keep him living separately, if you want to use all of the milk for your family. You can feed the calf on a bottle for awhile, then wean him early and feed him calf pellets and grain.

    A dairy cow's calf each year can also provide meat for your family, especially if you let it grow to yearling age before processing.

    Heather Smith Thomas, an Idaho cattle rancher, has written several books on raising livestock.

     

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