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How to Choose Cows for a Micro or Small Herd Dairy

Apr 05, 2016

By Steve Judge

In a previous blog post, I made it perfectly clear that I believe Jersey cows are the best breed of cow for a micro dairy.  However, that is my opinion.  Other breeds will work as well, even Holsteins, if you must.

What is more important than the breed you choose is the health, temperament and history of the individual cow you select.  In a micro or a small herd dairy the cows should be easily handled, relaxed around people and not kick when they are milked.  

Chances are those cows will be visited and milk by inexperienced visitors or hired help and they can’t be dangerous or difficult to handle in any way.   Let me add here that people usually sell cows for a reason.  If you are buying a cow from someone you aren’t well acquainted with, ask yourself, “Why is this cow being sold?”  There is always a reason.  I prefer to buy cows from local farmer friends who routinely sell cows and bred heifers to control their herd size.

Determining if a cow is healthy is essential.  It is critical to have the cow tested for all common bovine diseases.  Don’t stop at the tests your state requires.  Also, test for Johne’s and Leucosis (BLV) because it is now assumed that both diseases can be spread to humans by milk and blood, as well as potentially being fatal for cows. Most farmers are unaware of the seriousness of these diseases and rarely test their cows for it.  The infection rate in the U.S. for bovine disease and BLV both is well over 50%.   In addition, have the cow’s milk tested for Staph Mastitis.  If the cow is dry, squeeze a small amount of milk out and have it tested.  Staph Aureus mastitis is highly contagious and it is incurable.   If a cow gets infected, she has it for life. 

A good rule to remember regarding temperament is to never buy a cow you haven’t put your hands on.  Foolishly, however, I seem to keep breaking my rule and end up regretting it.  You should spend time with the cow and notice if she is relaxed or tense.  After a few minutes you should be able to approach her and put your hands on her without her fussing or backing away.  Kneel down beside and feel her udder.  She shouldn’t object.  She may show a little annoyance, which may be okay, but if she kicks out and tries to hurt you look for another cow. 

Like people, every cow has its own personality.  Know the cow’s personality before you buy it.  Know the cow’s history as well.  If you have a tie barn and the cows are going to sleep in their stalls and drink out of water bowls, make sure the cow you are considering has previous experience in a tie stall, or expect a rough transition.  If the cow has only been in loose housing, the move to a tie barn can be stressful and even dangerous for both you and the animal.  I am not saying it can’t be done, but you need to be aware of the any potential problems.

Last summer, I bought a very nice Jersey that had only experienced loose housing.  Her one saving grace was that she didn’t kick when I milked her. Though she has a good temperament, she wasn’t used to human contact and didn’t welcome my touch.  She couldn’t use a water bowl and she had difficulty getting up in her stall because she lunged forward too far and bruised her brisket.  I had to cut the curb down to give her more room.  I also had to water her by hand for more than a month until she finally figured out the water bowl.  Now she is well adjusted and welcomes my touch, most of the time.  She is a good cow.  But, the transition was difficult and did add excess time to my daily chores.

You should also know what sort of fencing the cow respects.   I use electrified poly-wire.  This isn’t a barrier fence like barbed wire or woven wire fencing.   If a cow doesn’t respect the barrier, they may go right through it. 

My farm is located in a little village with close neighbors, railroad tracks and a busy state road.  The idea of having a cow on the loose here scares the heck out of me.   I keep my fences well charged and, in turn, my cows respect the barrier.  Remember, when you introduce new cows to a small herd, it will take some time for them to develop a bond with one another.  The older cows will see the new cow as a stranger, and the new cow will be looking for its old buddies.  Like cats, its best to give them some time to adjust to one another before you turn them out together. 

Years ago, I brought one of my cows to a nearby 40-cow Jersey farm to be baby sat while I worked on my barn.  The farmer immediately turned her out with his herd in the barnyard and the other cows ganged up on her and broke her hind leg.  In the end, a well-mannered cow had to be put down. 

Regarding temperament, my rule is to never buy what I haven’t yet put my hands on.  Foolishly, I seem to keep breaking my rule and end up regretting it.  You should spend time with the cow and notice if she is relaxed or tense. After a few minutes you should be able to approach her and put your hands on her without her fussing or backing away. Kneel down beside the cow and feel her udder. She shouldn’t object.  The cow may show a little annoyance, which could be okay, but if she kicks out and tries to hurt you then look for another cow. Just like people, every cow has its own personality.  Be well-acquainted with the cow’s personality before you purchase anything.

There’s a lot to think about when choosing the right cow for a small herd or micro-dairy, but it is worth taking the time needed to select a cow that will best fit you and your farm.

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