Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Family Cow

Our family cow is simply awesome.

We bought Aspen, a registered Jersey heifer, in June of 2012. Although the going advice is to look for an established and proven cow, we were extremely lucky to find a 4H heifer that was very well handled and really, an ideal family cow for our family with young children. Additionally, she was less than half what a proven cow would cost us, so we took the gamble that things would turn out alright.

And, indeed they did! In June of 2013, precisely 279 days after artificial insemination, Aspen gave birth to a little heifer calf we named Chloe! We were fortunate enough to observe the birth from about fifty feet away - you don't want to be too close to the action because it will induce stress into the cow which could slow and complicate her labor, and things went perfectly.

We did have a short bout of panic when Chloe didn't immediately nurse, but once we briefly intervened, she got the hang of things and did her own nursing.. on the sly to make it seem like she wasn't so we stressed a little over that, but she was energetic and urinating so in the end, we came to the conclusion that no more human interference was needed.

Owning a family cow is extremely satisfying. For one, you get to build a relationship with an animal that really wants to be your best friend. They are far more laid back and food driven than most horses I've even known, and possibly the most dog like, enthusiastic, curious and playful of creatures.

We have approximately an acre of grass set aside for her and her calf, but we still have to buy grass hay and some alfalfa for them to eat during the winter months. Three things I learned the hard way:
  1. Cows are incredibly strong; if you build something, build it three times as strong as you think it needs to be and it might last a year.
  2. Cows are incredibly cold hardy; we thought we'd need a barn, but this cow seems to prefer a simple lean-to or the shelter of the pine trees in her pasture when it gets windy. Cold doesn't seem to phase her, down to about -10F. You don't need to panic and lock them in when it's cold, as long as it isn't windchill and rain.
  3. Hand milking is brutal in a first year cow, or at least, in Aspen. Undersized teats and copious milk production are perfect ingredients for repetitive strain injury of the hands and wrists! I built a milking machine within 8 weeks, which I'll write about on it's own, in another post.
Milking your cow is a pretty simple process but you need a list of things ahead of time:
  • Some small 2 gallon food safe buckets with lids if you're to be hand milking
  • Iodine based teat dip & teat dipping cup (this can be a pint mason jar)
  • Iodine based teat wash and a bucket with 4 rags (one per teat)
  • Some litmus paper or mastitis detection strips/cards
  • A bucket or belly milker if you're going the automated way
  • A surcingle (strap to hold the belly milker if you go that way - it's worth it)
  • Dairy soap or other sanitizer for your milking equipment
  • A roll of paper towels (a week)
  • Glass jars to hold the milk and a refrigerator that can hold the milk just above freezing (ideally).
  • A filter (gold coffee filters make excellent reusable ones), funnel and a pouring decanter


Before you get too excited and run out to the pasture with milk bucket in hand, there are a couple of things you're going to need to consider. The first, what do you plan to do with all of that milk? Our cow Aspen produced over 4 gallons a day during prime summer conditions and is still producing around 2.5 gallons per day as of this writing. Are you going to make cheese with it, or feed it to pigs you're growing? Do you plan to pasteurize the milk yourself, or will you drink it fresh (some people still call this raw milk, which seems a bit silly to me because you don't distinguish between most other fresh and cooked foods - but I digress)?

If you're planning to put all of the milk into growing the calf or feeding your pigs, you probably don't need to invest a lot of mental energy into considerations like milk handling or what you feed your cow. If, however, you want to enjoy the absolutely best tasting milk on the planet, that is packed with nutrients and healthy fats, read on.

Milk got a bad rap prior to the advent of pasteurization because farmers didn't understand pathogenesis (in simplest terms, the development of disease). They were trying to produce as much milk as they could, as quickly and with the least amount of effort, and when you combine those two things you don't often get a product that is very good. My grandfather had a saying and I'll stick by it; good, fast, cheap. Pick two and whichever you didn't pick, you won't get.

In today's dairy, we have modern approaches to pathogen containment that start with what goes into the cow's mouth. A cow's rumen works by using micro-organisms to break down cellulose (grass), synthesis amino-acids (protein building blocks) and producing b-complex vitamins. The micro-organisms who live here are very sensitive to changes in their environment. Many of the enzymes needed to break down foods work in a very narrow spectrum of temperature and acidity or alkalinity. 

Normally, a purely grass fed cow's rumen is very close to neutral to very slightly acidity (ph 6.5 - 7.0). It usually only becomes acidic if the cow eats a lot of something that doesn't agree with it. In this environment, most pathogenic bacteria are out-competed by the good gut flora that is in the rumen.

In cows that are fed grain, the rumen becomes progressively more acidic as the quantity of grain increases. Feeding a little during the coldest winter months probably won't hurt your animal, but if you raise your family cow the way a dairy would, you put a lot of grain into it in order to increase the protein intake and ultimately, the amount of milk that is being produced. This has a side effect of killing most of the good bacteria and micro-organisms in the cow's rumen, and allows pathogenic bacteria - such as the infamous e.coli 157:H7 - and you have the possibility of infecting your milk with something you don't want to drink.

Next post will be on the milking machine that we built and the milking ideology we follow.


Goodbye to a Friend

It's a typical winter day here in NY State; single digit cold with clear blue skies and enough sunshine that it would make you think that winter was on the way out and spring was around the corner and that things might be heading in the direction of cheerful.

Unfortunately, our friendliest rooster, Inigo, was found in such a bad state that we had to euthanize him today. The worst part about it was that a few days ago, he seemed a little off so we brought him in the house and fed him - he acted like a normal chicken - so we chalked it up to being a little paranoid and put him back out with the other birds. Obviously, that was a big mistake and we should have listened to our intuition.

It's exceptionally hard with chickens, because they are such friendly birds, to see one go downhill that quickly and have to take care of sending him on his way, yourself. It's the one last gift we can give them, but still very hard nonetheless.

Good bye, Inigo Montoya.