Practical Tips For Managing Your Cow Share Program

As promised in my original post entitled "Is Running a Cow Share Program Right for Your Farm or Homestead", I am sharing a few tips that I have learned over the years that I have found helpful.

 Contemplating this post, it became apparent to me that I need to actually break this information into manageable segments.  In this particular post, I will be addressing practical tips to help you manage the program itself. Granted, these  tips may not apply to your situation, but may at least give you some things to consider.  (In future installments to this series, I will address  tips regarding purchasing livestock for a share program,  setting up facilities, and purchasing equipment.)

You will find my points to be candid and realistic, which I believe is necessary for an honest look into whether operating a share program is right for you and your farm.

1.  Label Jars

(I am assuming here that you are using glass jars so that they can be recycled each week.  This saves money in the long run and eliminates the need for plastic.  The glass jars keep the unpasteurized milk fresh longer, as well.)

For years, I refused to label jars and instead used a system of rotating the milk to make sure all share members received fresh milk.  The following reasons are why I eventually gave in and started labeling jars.

a)  I knew that share members were not returning jars, but I had no way of knowing who was returning them and who was not following through.  By labeling the jars, I was aware of those who were not returning their jars each week and could address the issue directly.

b)  Some share members were bringing back dirty jars.  By labeling the jars, I was able to determine who was not washing their jars and could address the problem.  It didn't take long for share members to begin paying attention to the cleanliness of the jars.

c)  Sometimes share members were short on milk at time of pick up.  By labeling jars, other share members couldn't inadvertently or intentionally pick up  milk that didn't belong to them.

d)  In the event someone didn't pick up their milk as planned, the labeled milk could be saved for them for a reasonable amount of time.  With the previous method of rotating milk, even when a share member was late, they received fresh milk.  While this was nice for the share member, it did nothing to discourage people from being late. (Late pick up caused a congestion of jars in the milk refrigerator with not enough room for milk for multiple days.  If you have a large cooler or fewer share members, this may not be an issue with your program.)  With the labeled jars, share members received the milk that was originally poured for them, and this encouraged members to pick up the milk on their designated dates to get the freshest product possible.

e) In the event an emergency situation came up and share members were unable to pick up on their scheduled day, they didn't have to call or text me to let me know.  I was able to see by the labeled jars who had and who had not picked up their milk. (Due to limited refrigerator space, I did have a rule that any milk not picked up by the end of the week was discarded and not replaced.  It was just the share member's loss.) 

2.  Set specific days and hours for milk pick up.

It's very important that you leave nothing to chance.  In the beginning you might find yourself so excited to start a share program that you don't see the need for setting up specific boundaries.  Trust me on this one.  You need to protect your family's private time.  When you operate a business out of your home, it is very difficult to draw the lines, but they need to be drawn.  If your customers really want your product and value what you are doing, they will find a way to work around a reasonable schedule.

I worked with my share members to determine what was the best day for them to pick up.  At times, the farm was only open three days a week.  Later, I went to a five day a week schedule.  I also set specific times when the milk kitchen would be open for share members to get their milk.

You may think that this is being overly controlling, but when you have been operating a share program for years at one farm and running a farm stand at the other farm, you need some time when you are relatively certain that the general public isn't going to just be pulling up to your front door.

This is where I could tell some interesting stories, but I will refrain.  :-)

3.  Insist on payment a month in advance.

Our monthly fees were due at the beginning of each month.  To give everyone time to drop off their payments, I usually waited 7-10 days before recording them.  Mostly, my share members were faithful to get their payments in on time.  I had one share member that required my tracking them down almost every single month. This is time consuming and frustrating. You have every right to terminate share members that simply refuse to get with the program.  This includes those who refuse to pay in a timely manner. 

I placed a share fee/donation box or jar in a prominent location in the milk kitchen.  All payments were to be left in that designated box.  All cash was left at the risk of the share member and had to be in an envelope with their name on it so that I knew who had left the payment.

