Bob reached out to us from Asheville, NC, asking for advice on choosing a family milk cow:

Hi, Bob,

Thanks for inquiring.  Your question is very timely; we’ve been talking a lot lately about the qualities that make the perfect family milk cow.  There’s no  real answer, of course; or a least, the answer is different in different situations.  The truly best milk cow is the one that is there, the flesh-and-blood, grazing, ruminating animal presently turning grass into proteins-fats-sugars in a place where you are, and where you can milk her.

We often talk to people wanting help selecting a first cow.  The possiblilities are as many as there are situations.  One local lady contemplated milking her gentle, loving, lactating Hereford (Herefords are considered a beef breed).  Perfect!  The best milk cow is the one that is lactating in your back yard.  As a first milk cow, she may not produce heavily, or have a prolonged lactation, but she’s a beginning.  Or, one could purchase from a farm that specializes in small-size, low-production, A-2-homozygous Jerseys for family milk.  The price tag is not low, but the cow is a dandy.  Perfect again.

But, if you haven’t got a Hereford already lactating in your back yard and can’t afford a high-class Jersey, you may want to know some tips for what to look for as you shop around.  Here are the things we would look at when shopping for the ‘ideal’ first family cow.

What do we look for in a dairy cow?

Number One:  What’s she been eating? The best cow is one that will do well on your farm, one which is used to eating what you are going to want her to eat.  On our farm that’s grass; just grass. Not silage, baleage, grain, or chop.  But, if you have to look at a cow who’s been eating other things, remember that it’s easier to alter the diet of a young animal than an older one.

Two:  How has she been confined? Will she respect my fences?  If you are going to manage your grass for health and productivity (the cow’s and the pasture’s health and productivity, both – that’s called ‘managed intensive rotational grazing’, or ‘holistic grazing’, or several dozen other things) you’ll want an animal you can confine with temporary electric fence, and it will be nice for both of you if she’s already trained to respect it.

Three:  What kinds of meds and chemicals has she already been exposed to? This isn’t just a question if you are wanting to go organic.  If the cow you’re looking at has received, or required, antibiotics or biocides, she may not have the vigorous natural health you want in a family cow.  Also, what kind of farm is she presently on?  If they are making extensive use of herbicides or pesticides in their crop fields, you have to assume their pastures, and their pastured animals, have been affected.

Four:  What does her udder look like? The industry has long been selecting for short teats to suit their milking machines, and these little teats are terrible for hand-milking.  We want teats we can grip with thumb and three fingers, at least – teats as long as our little finger, or longer – and not too close together, please.  A pretty udder is a practical thing.  If one of her quarters isn’t producing anymore it may lower the price, but now you’re looking at a cow that’s already had a problem (mastitis, maybe, with a tendency to have it again); are you sure you want it to be your problem?

Five:  How has she been milked? We like an animal that has been exclusively hand-milked:  one, because then she’s used to hands, and lets down to hands, and two, because we think it makes for a healthier udder with a stronger let-down reflex, something you’re going to appreciate once you’re milking.

Six:  How old is she? Yes, younger cows last longer, all other things being equal, but a brand-new mother has no track record.  A milk cow four or five years old, having calved a couple of times (so she’s proved) and with some lactation records (so you have some idea how much she produces, for how long), and young enough to have quite a few years still in her, would be about perfect.  That said, in a good setting a cow can live and lactate for a long time; twelve years, maybe quite a bit more, so a seven- or eight-year-old cow should still have some good years in her.  (Note:  cows in confinement typically have much shorter lives.  There was a time when a cull cow from a commercial dairy might have made a good family cow, back when a commercial dairy meant a herd of twenty animals on grass.  Today, we would never recommend that you look at commercial cull animals.)

Seven:  Is she pregnant? We’d definitely want her to be bred — and not just serviced, whether by an A.I. tech or a bull, but with breeding confirmed as successful by a veterinarian or good pregnancy test.  If she’s not already bred, we’d have to wonder why not, because a dairy cow is only a dairy cow if she’s lactating, and she’ll only lactate if she calves.  Cows gestate for about nine months, so for three-quarters of the year a good dairy cow should be pregnant, as well as (most of that time) lactating.  If she’s not bred, there may be a problem; don’t make it yours.

Eight:  Why is she for sale? Ask the owner, and use your head.  He/she doesn’t want this cow, and there is a reason.  It may be as simple as herd reduction — after all, on a farm where cows are calving every year, there are cows to spare — but do inquire.

Nine:  Does this cow look healthy? What’s called ‘condition’ includes a lot of things.  Dairy cows should have visible structure – hip bones and spine will be apparent – but shouldn’t be gaunt.  Personally, we put a lot of stock in a good coat; in summer, slick and shiny; in winter, fluffy and thick, like a nice teddy bear.  Wet nose, but not snotty.  Chewing her cud.

Ten:  Other body notes:

    1. Horns: We don’t like them.  We are often within our cows’ intimate space, and a horn doesn’t have to have been aimed at you to put your eye out.  Scur horn – little nubs left over after disbudding or dehorning – aren’t really a problem.
    2. Feet: If you are going to keep this animal on pasture – and we sure hope you are —  she needs naturally good feet for getting back and forth.  Naturally good, because you don’t want to have to trim them yourself.  Short, straight hooves.  Legs:  not bowed or knock-kneed.
    3. Size: Bigger is not necessarily better.  Neither is smaller, for that matter.  A smallish standard  cow is a lovely size; not too much impact on the pasture, not too big to notice you when you shove on her shoulder.  The giant-size commercial animals of today are ridiculous.
    4. Breed: Are you looking for a certain breed?  If so, why?  Unless you are going to make traditional mozzarella with water buffalo milk, breed can be pretty secondary.  It may matter, but make sure you know why it matters.  If A-2 beta caseine is important to you, make sure she’s been tested, and ask to see the papers.  Cross-breeds:  lots of dairy/cross cows, or dairy/beef cross, make good family milkers.  What’s in a name, after all?  Most important, match your breed to your environment: big hairy cows have a hard time in a hot climate; short-legged cows manage steep slopes more easily than leggy cows do.

ElevenWhere is she?   Most places have cows lurking somewhere in the environment, so if you’re going to trek across half the continent to get a cow, know why you’re doing it.  Additionally, how does the farm look? You’re going to take home with you all the free germs that will come with the dirt on the cow’s feet, and with the manure in her gut — do you want them?  Clean, healthy farms have good biota; barnyards with piles of manure and puddles of urine breed pathogens.  Wash your boots when you leave, regardless.

Twelve:  How is she to handle? Run your hand down her back leg and then handle her udder; but don’t stand in the target zone until you see if she kicks.  What about docility?  do you need her to walk well to a lead?  We don’t lead our cows, we drive them (walk behind them to move them from place to place), but if you want to be able to walk at her head, check this point.

Thirteen:  Who is selling her? Do you want to buy something from this person?  The world has lots of cows in it; there’s no reason to do business with a jerk.  If you don’t feel good about this person, you probably won’t feel good about doing a deal with him.  And nice people are more likely to have nice animals.

Fourteen:  What should you pay? If craigslist is showing lactating cows for $800 – $1,600, make sure you know why you are looking at a $3,000 animal.  Specialty animals with specialty prices may have special needs you don’t want to bother with, like special bulls to breed them.  You don’t have to pay the most to get the best.

These are some of our most urgent thoughts regarding buying a cow, Bob.  We hope it helps.  Good luck with your search, and keep in touch —

Shawn and Beth