Monday, February 3, 2014

The Family Millk Cow: 10 Pros, 10 Cons, and 8 Extra Thoughts on Owning One

OK, fine. I'll just come out and say it publicly:

I really want to get a Jersey milk cow.

Yup. She'll do nicely.
I've been thinking about getting a cow off and on the last year or so. I've definitely zeroed in my focus and reasons in the last several months on the actual pros and cons of such an endeavor. And it is an "endeavor." Owning a cow is big step and a big responsibility.

So, we'll start with the cons:

The cons of owning a family milk cow:

  1. You have to milk it. Like, every day. No, scratch that. You MUST milk it. Every. Single. Day. Twice a day, in most cases.
  2. You have to keep it healthy and check on it every day, again, often twice a day.
  3. You get way more milk than an actual family consumes.
  4. You have to keep equipment, like buckets, milk jars, butter churners, cheese making tools, and so forth very clean on a daily basis.
  5. They drink a lot of water, eat a lot of grass and hay, and poop a lot.
  6. They are not cheap to purchase.
  7. Depending on the management style, they can be very expensive to own and maintain.
  8. They can get sick and require antibiotics and, in rare cases, vet treatment. They may even die unexpectedly.
  9. Every year, you need to somehow get it pregnant to keep the milk a-flowin.'
  10. You need sufficient land, facilities, and local ordinances to keep one.

And now, the pros:

  1. You get fresh, raw, local, healthy milk in abundance. Every. Single. Day.
  2. You develop a bond with a beautiful animal that, for many people, becomes an endearing, tender, and very large outdoor pet.
  3. Your dairy bill goes to zero right away, and the excess feeds things like dogs, chickens, and pigs, significantly reducing (or possibly eliminating) those bills immediately.
  4. You can use the milk to make different kinds of butters, cheeses, ice creams, yogurts, buttermilks, sour creams, cottage cheeses, clabbers, and so on. And the great thing is, if if fails, so what? You've only lost like 1/2 a day's worth of milk.
  5. They eat so much grass, lawnmowing time goes way, way down. (I've heard of some people who no longer mow their lawn after getting a cow - they shovel it.) Plus, you get literally tons of manure each year for gardening or general pasture improvement (depending on whatever your thing is).
  6. While representing a significant upfront cost, for a young cow (less than 5 years), the cost can be offset by not only the incredible amount of dairy you get, but also by the yearly calf that results. For the next 15-20 years. Plus, the resale value of a cow remains solid, and sold as a nurse cow, you can typically recoup upwards of 75% of your investment.
  7. Kept on fresh pasture for the majority of the year (9 months in TN), and fed hay the rest, the cost per month can be less than $10 (when 3 months of hay, plus minerals, is extrapolated out for a year).
  8. The health benefits they provide to the family are huge, from improved pasture land, to fresh raw organic milk, to increased exercise and arm strength, to healthier dairy, ....
  9. You get a calf once a year. The calf can be raised for your own meat, sold to recoup costs, sold for profit, or even raised up to be a dairy cow on its own right. The average cow produces around 15 such calves in its lifespan. Raised to 500-600 pounds and sold for a dollar a pound live weight, that's a net gain of around $8k - just on the young calves.
  10. With a cow-approved living zone, you can turn a 2-acre patch of overgrowth and some trees into a flourishing pasture almost instantly.

So yeah - for each con, there is a nearly offsetting, corresponding pro.

Wait a sec, Bubs. You did that on purpose!

There are also a few other things to consider, and depending on the situations, these can be pros or cons in their own right:

  • You have to feed, water, care for, and/or train dogs, chickens, donkeys, sheep, and (gasp!) children, especially toddlers, every single day, too. If you're already caring for several other creatures, adding a big one is not too terrible of a change.
  • Many of the cost savings are not truly realized until a year or two into the process. Most notably, when the first calf arrives and is grown to butcher or sale weight, then at that point the cumulative cost savings from the initial investment are fully realized. On a cow in milk purchased with no calf, that can be up to two years of waiting. And in the meantime, you've paid four figures for the privilege of swimming in milk.
  • The entire family can get involved in the process. For young boys especially (ahem, Thing #2), learning patience for 20-minute stretches while strengthening their arms during the milking process on daily basis pays HUGE dividends for their character and physical development. The joys of a family ice cream party in the summer cannot be replaced by anything.
  • The calf can be kept around for a while, separated into its own pen, for those times when you just can't milk (weekend away, baseball game, etc.). After the first three weeks, it does not even need to drink milk every day. You can move the cow in with the calf for any given evening/day/week, and the hungry calf takes all the milk. The calf then grows healthier and bigger, prompts the cow to produce more milk next time, and relieves you of the burden. This can go on until the calf is fully weaned, usually in the 8-12 month range...right about the time you dry the cow up for the next cycle.
  • On that topic, there are two months out the year when the cow gets "dried up." These months are in preparation for the next calf, and allows the cow to devote all of her energy into growing out the baby calf while giving her teats time to transition from full milk to colostrum. Timing this for the summer months, when the gardens are in full fruit and the chickens are eating bugs, seems to work out best in a sustainable/holistic approach.
  • It's easier to integrate something into an existing routine that it is to create a new routine. So if you are already trekking outside every morning and evening to do whatever (pick veggies, feed chickens, water donkeys, train dogs, etc.), then adding 20-30 minutes to that is less of a big deal.
  • Cows are adaptable to all sorts of management styles, from super-intense and hands on to leave-it-in-the-field-and-milk-once-a-day. You can also intensively graze, tether, rotational-graze, and/or combine any and all of these techniques. Grass/hay, water, minerals, and rudimentary shelter is really all you need given adequate confinement.
  • And, last but certainly not least, a family cow is a major step toward food independence. Raw milk is a complete food. In other words, humans and other animals can survive on raw milk alone, provided the cow giving it is well-kept and fed properly. In times of need, this benefit cannot be underestimated. In times of plenty, it is still a good thing to retain independence, if for no other reason than it is a healthier option.

For me, the biggest obstacle is the bottom line. We simply do not have thousands sitting around to just go buy cows whenever the fancy strikes, so it represents a rather significant investment. There would be a "payment plan," so to speak, on getting a cow and the equipment necessary for one. With that, figuring out a way to justify the cost with immediate benefits is tricky. I don't want it to feel like we're paying $250 a month for dairy products, but that's what it would be - for a while. Now, there is the immediate offset in savings from chicken feed, dog food, dairy, and the like, but to actually recoup and start coming out ahead takes time.

I guess in my case, when I don't have the cash on hand, and I don't use even 1/3 of $250 in dairy a month, it seems a little more abstract to justify it. Even with the immediate benefits of healthy milk/butter/cheese/etc., and the immediate reduction in feed costs, there is still a deficit that would be run for several months.

On top of that, it is a big responsibility and a big, BIG step forward. I feel strongly that I'm ready to take it. But like some things, the gap between feeling ready and being ready may very well be bigger than I realize.

Either way, there is much discussion, thought, and prayer still to be put into this decision. Wife and I have a lot to discuss. After all, it takes a family to raise a family milk cow.

1 comment:

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