4.  Establish what areas of your farm and home are off limits.

There are places on every farm that are simply not safe for anyone but the farmer.  You will have to determine what you are comfortable with and what risks you are willing to take.  Accidents happen and equipment and large livestock can be dangerous.  Establishing and enforcing what areas share members can frequent is in the best interest of all involved.

5.  Start small

In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes people make when starting a share program is growing the program too quickly.  I have watched time and time again as share programs have started out big, only to find out their expenses and overhead were greater than their income.  It's honestly hard to make money with a share program.  Consider that the average cost of owning a family cow per year is around $3500.  (This is your expense for keeping the cow, not the cost of the cow itself.)  Then think about your start up costs (barns, milking parlor, fencing, purchase of cow, artificial insemination fees or cost of owning or leasing bull, etc.).  By starting out small with one or two cows, you can offset what it costs you to own a family milk cow and gradually grow your business comfortably.  You can grow your herd with the heifer calves that are born into your herd or you can sell the calves for additional income. 

6.  Don't be afraid to grow and change

As with most any business, it takes a while to pay for start up costs as mentioned above in point number four.  However, don't stagnate.  Use a level head to determine when it's time to grow a larger customer base.  You will need to consider how many animals your facilities and pasture can comfortably accommodate and how much time you have to manage your program.  More animals mean additional income but you have to have the time to milk the extra cows and shovel the manure of extra animals.  At my share program's peak, I managed and milked 12 cows in milk.  This required about six hours a day (as I only had the facilities to milk one cow at a time).  I also seriously maxed out the pasture that we had available.  You have to remember that with 12 cows in milk, I also had 12 calves to manage, feed and pasture.  This period in the share program was my most profitable, but also the most difficult time for me to manage everything.  Eventually I had to make a decision to downsize or move to another facility.  Since I didn't want to pour a lot more money into facilities with the raw milk climate always so controversial, I ended up downsizing to 6-8 cows in milk and keeping my operating costs down.  Each farmer will have to decide how far they want to go with the program and how much time and money they have to invest.  While I advise starting small, growing the business wisely can bring greater income with time. 

7.  Don't advertise

Crazy, huh?  You might not agree with me, and I understand.  However, I chose not to advertise.  In spite of share programs being permissible in my state, I decided I didn't want the public spotlight on me regarding my cow share program.  Even without wanting attention, I still had the local newspaper contact me on several occasions, seeking to feature our program in the paper.  I always politely refused.  Instead, I felt like our fantastic share members were the best judge of who would best fit our program. Once our first few share members were established,  we only admitted new members who were referred by existing members.  This brought the very best folks into the program and saved me a lot of time and money with advertising.  My share members seemed to understand and appreciate a closed group.

8.  Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communicating with your share members is extremely important.  At one point, I had 90 shares going out a week.  (Many families had more than one share, so this did not translate into 90 families but rather 90 shares of milk a week.)  In order to communicate information for a program that large, I set up group email accounts and private yahoo groups to reach the largest amount of people with the least amount of effort.  I strongly encouraged share members to ask questions and make schedule changes via email or texts as it was more manageable for me than trying to answer telephone calls.  I always had a few share members who simply would not or could not communicate via email or text.  To communicate important share information to those who might otherwise miss it, I put a dry erase board on the milk share refrigerator and posted information there in addition to the emails I sent.  The more you communicate with your share members, the more smoothly the program will run. 

9.  Educate

Once you have established a way to communicate effectively with your share group, it is worth your time and effort to educate your share members.  As a farmer, you may take things for granted and assume that everyone has the same knowledge that you do.  Trust me when I say that most people are so far removed from a farming/homesteading life that they may not know the basics.  Examples of some of the topics I covered would be the following:

a)  Why does my milk change to a more yellow color in the spring?
b)  Why does the cream line in my milk change?
c)  What factors affect production?
d)  What does it mean to "dry off" a cow and why is it necessary?

