The Homestead Milk Cow

It was of a romantic idea that I had 15 years ago to have a milk cow. Polly was my first patient teacher. She was gentle and did I mention a patient, Guernsey Jersey cross. Polly had earned her stripes as a seasoned milk cow when I purchased her. And so the steep learning began not only how to milk, process, and then preserve this liquid gold, but also how to take great care of the queen of our homestead. You see, I quickly realized that having a milk cow was the center spoke of our farm operation. Polly not only fed our growing family rich milk, but she also provided nutritionally dense milk to our growing piglets, chickens and calves.

Milk cows also complete the circle of sustainability. She thrives on eating grass, a constantly renewing resource. Her rumen microorganisms assemble protein from which she makes milk. The rich milk then provides for her calf, humans and other livestock. She is also adding fertilizer back into the pasture, which helps keep the cycle going. Just beautiful, I would say!

The rhythmic flow that comes with the twice a day milking is comfortable and sure. Knowing that Polly had to be cared for in a very timely manner each day automatically instituted a structure that had been void before. Discipline and structure are good. They offer character building, strength, focus and endurance. Milking twice a day also meant that there were no more overnight adventures. Life is all about give and take…… I’ll take delicious milk and turn it into rich cheese any day!

One of the most asked questions I get about our farm is what it is like to have a milk cow. I am thankful that I can share my experience but also have some great resources available. The books that I have referred to most are “Keeping a Family Cow” by Joann S. Grohman and “Milk Cow Kitchen” by MaryJane Butters. Both books are written by seasoned dairy women that have taken a holistic approach to dairy cow husbandry. They provide insight as to the nature and needs of a milk cow and include wonderful recipes for all things dairy. I use MaryJanes cheese recipes almost weekly.

Years ago someone asked me to present at a local grade school what it was like to have a dairy cow. After sharing with the students through pictures and story what a day on the farm looked like, I gave them each a pint jar of cream to shake into butter. The delight on their faces as they heard the slosh of the cream separating into butter and whey, was priceless. Those simple elements of food. Turning something from liquid into a solid, it’s like magic and you get a nugget of gold at the end……… butter!

My second milk cow “Lily” I purchased as a day old calf from a local organic dairy. I had 2 years of bonding and training before Lily freshened (calved and came into milk). Let me just say that for the first 2 years of milking my very athletic Brown Swiss, I was second guessing everything that I thought I knew about having a milk cow. Lily was very stubborn, more interested in being with the rest of the herd then with being in the milk stanchion. Let’s just say that I have a lot of pictures of Lily on my phone not because I thought she was cute, but I needed pictures for the Craigslist ad to sell her. Thankfully, I have a stubborn streak too and I was determined to make her a good milk cow even if it killed me. Just kidding…….. anyway, by the third year she settled in and has become a wonderful milk cow. She takes her job very seriously now. I had no idea that having a milk cow would teach me grit, focus and a stick to it attitude. I am thankful! Did I mention that there’s even character building done in the barnyard!

I added a heritage Jersey cow two years ago and am currently in the first season of milking “Olive”. You get to spend so much time with these bovine, they become a part of your family in a sort of farmy way! Olive is a delightful addition to our farm providing A2 A2 milk which studies have been showing to have unique health benefits.

Most days my kitchen might look more like a laboratory than a kitchen. You can usually find some kind of food on the counter fermenting, rising or waiting to be preserved. Dairy products for us are usually consumed, cultured, cured or fermented. In Sally Fallons book Nourishing Traditions she has written about the significant health benefits of incorporating fermented dairy foods into our diets. Cultures all over the world have incorporated unique ways of consuming fermented dairy for generations. Did you know that yogurt originated from Bulgaria? Russians have consumed Kefir for years. Scandinavian countries produce a cultured milk product in wooden barrels called longfil, which keeps for many months. And in India, milk from cows or water buffalo is soured to produce dahi, which the Indians consume with every meal.

I have enjoyed learning the art and science of cheese making. To enjoy a briny feta over a fresh salad or cut into a wheel of Manchego straight from the cheese cave is very rewarding. Yogurt, Kefir and cultured cream are a wonderful way of including probiotics into your diet. All this to say that there are high-quality dairy products available at your local natural foods store or if your state allows the sale of raw milk, finding a local dairy farmer to have a people to people connection with your food, is the best by far.

In closing, having a dairy cow takes an enormous time commitment with the significant possibility of a high return. Farming is not for the faint of heart so hug or just thank your local farmer next time you see them! We are in this together!

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