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Keeping a family milk cow or having a home dairy on the homestead is something I've long considered. Grass fed organic raw milk at he store is hard to come by… and you're also paying more for all that wonderfulness.
Dreams of cream, farmers cheese, cream cheese, buttermilk, glass jars of creamy white milk lined up on the counter all from my own barnyard… yeah, this is the stuff a homesteaders dream is made of.
But, we've not yet embarked on this venture. We do raise all of our own meat but milking a family cow and committing to doing it every day has held me back.
Which is why I brought on Jill Winger of The Prairie Homestead to ask her all my burning questions of having a milk cow.
Jill is also one of the presenters in the Modern Homesteading Summit, a completely FREE event starting Sunday June 10th, to catch over 27 homestead presentations click here to learn more
Listen below to, Keeping a Family Milk Cow- 8 Things You Need to Know, Episode #144 of the Pioneering Today Podcast,where we teach families how to grow, preserve and cook their own food using old-fashioned skill sets and wisdom to create a natural self-sufficient home, with, or without, the homestead.
Jill: It really depends partially on the animal, but it depends on your milking schedule, which I think that is a really important aspect to take into consideration when you are dreaming about this home dairy idea.
I call my milking method the “lazy” method. There's this idea that oh my gosh, if you have a dairy animal you can never leave your house, and you're doing chores without fail, twice a day, and it's just brutal.
The more traditional pattern is where you have your dairy animal, they have their baby, you take the baby away, feed it a bottle and then you milk twice a day for the rest of your life.
But, we have to, what I call “share milking”. When we share milk, we leave the baby, whether it's a goat or a calf, on the mom for 12 hours.
They go out in the day and they graze and then they play in the sun. And then at night, we will put the baby in a pen with some hay and water bucket.
The udder will fill up overnight, and then we go out first thing in the morning and milk. The baby goes back with the mom for the rest of the day.
If you use the share milking plan, you're only going to be milking one time a day, you'll only have half of the commitment that you would have had prior. I'm telling you all this story in a round of a way to answer your question about how much.
If we're milking once a day … Like, with our cow we get about one and a half to two gallons per milking. One and a half to two gallons in the morning, and if you are doing it again in the evening, it would be another one and a half to two gallons. You're looking at three to four gallons a day, I think, from your average cow.
Melissa: That's a lot of milk.
Melissa: When they first calve, when that baby is a newborn, do you immediately start this, or do you give them like say two weeks, three weeks, where they're with mom 24/7 nursing before you start doing the share milking? What's that timeline like?
Jill: I leave them together for about two weeks just to give the baby and the mom time to bond. The other thing is you want the colostrum to come in and then kind of flush out. The colostrum, for those of you who aren't familiar, is the first milk, and it's really sticky and thick, and really golden yellow.
It contains all the good stuff that that calf needs, and it's not as yummy for humans to drink. You can drink it, it's just not as good. Most people skip the colostrum. It will be gone in a few days, but I like to make sure they get all the colostrum, they have lots of bonding time, and then about two weeks later I'll start the share milking process.
Melissa: Do you notice the calves when they're three to four weeks ago, and then at two months old, is there a big difference in how much milk you're getting, or does it just pretty consistently stay the same?
Jill: I'm trying to remember if I noticed a huge difference. One thing I will mention, and it probably wouldn't be as prevalent in a beef breed, but like with our very mature milk cow … She's, I think, seven or eight this year, which is hard to believe. But her bag is really big. She's had lots of calves, had lots of calves on her, so she has this big udder.
When she has one little newborn calf who's not drinking as much, sometimes I do have to help her out within those first two weeks of afterbirth. She has such as huge quantity, and the calf can't drink that much, and I just don't want her to get mastitis. I will help milk, I don't usually drink it at that point because it's got a lot of colostrum in it.
As far as supply and demand, I guess I haven't noticed a huge difference because the cow really does adjust to what the calf needs. So, if they're drinking a little bit, they'll produce that amount of milk.
Melissa: If I get one and half to two gallons of milk a day, that's a lot. If you start to get backed up, like you're not able to use it all, then do you just … because the calf is on her, then you'll just kind of skip a day and maybe just leave the calf with her 24 hours until you're ready to milk again? Do you do that? Or, do you find that you really do go through that amount of milk that much every single day?