10.  Don't apologize for your fees

It is simply almost impossible for someone to understand the expenses and time involved in the process of providing raw milk, unless the individual has had personals experience.  When farming, one can't even begin to think about being compensated for their time involved.  Farming in many ways is a labor of love.  Figure out what you need to have to make the program worthwhile, set your prices, and then do not apologize.  Yes, there will be people who can't afford to participate.  Yes, there will be people who will complain.  But, by and large, those people who understand the benefits of the product you are providing will be willing to pay for your services.  Time and again, people make sacrifices for what is important to them.  If they are looking to you to give it away, they are not the best fit for your share program.  Pigs and chickens love raw milk and flourish on it and feeding extra milk to them is a great way to cut back on feed costs while providing products for your family.  You can always find resourceful ways to use extra milk.  Make the program worth your while by setting your prices accordingly, or just don't do it.  You never need to apologize for being compensated for your efforts.

10.  Show your appreciation

One simply can't run any business without supporters.  This is especially true of farming and cow shares in particular.  Without my share members, I would not have been able to live out my dreams of having a small, private, dairy herd.  I tried to communicate clearly and often to my share members how much their support meant to me.  I sincerely hope they got that message.

11.  Provide an Open House Opportunity or Classes

I will admit that I wasn't the best at providing opportunities for share members to visit the farm other than to pick up their shares.  However, I always met with anyone who wished to view the animals, see the facilities and ask questions before they started the program.  In addition, I from time to time provided scheduled opportunities for small groups of children to come and visit the baby animals.  One has to consider the liability risk and their farm insurance when taking these types of ventures into consideration but the benefits are great for the creating a working environment between share members and the farmer.

In addition, I did offer a series of classes on making different types of cheese.  For a fee, share members were able to attend, have a meal, meat the animals, tour the facilities, and learn how to make a specific product with their milk.  This gave us all an opportunity to get to know each other better and develop closer friendships.

12.  Consider Operating Seasonally

I operated a share program for almost a decade.  During that time, I carefully planned things so that I always had some cows in milk.  My fear was that if I didn't have a rotational schedule to provide milk twelve months of the year to my share members, then I would lose their support.  When I finally took the plunge and went to a seasonal program, I found that my share members understood my decision and they unanimously supported me in it.  Not only was putting the cows on a schedule where they calved in the Spring and reached peak lactation when the grass was most available the healthiest choice for the cows, but it also allowed me a two month break from milking.  Being off in the winter months meant I could rest and regroup as could the cows.  It was healthier for all of us.  Trust me that after years of operating a share program, you are going to look forward to some down time instead of milking seven days a week, twice a day, year after year.  What is good for the cows and the farmer is good for the share group as a whole.  Good share members understand this.  (This is also where point #9 is so important.  When you take the opportunity to educate your share members, they understand why you are making the decisions you are making.)

13.  Don't be afraid to dam raise your calves

It's possible.  I did it and was passionate about my stance on allowing the mother cows to raise their babies in the herd.  A lot of farmers offering cow shares pull the calves just like big dairies.  I was fortunate to have share members who supported my position and people who even left other share groups to support mine solely because of our position on dam raised calves.

14.  Know when to quit.

I never set out to start a cow share program.  My program began quite by accident.  I simply wanted to milk a cow or two for our own family.  At the time I began sharing milk, it was not as popular a program as it has become in recent years.  It seems now that many with a few acres and a cow are using share programs to help offset their costs.  Many others believe they can find a way to support themselves while staying at home if they run a share program.   For a while, I simply refused to start a share program, but friends, acquaintances and even strangers kept approaching me because at that time there just wasn't anywhere else to get quality, raw milk.  Eventually, because I knew it would offset my costs, I agreed to take on a few folks.  As word spread, the potential for growth was apparent.  (Notice I said the potential for growth, not necessary the potential for a huge profit margin.) Although I enjoyed being able to provide families with nourishing milk, my greatest love was the Jersey cow.  It was my passion for the breed that kept me going when the physical losses broke my heart, when the profit was non existent or marginal, when the cold of winter chilled me to the bones, when the heat of summer sent me to the emergency room from dehydration, when the bull charged me and fractured my fingers, when I  stayed up all night with a laboring cow, when I nursed a dying cow or calf, and when suffered through experiences too numerous to mention. 

