How To Choose And Care For A Family Cow: For Beginners

Buying and raising a family cow for milk or meat consumption is no small endeavor. But with enough prior research, preparation and commitment, you too can raise a dairy cow with just a few acres.

The art of homesteading gets interesting by the day, and your decision to start home dairying is good for all the benefits of keeping your own cows. 

But how do you choose a good family cow? And can you best take care of her?

Here’s a handy guide to choosing and caring for a family milk cow.

How To Choose A Good Family Cow: Top (‘Lean’) Considerations

Choosing between several options is not a favorite undertaking for most people (including me), yet we have to make choices daily from competitive options that often tie.  

cows on farm

Since everything can go wrong before your milk-cow project even starts, you’ll want to ensure you check all the right boxes to make the best bovine choice. Here’s what to consider.

1. Cattle Breeds Commonly Reared In Your Area

A quick survey around your locality will give you an idea of what cow breeds are common in the area. 

Be sure to check what cows neighboring farms are rearing. If one dairy breed is more common than others, it’s most likely because it’s hardy enough for the prevailing climate in your area.

2. What You Need In a Family Cow

The most obvious reason you’ll want to raise a homestead cow on a small farm is to get fresh milk. I chose to keep cows to produce high-quality unprocessed milk because the probiotics in fermented milk help me manage allergy symptoms. 

Besides milk, you might want a steer each year for meat. American Wagyu cattle are ideal to raise for this purpose because of their excellent feed-to-meat conversion and superior marbling ability on a pasture and grain diet. 

3. Prevailing Trends In The Cattle Market

Studying the cattle market for a few weeks before buying your first cow helps you see what’s trending and what prices you can expect. 

Online cattle markets on platforms like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and Gumtree are a good place to start. You can also check the local cattle market and reputable local farms or cattle breeders. Please avoid buying your cow from a livestock auction as a beginner. 

How To Choose A Family Cow: Top ‘Meaty’ Considerations

Classifying the above three considerations as ‘lean’ doesn’t mean they are less important. No. The factors have to do with you as a family cattle farmer or the suitability of the climate in your area for cattle rearing.

The following five factors qualify as ‘meaty’ because they address the family cow itself. They explore the nitty gritty.

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4. The Cow’s Experience

It sounds funny, maybe, but you must consider the cow’s experience. How long has she been a cow? The three crucial aspects to consider here are her calving, mothering, and milking experiences. 

She must have had her first calf, so she knows what to expect the next time she is in-calf—meaning that you’ll also have an easier time throughout her first gestation period and calving down on your family farm. 

A good homestead cow should be a good mother to her calves. She must be able to nurse them well by letting them suckle freely, keeping them company, and helping them find the best food ideal for their young stomachs.  

If you will be milking your cow by hand rather than using a milking machine, you’ll want to select a cow that has been used to hand milking. 

5. Age Of The Cow

Most cattle live an average of 20-25 years. 10-12 of these years are calf-reproductive years for most cows, meaning that from the time of the first calf when the cow is about two years of age, she can calve down each year for 10-12 years. 

The calf-reproductive years may vary from breed to breed and depending on the breed’s purpose. Most cows kept for commercial milk production retire from producing babies after about 8 calvings. 

Now, you’ll want to buy a cow that has given birth one or two times. Too many calvings mean she will retire early before you’ve probably had enough annual steers or heifers to grow your herd. 

Another crucial aspect related to age is milk production. Cows generally increase milk production with each calving, and you might not know what to do with the excess milk. 

6. Physical Attributes Of The Cow

The saying “what you see is what you get” cuts both ways when it comes to choosing a cow. It can mean well or spell doom for your milk-cow project. 

As a rule, I always say the invisible is visible in the visible. If you only look at the outer features, you might buy a cow that will frustrate you and cost you thousands of dollars in treatments in the long run

The structure and health of the cow you are eyeing must be as discussed below. Anything that’s not in line might be indicative of underlying health problems. 

  • The eyes: Must be clear and bright. Teary eyes or eyes with a discharge might suggest a pinkeye problem.
  • The Hair: Must be smooth, short, and shiny (in summer). Thick hair is okay in winter. Keep away if the cow has hairless patches.
  • The nose: Must be wet and clean. A mucous nose suggests she has a cold or pneumonia. A dry nose or runny nose coupled with coughing suggests advanced sickness. 
  • Her manure: Must be thick like pudding, with a little depression on the topmost surface. If her waste is too solid or runny, run!
  • The legs: All legs must be clean, with evenly-worn hooves. The front legs must be straight. The hocks of the rear legs must be directly above the foot (not off to the side.)
  • The walking style: She won’t be in a beauty contest, yes, but she must walk easily with a smooth stride. Her joints and legs should move easily. The legs must be able to carry her entire weight. A limp might mean she has something like a nail lodged in her foot. 
  • The girth: She must have a big, round belly when you view her from the rear or front. She hasn’t been fed well if she has flat sides. 
  • The topline: Must be straight from the trailhead to the shoulder, not hunched up or valleyed.
  • The udder: Must be clearly divided into four full and functional quarters. Must have a well-divided cleft. Swelling and redness in the udder indicate mastitis.
  • Udder support: The cow’s udder should be up in the cow, not so low that you won’t be able to place a bucket beneath it when milking. Its floor shouldn’t go below the hocks. 
  • The teats: Must point down and have a tiny hole at the lower end. Their skin must be soft. They must also be long, straight, and have reasonably tapered ends. Avoid a cow with chapped skin or teats with cut-off ends.
  • Breathing: Must be slow-paced unless she is panting because it’s too hot or she has been involved in vigorous activity. Ensure she is not coughing. 
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7. The Breed: Crossbred Vs Registered Cattle

The family cow you choose determines how successful (or not) you will be at dairy farming. 