Jill: I like to leave the calf on. Honestly, I'm being transparent here, slightly embarrassing, I haven't milked our cow very much this spring. We've had a lot of traveling, I've been working on a cookbook, I've got a lot of projects, and I've just been I guess, lazy, or maxed out, I don't know what it is. But yeah, you can totally do that.
That is a benefit because I have had periods where we haven't had a calf on and I have been milking solely, just me, and it's tough.
I mean the fridge fills up quickly, and unless you're selling the milk, which that's not legal everywhere, but unless you're selling the milk, or you have a hog that you can give the access to, it's actually a stress to be like, “What do I do with all this milk? I just don't want to dump it out on the ground.”
We can get romanticized versions about anything in life, but especially with homesteading because having your own milk supply, getting to make cheese, that is awesome. But there's a reality side of it. I'm so glad that we're talking about his in real life, the true reality.
Jill: My pattern is I skim the cream pretty much off of everything.
Side note: since we have talked about share milking so much, often with a lot of cows, not all of them, but they're super smart and they know that you're milking them. They're letting their milk down, you're filling your bucket. But they know their calf is in a pen around the corner so they will actually save back what is called “behind milk”.
So, there's “before milk”, like before. And then “behind milk”, like hind leg. So, before and after. They'll save that hind milk back. So, you'll be milking and the udder will feel empty, then you let that calf in with the cow and all of a sudden that next letdown of milk will come and it will have milk dribbling out of it's mouth. But, behind milk has the most cream. It's the richest.
I noticed that I'm share milking, I don't get as much cream as I would if I was milking twice a day. A little bit of a bummer. I'm still getting several inches on each gallon, but not like those eight inch cream lines when there's no calf.
Jill: That's kind of why we were interested in the milk cow in the first place, because I had done a lot of reading and research on raw milk. I decided that I liked the idea of the health benefits it had. At that point in time we lived in Wyoming, and it was very illegal to purchase raw milk.
So it was like, well, milk cow or nothing. Yeah, it's a personal decision. You can get a pasteurizer and go that route if you like. We prefer it raw. I do strain it, we keep it cold, and we keep it clean. So I am very careful with how we handle it, but I really love raw milk. I'm a huge fan.
Melissa: I am too, and we live in Washington State. We can purchase raw milk here. Of course, it is more expensive than the non-pasteurized route, but I would be following in your footsteps when we get our dairy cow, and going raw milk.
Mainly, my father grew up and they didn't have a refrigerator, they didn't have electricity, they had a pump in the kitchen, a hand pump, and an outhouse. That was how my grandma did everything, was with raw milk.
They actually had a little creek, a little water area, dug out into the side of a hill because it stayed cool there. It was kind of like a root cellar, but there was … Actually, kind of a slash between a root cellar and a spring house. That's where they would store the milk. It was a large family, and so they were going through their milk a lot. To hear this special interview with my dad who grew up during the Great Depression go to 17 Self-Sufficiency Tips from the 1940’s & Great Depression Live Interview
Melissa: Everybody, of course, has to do their research. With raw milk, there are risks … you've got to be very clean. Of course, everything has its risk. But I'm with you in going the raw milk route as well as it's not as much, so then you don't have to heat everything, and then wait for it to cool and the re-bottle it, and that type of thing, too.
Jill: Yes, I love that … I like to say, and I'm sure there are limitations on this, but I like to say that raw milk really doesn't go bad, it just changes forms. Which, I'm sure it can go bad eventually, but you know, it's a living food. It's the sweet milk, and then it clabber's, and then you have your whey. And the whey always last in the fridge a long time, so it's just cool how you can just … It just keeps giving and giving. There are just so many options you can do when you do keep it raw.
Melissa: Especially when it's from your own cow because I know with our own animals, I know they're not diseased, they're being taken really good care of. I think when you have a really healthy animal that those risks are lowered a lot more than trying to do raw milk from a commercially raised farm. That's when I would have a concern personally.
Jill: Absolutely. I have people email me questions, “Aren't you scared? Aren't you nervous?” There's risk with anything you put in your mouth. The stories we've heard of fast food chains getting people really sick. There's always a risk.
Melissa: I am so glad that you came on here and we had this conversation because I really feel that doing it that way, the way that you've presented to us, is going to be so much easier than being, like you said, married to the cow.
Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.