After my three grandchildren were born, (the twins first and then the third baby eleven weeks later) and I began to help provide child care for them on a regular basis, it became almost impossible for me to continue the share program. My love for my Jerseys kept me sacrificing for eighteen more months, getting up at 3 am to milk, watching babies all day long, and then milking again when they left.  One morning, completely exhausted, I suddenly realized exhaustion had taken away my joy, I was suffering physically from putting my body under repeated strain, and I no longer had the time or energy to even be cordial to those around me.   A good friend had told me one time, years ago, that I would know when it was time to make a change, because I would no longer love what I was doing.  That morning, in the pre-dawn dark, I cried realizing it was time to make a change.  As much as I love my Jersey girls, I needed to make the necessary changes.

To summarize, the best advice I can give anyone considering a cow share program is the advice I have always given:

Only those who are passionate about spending time with dairy cows and are willing to gamble on actually making money in the process should attempt a cow share program.

Actually, passion and the gamble pretty much defines farming in general.

***I want to take this opportunity to publicly think my awesome share group who supported me as I made mistakes, learned from them, and kept attempting to perfect our share program.  I am thankful they were patient when I was stressed and tired.  I am thankful for their love for the cows, the milk, the farm, and the farmers.  They blessed me by supporting my efforts.*******


Is Running A Cow Share Program Right For Your Farm or Homestead?

 The homesteader with an affinity for dairy cows, often dreams of  being able to make a living with the animals they love.  The question is often asked about the viability of cow share programs.  So, how do you know if running a cow share program is the right choice for you and your farm or homestead?

Let me share a little of my background before sharing my perspective on the question at hand.  When I was a kid, my dad worked for a while on a family owned dairy just down the road from us.  He often told stories of the cows with names and personalities that he milked, and on occasion, my brother and I got to visit the farm. (We lived on a farm with a commercial chicken house and beef cattle at that time but the dairy farm was different.)  As an adult in my late twenties, I came full circle and spent time working on a small, family owned dairy in Alaska.  This only served to encourage my desire to own milk cows of my own.  Almost a decade ago, I married the farmer of my dreams, who just happened to have been a third generation dairy farmer.  (And yes, I did use past tense in that sentence.  Just a couple years prior to meeting me, Mike had sold off the dairy herd and bought beef cattle. ) As a testament of his love for me,  knowing full well the responsibilities of dairy farming, Mike helped me find and buy my very first two Jersey cows.

I never intended on sharing milk with anyone other than our family.  Starting a cow share program  was really the last thing I wanted to do.  At that time, family owned Jersey cows just were not seen much in our area.  On more than one occasion, people would just stop and ask me about them and want to know if I would start a share program.  I always turned everyone down.  It just wasn't something I was interested in doing. Eventually, I began to give into the demand and set up a very small share program with two cows.  By word of mouth, raw milk drinkers started finding me and I kept adding cows and people to the program.  At one point, I had 12 cows in milk.  After nine years of providing milk for share members, we have shut down the program to free up time for our three grandbabies as well as to allow us to focus on other aspects of farming that provide better income possibilities. With the program coming to an end, it seemed like a good time to share my experiences with others who might be considering starting a cow share program

Is Running A Cow Share Program Right For  Your Farm or Homestead?

1.  Have you checked into the legal aspects of running a share program?

The very first thing you must consider if you think you might want to run a cow share program from your farm would be the legalities of such a program.  Different states have different requirements. Some states are more favorable than others regarding raw milk sales.  You are going to have to research the laws in your state and find out if raw milk sales are expressly legal and if they are legal, what requirements must be met to begin selling your cow's milk.  Some states specifically allow share programs, while other states strictly prohibit share programs. Then there are states that do not specify that share programs are legal or illegal.  The very best thing you can do before moving forward with raw milk sales is to contact the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, become a member, and let them help you sort through the legal process.  They will help you determine if raw milk sales are legal in your area and they will help you prepare a contract for your program.  They will also offer legal representation if needed.  

