Updated: Jan 30, 2020
If you look at a typical dairy cow these days, they are bred to stand on tall, spindly legs. The picture above is one of my very first cows. My daughter and I are handmilking her. If you look at the top of the picture you will see that her pelvic bone structure is very narrow. Their teats are tiny and fit only for a machine to milk. They are bred to need grain to survive and they are bred to produce massive quantities of milk. Milk production gets the priority and their bone structures in the back are so pinched together that many, many calves have to be pulled.
Two of our first 3 cows were bred to look like modern dairy cows. We didn’t know any better, and I don’t regret any of the lessons we learned on our journey. But here’s my non-negotiables now that I know a little better:
These are some of my cows now crossing a creek and coming in for milking. Notice how short they are. Also, the front one is open in the back which makes it easier to calve.
I like a short cow. My cows are fed on grass with a tiny scoop of grain just to give them the extra nutrients they need since our pastures are not exactly lush yet. It’s a good compromise while we head towards completely grain free. I don’t want my cows to tower up on massive legs. That’s just extra energy they need. A shorter cow is a more energy efficient cow.
My second thing I look for is her back end. How spread out are her bones in the back? I plan on keeping my cows far longer than a commercial dairy does. Does she have the bone structure where she can calve over and over again through the years with ease?
Third, what do her teats look like? My sweet Val (see above) was our 3rd cow we got after we had a milker. Her teats were TINY. The power went out one day and I had to milk her by hand. It was almost impossible. I was ready to figure out a way to power up a generator to get the machine ready and thought to myself – if we every lost this machine, I do not think I could milk her by hand every day. Don’t assume that you will never need to milk by hand.
Fourth – personality. Most of our cows have had great personalities. But we have had 2 that just could not adjust to the farm. We still have one like that. She’s currently weaning her calf, and then we have to make some decisions because she’s not safe with the rest of the herd. We will try and reintroduce her to the herd again soon, but we also won’t risk our other cows with her shenanigans.
Moving around is hard on a cow. They are herd animals and they like routine. My friend Suzanne, over at Reverence Farms, won’t sell an animal by themselves. She will only sell them in groups in order to help the cows transition. That sounded strange to me at first. But the more I know cows, I realize how right she is. It is very difficult on a cow to move around a lot. I don’t think God ever had cattle cars or cows having to head down the highways in trailers in mind when He created them. That being said, all of ours have been delivered via truck and trailer. But, some cows personalities can’t handle that transition well. And you just have to go slow and figure out your cows’ personalities. Just like humans, some handle change better than others.