A crossbred cow will be easier to learn and keep as a beginner. Registered cattle are more complicated than crossbreeds, and you might have difficulty learning the cow. Plus, they are pretty expensive. 

The breed will directly determine crucial aspects like temperament, milk production, management needs, hardiness, price, and ease of milking. 

You’ll want a cow with a good disposition or temperament—one that’s easy going, easy to handle, obedient to instructions, and preferably, halter broke. This is in case you’ll need to lead her around a lot to the milking parlor or rotational grazing area.

A calm cow will be easier to manage and to milk by hand. You can test milk the cow or watch her being milked to see how well she behaves.

Different breeds have varying milk output. Prolific milkers like Holstein are also heavy feeders, so you must ensure you have plenty of pasture.

Most homestead dairy farmers look forward to 3-4 milk gallons per day from a grass-fed cow. Some cows, like Holstein, can produce more, even up to 8 gallons. 

Any amount beyond 6 gallons might be too much for a small family, especially if your state doesn’t allow you to sell raw milk directly to consumers. If need be, you can reduce the daily milk production by reducing cow feed, letting the calf suckle freely, or withdrawing grains from the diet. 

Besides the quantity, you must also consider the quality and composition of the milk if you intend to produce homemade dairy products like ice cream, butter, cheese, fermented milk, or yogurt. 

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Most US family cow keepers choose Jersey cows for their high-quality milk (5% butterfat content.) A Jersey cow produces 3-6 gallons of milk per day. Other breeds to consider include:

  • Dexter – 4% butterfat
  • Aberdeen Angus – 4% butterfat
  • Milking Devon – 4-5% butterfat 
  • Guernsey – 4-5% butterfat
  • Ayrshire – 3.9% butterfat
  • Brown Swiss – 4.1% butterfat
  • Milking Shorthorn – 4% butterfat
  • Holstein – Lots of milk (about 2,674 gallons per lactation) with 3.7% butterfat content. 

Also, different breeds have varying levels of hardiness. Checking your locality will tell you which breed is hardy enough for the area. 

How To Care For Family Cows

So you have found the ideal family cow and have brought it home. Better yet – she’s loving that new, fresh pasture!

single cow on farm

Here’s how to take care of her (or them) for optimum milk production and good general health:

  • Provide ample, clean space: Even if you graze your cow on open rangeland, she will still need shelter from the elements like rain, snow, and the sun. The shelter must be clean all the time and free of slipperiness. You must always winterize thef shelter for further protection in the frigid months. 
  • Provide company: Your cow will need company so it doesn’t lead a lonely life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be another cow—one donkey, a goat, or one sheep will do.
  • You can provide good company, too: The cow will enjoy you petting her, talking to her, or simply letting her play with you (she will be happy when you let her be a playful nuisance to you!)
  • Feed the cow appropriately: Even when she is pasture-fed and can get most of her nutrients from grass, you can complement her food with mineral salt, clean water, kelp, wheat, oats, corn, barley, soybean meal, and cottonseed cake. 
  • Keep flies away: Flies will naturally come near cows because of the manure. Ensure you regularly control them to reduce the disturbance they cause to you and your cow.
  • Treat your cow promptly: Ensure you have a reliable vet to call upon if you can’t treat your cow yourself if she falls sick.
  • Keep records: Some important cow records include health records, artificial insemination or bull breeding records, calvings, treatments, and milk production. You could also keep a fun diary about your cow!
  • Stick to a routine: We can’t emphasize this enough. Cows are routine farm animals; they respond well and perform better if you stick to a routine. You must maintain a routine for feeding time, food amounts, and, most importantly, milking times.
  • The cow must have enough rest: This is important to thoroughly chew the cud and make milk. You should milk your cow twice a day for 10 months a year. If she is in-calf, milk her twice a day up to the 7th month and dry her the last 2 months of the 9-month gestation period.

Closing Thoughts

It’s not enough to simply choose the best dairy cow following the considerations we have explored. Keeping a family cow requires full commitment, so you must be ready to dip into the muck to ensure optimum production and general health. 

If your schedule is too tight, you might consider shelving your plans to get a family cow until you have plenty of time to attend to her. Alternatively, you can train your family members or cattle watchers to help you out. Take your time.


Alex grew up in a rural area with chickens, cows, goats, and rabbits. He has always enjoyed waking up at 6 am to tend to his flock and vegetable garden. He bought his first cow at 25 and named her "104". In 2021, he set up an aquarium and now spends his lazy time watching his fish. He is happiest watching small animals and plants grow big, not to mention writing to share his farm-life experiences.

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