2.  Have you considered the cost?

In my experience, by the time you have considered your expenses for feed, housing, fencing, milking equipment, jars, vet fees and the cow itself, sharing milk with other families does little more than offset your own expenses if you only have a single cow.  This can be an excellent means of letting the cow pay for itself, but one can't expect to really make much of a wage, if any, from running a cow share program with a single cow.

On the other hand, more cows in the program means additional expenses to go along with the additional income.  You have to take all of the expenses into consideration and decide if you can make enough with the share program to make it worth your while to put the effort into doing it.  Really crunch the numbers and put some thought into your expenses versus the amount of money you expect to make.

Over the years, I have watched different individuals start up larger programs only to find out that they must go back to their day jobs, because a share program most of the time doesn't bring in enough money to support a family.  Finding the magic number of cows that adds to the homestead income while not tipping the scales toward debt is a delicate balance.   There are so many variables to consider but one of the biggest concerns is the cost of feeding the cattle.  One of the things that helped me to be able to hang on for so long with our share program, is the fact that we have enough acreage to grow and put up our own hay.

3.  Have you considered your state's attitude toward raw milk and how that can affect your future?

 I always tried to keep in the back of my mind the fact that the state's attitude toward cow share programs could change overnight.  While Virginia does not expressly prohibit cow share programs, neither do the laws provide protection for share programs.  With this in mind,  I never wanted to sink a lot of money into expensive facilities, increase the herd dramatically, or take on a huge number of share members.  To me, it was too much of a gamble.  If you are fortunate enough to live in a state where you can sell raw milk legally from your farm without setting up a cow share program, then you don't have to worry so much about this particular aspect.  If you are in a state that does not expressly provide for raw milk sales or legally endorse share programs, then it really should be a point of consideration.

4.  Do you have the patience to handle persistent, minor annoyances?

I had fantastic share members.  I was truly blessed with people who mostly tried to work with me to see the share program run smoothly.  For the most part, the families who were part of the share program remained thoughtful and respectful of the needs and wishes of the farmer.  However, there are always minor annoyance that tend to grate on our nerves. As the years go by, those little annoyance can seem even more pronounced.  A few simple examples would be members that consistently come late or early to pick up their milk, members who don't pay on time and have to be reminded time and time again, and members who do not return jars and have to be contacted to bring back empty jars. We had issues at times with children who were not being adequately supervised.

Aside from these minor annoyances, there is sense of lost privacy as share members come and go year after year.  You are running a home based business that gives a segment of the public access to a portion of your life.

5.  Are you assertive enough to address major concerns?

Dealing with the day in and day out minor annoyances require patience but dealing with major problems requires assertiveness.  It's important to know that you have the strength to handle situations that might arise that need definite action.  Individuals who don't abide by the share contracts must be confronted.  Parents must be notified when children escape their supervision and put themselves in harms way.  Misunderstandings sometimes occur and these situations must be handled wisely and directly.


As our share program ends, I have asked myself if I would do it all over again now that I have the wisdom of almost a decade behind me.  Honestly, there are times I ask myself that question and don't hesitate to answer yes.  Then, there are times when I think there is absolutely no way that I would ever make the choice to run a share program again.  I think I am tired now. and when I look back in retrospect and consider that amount of work I put into the program, the minimal amount of money I made compared to the hours I contributed, as well as the physical toll the labor has taken on my body over the years, I don't know that it was the best thing for me from a practical perspective.  Yet, there is that pull....... that call to be with the cows that I love so much.......... and I don't regret the time I was able to spend doing what I loved.

Put simply, if you are looking to make a living by running a share program, it's probably not going to happen.  However, if you are looking to supplement your income or offset the costs of providing milk for your family, a share program can be a rewarding experience.

