Finding the Right Cow
My grandpa grew up on a farm in the South. When I was a little girl I asked him what it was like. He said it was hard work and dirty. I asked him about getting milk from a cow and he laughed saying, “Do you know how many germs are in that milk?” When I was a little older, probably studying the Great Depression in elementary school, I asked him “What did you do during the Great Depression Grandpa?” He said, “Well, we all went back to the farms!” In my child’s mind I had an “A-ha!” moment. Even as a child, studying about the Great Depression and the World Wars had me very worried that it could happen again. Ever since that time I had wanted to live on a farm. Now I do, however small it is.
I had a grandmother on the other side of my family, who also grew up in the South. She lived in a little brick house on a large lot. Her entire backyard was a garden. I loved walking through that garden. I had never seen anything like it, but hopefully the garden I am planting out now will rival her garden. If the insects and the heat don’t kill me, I plan on sitting in that garden early in the morning with a cup of tea. Just to soak it all in. Just to revel in the miracle of a seed growing into a large plant with edible things hanging off of it.
With all these romantic notions in my head since childhood, it’s no wonder I set out to do what I’m doing now. I had to grow up though, and work for a living, and experience all that city life offered before I got to a place where I could choose this lifestyle as my full-time activity. It’s not for the faint of heart. If you need your manicures, hair appointments, foot massages, lattes, vacations, and gourmet dinners out on a regular basis, this isn’t for you. Why not? Because you’re going to break a nail, your hands will crack and the dirt can become embedded unless you wear the right gloves for the job, your hair will be smashed under a hat and you’ll sweat like it’s the fourth of July. Your feet will be crammed into a variety of shoes – the muck boots, the cowboy boots, the garden clogs, the tennis shoes, the house shoes, etc., because you will be tracking all manner of evil wherever you go. You have to change shoes often for biosecurity reasons.
I started classifying shoes by activity type and comfort rather than looks or colors. I don’t want fresh cow manure in my garden, right? And your feet will stink and there will be spiders and bugs and snakes, sometimes in your shoes if you’re not careful. You’ll wish you had a spa tub and a martini after mucking out the barn. What’s for dinner? That’s where it gets exciting if you have time or energy to cook! Farm fresh everything: eggs, steaks, bacon, chicken, fresh produce, fresh-churned ice cream and apple pie y’all. Mmmm.
But wait. Let’s back up and start at the beginning of how I ended up with a dairy cow. First I got chickens, lots of them – “the gateway drug to homesteading”. That required hen house(s) and fencing modifications. Then I got goats and that required more fencing modifications and gates and a shelter. I already had the dogs! In the interest of self-sufficiency, I had this idea, as many of us here do, that I could “close the gate” and not need to go outside the farm, unless dire circumstances required it. Dairy was a distinct need (and later beef from offspring), not to mention large gardens. And the only way to have dairy is to get a bred or lactating cow. But, not just any old cow. I needed a cow with a sweet disposition, who could be led around by a halter and lead rope, who looked poetic on the landscape, who “specialized” in rich, creamy, milk. Ha, ha, ha.
There are many breeds of dairy cows, I learned. Each with their own characteristics. After lots of Internet research, reading a couple of books, watching Youtube videos I decided that what I needed was a miniature Jersey cow! And that was a fine idea until I discovered that those little, cute, cows are in high demand and the lowest price I found for one of those was $5,000 with some people wanting $10,000. Yes, you heard that right. There are actual national waiting lists to purchase one of those. Why a miniature? I’m intimidated by large animals and a “mini” sounded good to me, but not for that price.
I also am a fan of the Weston A. Price Foundation, co-founded by Sally Fallon (Morell) and nutritionist Mary G. Enig. This is where I learned about whole foods, cooking everything from scratch, avoiding genetically modified ingredients, good fats versus bad fats, etc. I came to understand that a certain type of milk protein, A2/A2, as opposed to A1/A1 which is the type you generally find in the grocery store, is more tolerable for many people, and potentially better for you. Not everyone agrees of course and I don’t want to offend any dairy farmers!
I also learned that “good fats” come from animals, not plants as many believe. Milk, cream, butter, cheese, etc., are a source of good fats and good protein. I personally love full-fat dairy products. I have a very close friend with a rare heart disease who absolutely cannot tolerate a full-fat diet, so everyone needs to do their own research and make their own choices. I don’t gain a pound on a full-fat diet, and do not have any heart or cholesterol issues. At any rate, I decided I wanted the A2/A2 genetics if I could find it.
A mini Jersey was out of my reach, so I started searching for mid and full-size Jerseys, Brown Swiss, Guernseys, Holsteins, Ayrshires, etc. I mostly used Craigslist for my region of Tennessee, but I also checked out the national associations for each breed which lists breeders and their contact information. I discovered that a good Guernsey was just as pricey as a mini Jersey! Guernseys are known for their golden-colored milk, but they’re big cows! I just couldn’t find what I was looking for because I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for at first.
Along the way I learned that I should be looking for a 2 – 5 year old, first time or second time mama, my preference was Jersey, and I wanted A2/A2 genetics. And I learned you can’t go cheap unless it’s a known quantity from someone you know personally. Lots of people get rid of their “problem cows” any way they can. So, I girded my loins to pay around $3,000 if I could find the right cow. Eeeeek!
I got in touch with several Jersey breeders in Tennessee, only to find out even their bred cows’ unborn calves were spoken for a year out. What the heck! I think I’m not the only one around these here parts who have it in their minds to get a family milk cow. I’m late to the party actually! Well, I just kept checking Craigslist every day and I asked the Lord, if it be His will, to help me find the right cow.
One day an ad showed up that had just been posted. It was for a mid-size Jersey 2-year-old heifer, A2/A2 genetics, bred using “sexed semen” (that’s a thing y’all) for a heifer (female), and get this, Guernsey! The list price was $3,000. I just about fell out of my chair and contacted the poster immediately. And that’s the cow I got. He kindly agreed to deliver her for a fee because it was a several-hour drive. The only thing that was not okay was she was not “halter broke”, not well handled, but not “wild”. Whew boy. I closed my eyes, clicked my heels together twice, and bought that cow.
Now mind you, I have several acres of really good pasture and a small barn with enough room for several cows if a shelter was needed. The weather here is very mild and the cows are out on pasture 24x7x365. I have several 100-gallon water troughs, fencing, gates, and the whole shebang. Not because I’m brilliant, but because this property was already set up for farm animals when I bought it. This property needed a cow or two.
I quickly sourced some good grass hay, just in case the grass wasn’t as great as I thought it was, and had it delivered to the barn. I researched electric milking machines and purchased a refurbished Surge milker and compressor. I bought everything I could think of and looked at every list of “things to get for your dairy cow” on the Internet (brush, feed buckets, halters, minerals, medicines, mastitis test kit, etc). There is a great Family Cow forum online that provides copious amounts of information that I found very helpful.
I had a stanchion built since I didn’t have a “milking parlor” setup. I was ready.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)