By Jerri Cook – In the course of friendly conversation, people often refer to themselves as species-specific. Some people are cat people or dog people. There are even people who claim the title of reptile people. All these folks and their companion animals can live quite comfortably in urban areas. Even miniature pigs, small goats, chickens, and tiny pot-bellied pigs can get along nicely in the city. But what if you’re a cow person? Even the tiniest breeds of cow need more room than a pet snake. Cow people who live in urban and suburban areas must resign themselves to the reality of their situation, settling for animal companions that adapt well to the space constraints of the urban landscape. However, the underlying reality remains. You can put a tiny cow bell on a Chihuahua named Bossy, but it’s not the same as having your own family cow. That’s why sooner or later, dairy cow people make their way to the country, dreaming of sweet cream and hand-churned butter. Of course, somewhere between establishing a homestead and enjoying the delights of dairy, they’re going to need a dairy cow.
As luck would have it, I happen to know a dairy cow person. He talks about cows constantly from the time he gets up until he goes to sleep. In fact, he’s so cow-oriented that a few years back a group of college kids dubbed him the “Dairy Dude” at an organic conference after he mesmerized them with tales (a couple of them were pretty tall) from the dairy barn. So, when a reader wrote to Countryside asking what she needed to know about cows in order to keep one on her homestead, I went straight to the Dairy Dude, aka my husband, Wayne.
“Hey, the lady wants a cow,” I told him one morning after chores.
“Only one?” He asked between mouthfuls of sausage and hot cereal.
“Yep, just a family cow. Where does she start?”
“Company,” came the reply. “You can’t have a cow if you don’t have company for her. She’ll get depressed, and then what good is she?”
I guess I hadn’t given bovine mental health all that much thought, but there is someone who has, and she’s even more of a cow person than the Dairy Dude.
On This Farm, She Had a Cow
Dr. Temple Grandin is an unlikely cow person. Born in Boston, and diagnosed with autism as a toddler, she hardly fits the profile of a bovine aficionado, but that’s what she is. Dr. Grandin has discovered that animals communicate in the same manner as people with autism—through pictures. In Animals in Translation, she describes words as being a second language to people with autism, making the claim that images are the primary trigger of powerful emotional responses in animals in the same manner as humans with autism. Her research has led to worldwide recognition and earned her the respect of animal and human behavioral experts. In fact, her struggles and triumphs with autism have been chronicled in a film by HBO titled Temple Grandin: Thinking in Pictures. I wanted to know what she thought about the notion that a family dairy cow needs company, so I contacted her at her office in Colorado.
“If you’re going to bring a cow that is accustomed to having other cows around onto a homestead where she’s the only animal, you’re going to have behavioral issues,” she told me. “The animal will become depressed, and could become ill as a result. It’s best to have at least one other mature companion animal like a steer, or another cow or a dairy goat or sheep. The key is that the companion animals are mature. Bringing a grown cow onto a homestead with young stock could result in the cow becoming aggressive with the other animals.”
Wayne urges homesteaders who are considering buying a cow that is close to freshening (giving birth) to introduce her to her new home at least two weeks before she is due, allowing her to become familiar with other animals in the barnyard.
You also don’t want to bring a cow or calf onto a property where its only companions are human. Over time, the cow might reject contact with other animals completely or become aggressive towards people because it believes humans are just another animal. “We want them to think of us as benevolent superior beings,” says Dr. Grandin, “not one of the herd.”
If you don’t have companions for the family cow on the homestead, both Dr. Grandin and Wayne suggest buying two weaned-heifers, and raising them together. “The best company for a cow is another cow,” says Wayne. Both also urge cow people to keep in mind that raising two heifers together will result in a bond between them, and trying to separate them later could have behavioral and health consequences for the animals.
While a heifer calf will be a companion for the cow for a while, Wayne warns, “If you let a bull calf serve as a companion animal, you’re probably going to have trouble killing it and eating it. So you’re stuck with an animal that eats, but doesn’t produce anything other than some manure. If the cow has a heifer, then at least you can have that one bred down the line, but if it’s a bull calf, you’re better off shipping it if you don’t think you can eat it. And if you want to keep a bull calf to raise for meat, never, ever give it a name. Just call it beefer.”
How Now, Brown Cow?
Once the companion conundrum has been solved, the next step is to decide on what kind of cow to raise. The breed is an important consideration when contemplating buying a family cow. There are temperaments and personalities that must be properly matched in order to maintain peace on the homestead.
Like every other species on Earth, cows come in all sorts of sizes and temperaments, and some are just not suited for a small homestead. Tom Oberhaus, National Director of the Brown Swiss Association, advises people to choose smaller animals if they are looking for a family dairy cow. “Brown Swiss give way too much milk for just one family. Even if they made loads of cheese, they would still have too much.” Tom believes that Brown Swiss are the best choice for small-scale producers who want to ship milk to a processor. “They’re easy to handle and give a lot of milk, but they also require a fair amount of food. You need more land for a Brown Swiss than a smaller cow.”
Holsteins, a large breed that has been genetically manipulated to produce large animals that milk well on corn and hormones, are also a poor choice for a family cow. “Holsteins are just too big for a small-acreage homestead,” explains Wayne. “They’ll eat you out of house and home in a hurry, and they’re not the best grazers in the world either. And they’re not very good conversationalists. I like raising Jersey cows and Milking Shorthorns (the smaller dairy cow breeds)—they’ve got plenty of personality, but there are quite a few good heritage breeds out there that deserve a look.” The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) agrees.