You might find the following post helpful as well:  Practical Tips For Managing Your Cow Share Program

The opinions in this post are based on my experience.  Everyone has unique perspectives and you may find by talking to others who have had share programs that their perspective is different.  Educate yourself . talk to as many people as possible with actual experience, and then make your decisions regarding what is best for your farm. 


What About Leasing A Bull?

Every homestead with cattle will fall into one of two categories:  those with a bull and those without.
Those without a bull can either artificially inseminate or they can lease a bull.  For some, the choice of artificial insemination (referred to as AI) offers them options in genetics to which they would otherwise not have access.  To individuals fortunate enough to have the experience to AI their own cattle or who have a certified AI tech who can perform the task, artificial insemination is definitely the best choice.  Occasionally there will be cows that just won't breed via artificial insemination, and then there are individuals who simply don't live in proximity to a certified AI tech.  In these instances, live cover is the only viable option.  This essay is intended to help the reader work through some considerations to determine if leasing a bull is the right choice for your farm or homestead, or if leasing your bull out to other farms is a viable option for you,  depending on what side of the situation you find yourself.  

1.  Have you considered bio security issues?   

  Have you put forth the effort to buy animals that are healthy and free of disease?  Do you maintain a "closed herd" so that you do not  unknowingly introduce new animals that might bring temporary or permanent illness or disease to your cattle?  

If you are proactive in regard to keeping a healthy herd, you will want to make sure that the bull you are leasing is healthy and disease free.  Likewise, if you are the lessee, it would be wise to have documentation to the health of the cows being serviced. 

2.  Have you considered the possibility of injury or destruction to property?

Let's face it.  A bull is a bull.  No matter how docile a bull may appear, and although he may have never given the owner any trouble previously, there is always the potential for things to get out of hand.  Introducing new animals to each other can  at the very least test the patience of farmers. At the very worst, a bull can be destructive to property and dangerous to individuals with whom they come in contact.  Almost without exception, when new herds are formed (even temporarily, as would be the case with combining herds for breeding purposes) there is a shuffle for hierarchy.  While this is not a big deal to a seasoned farmer, it is something to consider if one is not use to it.  There will be some struggles, some shoving, some pushing, some riding, and the bull will most likely be very territorial in trying to establish himself as may some of the cows.  In all of this, fences may be tested, watering troughs may be head butted and flipped over (or pushed through fences),  and gates make take some strain.  Fences and facilities must be strong enough to keep a bull in his place.  

In addition, on rare occasions, animals can be injured during the act of breeding or during times of establishing dominance within the herd.  

3.  Have you considered maintenance of visiting cattle?

Something else to keep in mind is maintenance of the visiting cattle.  Regardless of if the bull is visiting off the farm, or  neighbor's cows are being brought onto your farm for breeding, the health and welfare of those animals will be the responsibility of the individual housing them during the time of breeding.  We don't all take care of our animals in the same manner, and one must be very confident that their animals will be cared for well when they are visiting other farms.  It takes additional resources to care for additional animals.  Sounds basic but it's something that should not be overlooked when giving consideration to whether the leasing of a bull (or leasing out a bull) is the right thing for your farm. In addition to the animal's nutritional and physical needs, will those animals be handled in such a manner as to respect your personal preferences.  For instance, if you are strictly "hands off" in regard to your bull and have a bull that you have raised to be respectful of humans, you would not want to send that bull to a farm where they might do anything to compromise the bull's flight zone.  You also would not want to send him to a home where using cattle prods on a good , compliant  bull could totally change his disposition toward humans.  I have seen otherwise good bulls ruined by people who insist on shocking them, hitting them, or intimidating them unnecessarily.  In these cases, the bull you send away, may  not be the bull that returns home to you.  If you are an individual leasing a bull, it is important that you are willing and capable of abiding by the owner's wishes in regard to his care if his housed at your farm.  