Like other species on Earth, some cow breeds have joined the ranks of the threatened and endangered. While giant agribusiness has been busy re-engineering the Holstein, other breeds have been ignored to the point of extinction. The ALBC lists nine heritage breeds as critically endangered and one as threatened:
• White Park: With a breeding population of only 50 in the United States, this breed that once wandered the myth-inspiring forests of the British Isles more than 2,000 years ago is one toe over the extinction line.
• Canadienne: Nearly decimated by the commercial preference for Holsteins, this breed that originated near Quebec is found only sporadically in Canada and rarely in the United States.
• Dutch Belted: Featured in P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus, this breed was nearly wiped-out in the United States during the herd-reduction efforts in the 1980s.
• Florida Cracker: A heat-tolerant breed brought to the Americas by Spanish settlers in the 1500s, this horned-breed is one of the smallest heritage breeds with cows weighing around 600 lbs.
• Milking Shorthorn: While there are several thousand of this breed, the ALBC is concerned at the rapid decrease in their numbers, which has been directly linked to the bio-engineering of breeds for commercial milk-production. If the crossing of this breed continues, the Milking Shorthorn will disappear from the United States in the next few years. The ALBC gives pure American strains of this breed top conservation priority.
• Kerry: If this breed is to survive for another generation, then it will certainly need the famed luck of the Irish. Originating in Ireland, this breed is exceedingly rare in the United States, which worries the ALBC. They would like to see more of this breed outside of Ireland and the UK to preserve the genes in case of a localized disaster.
• Milking Devon: This heritage breed made the trip with the pilgrims, and at one time was the preferred breed for both milk and meat, but like other breeds, they were left to flounder as Holsteins proved more genetically pliable.
• Pineywoods: Only 1,500-2,000 of this breed remain in the world. Introduced to the Southeast United States by Spanish explorers, this hardworking, multi-purpose breed also stands on the brink of extinction because of commercial cross-breeding.
• Randall Lineback: Named after a family in Vermont who worked diligently to preserve them, this breed has all but disappeared. After Everett Randall died, his herd, the last one in America that hadn’t been crossed with Holsteins, was dispersed and nearly lost forever. The ALBC has saved a handful of the Randall herd, and is working with interested people to keep this breed alive.
• Red Poll: While not on the critical list, this breed is on the threatened list, and will surely join the others on the edge of genetic death if their numbers don’t increase. Once considered a proficient milk producer, this breed was pushed aside in favor of genetically manipulated Holsteins.
Homesteaders on small acreages are keeping these breeds alive. And while some might wonder at the buried irony here—one endangered species trying to save another—in reality, homesteaders are the keepers of traditions, and heritage breeds have helped to form those traditions. It’s a perfect fit. Homesteaders who are thinking about raising a family dairy cow are encouraged to contact the ALBC at 919-542-5704 or visit their website at www.albc-usa.org.
The Cow Jumped Over the Moon
The choice of breeds will vary from one homestead to another depending on many factors including available acreage and climate. While one acre per cow is a recognized rule of thumb, it’s not always correct. You could easily raise two Florida Crackers on one productive acre in parts of the South. The key is proper pasture management for the available acreage, the size of the animal, and location.
Pastures are the main source of food for most family dairy cows. It’s also where dairy cows spend most of their time. The most productive pastures are those that supply high-quality forage as well as comfort and safety for cows. If you want to have food for a cow, you’ll have to feed your pasture first. While pasture management doesn’t require a huge investment in equipment or chemical inputs, it does require a consistent effort. For an introduction to pasture care for small producers, read “Out to Pasture” in the September/October 2009 issue of Countryside.
For most dairy cow keepers, fencing is must. The good news is that a row of polywire connected to a solar-powered fencer is really all that is required. As long as there is grass in the pasture or hay in the feeder, cows won’t wander far. The bad news is that keeping weeds off the hot wire is critical, especially when using a solar-powered fencer. A stray weed or two won’t cause much harm, but if too many unruly weeds grow onto the wire, it will cause the fencer not to work properly or not work at all.
To build a simple electric fence for a one-acre pasture you will need:
• 24 T-posts
• 96 ft. of 2-inch PVC piping
• 48-50 fiberglass posts
• 1 roll (1,320 ft.) of 6-strand polywire
• 1 gate connector (minimum)
• a fencer
Using a post-pounder, sledge hammer, or big rock, drive the T-posts into the ground at 50-foot intervals. Cover each T-post with a four-foot-long piece of PVC piping. Place two fiberglass posts between each covered T-post and start stringing the wire. One row is fine for one or two cows, but won’t contain a herd. Wrap the wire around each post, add the gate connector, and then connect the wire to the fencer, following the directions that came with it. Depending on where you live, this simple fence will run about $300, including a quality fencer.
Of course, you don’t need a fence of any kind. You could always tie a small dairy cow to a tree and let them graze. However, Wayne cautions, “It’s only an option if someone is around all day. Otherwise, she (the cow) could get wrapped around the tree or post and choke. She would also have to be moved at least once a day, maybe more. But a rope is a lot cheaper than a fence.”
Wayne also points out that tethering a dairy cow means she can’t run away from predators, so you shouldn’t tie her up where you can’t see her.
Originally published in the May/June 2010 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.