4.  Are you prepared to make and sign a contract?

Contracts are especially important.  Even if you feel that the person you are doing business with is your best friend, things can turn ugly quickly. The best way to avoid serious conflict is to have a contract in place that spells out exactly what is expected by both parties.  The length of days the visiting animal(s) will remain, cost for stud service, cost for feeding and housing (by day, week or month), and whether the lease guarantees a positive breeding (or is expected regardless of whether the cow gets bred or not) are just a few things to consider in a contract.  If your animal is registered, you need to specifically discuss if the owner is willing to sign off on registration for calves born to registered stock.  You might want to consider a clause that exempts you from liability if any visiting animal(s) becomes sick or injured while at your farm.  

5.  Have you considered if your farm insurance will cover you in the event you are sued for damage should some unfortunate event occur.  

None of us want to think that the worse will happen, but the best thing to do is to make sure that you are covered in the event it does.  

Leasing a bull should never be done without educating one's self fully, understanding that there is always a risk involved, and preparing legally to protect yourself in the event things get out of hand.  I am sure there are other things to consider that I have not mentioned, but this list is a good place to start.  While I have highlighted a number of risks, with proper forethought and management, leased bulls can be a benefit to both the leaser and the lessee.  The leaser is able to breed cows that they might otherwise have difficulty breeding and the lessee is able to offset her cost in owning a bull.  Only you as an individual can carefully consider the pros and cons and decide if leasing a bull is the right option for you and your farm.  


Preserving Fresh Milk

 The first winter I had my first two dairy cows, I dried them both off at the same time and I canned and froze milk for the dry period.  Then for about six or seven years, I continuously had lactating cows and did not need to find ways to preserve milk.  Last winter when we went seasonal with the herd, I froze all the milk needed for the dry period.  This year, as I get ready to dry the herd off again, I decided to both freeze and can milk due to my limited freezer space.

Now, before getting too excited about canning milk, I must warn the reader that according to some sources, the USDA does not recommend canning milk at all.  Then, there are some sources that seem to feel the USDA approves only of pressure canning milk.  You will have to research the information and decide for yourself what you feel comfortable with for your family.  Here is a link to  Perky Prepping Grandma where the author gives her reasons along with documentation as to why she feels that pressure canned milk is safe.  She also provides a link there to the process for pressure canning milk.  In addition, here is a link to Mary Jane Toth's instructions for pressure canned milk along with her advice and recommendations regarding the subject.  Mary Jane is author of two books on cheese making and milking dairy goats and she and her family operate Hoegger Dairy Supply.

In spite of the warnings, there are a number of family cow owners who still can their milk the old fashioned way in a hot water bath canner.  I am not recommending that this method is for you and your family due to the strong warnings from the USDA against it but provide it here as a historical reference if nothing else.  Back in the day before Google and the internet, I looked Carla Emery's book THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COUNTRY LIVING to guide me in my quest for homesteading and farming information. I am summarizing  Carla's recipe for hot water bath canning and including my personal notes:

*Fill your clean, sterilized jars with fresh milk from the cow after straining, leaving about one half an inch head space. (You don't want to pour cold milk into the jars and put them into the hot water as the jars will bust.  If you use older milk, it can actually curdle while being processed.  It's best to use milk straight from the cow fresh.  In the event you don't have that option, I suggest heating your milk to at least 100 degrees before pouring in your jars.)

*Wipe rims clean and place lids and rings on jars and screw down finger tight.

*Place jars in hot water bath canner with jars submerged about 1 inch under water.

*Heat to a gentle, rolling boil and then process for 60 minutes.

*Remove from boiling water carefully, making sure they have all sealed before storing.  Be sure to date your jars so that you know how long they have been stored as you use them.  Six months is recommended, but I have used them up to a year later.    

When milk is processed, it does change color and the flavor is greatly affected.  The closest thing that I can compare it to would be the canned, evaporated milk that you would buy in the grocery store.  I only use my canned milk for cooking things such as baked good, gravy or puddings.  When used in recipes, it is wonderful but isn't really the best for drinking.

The best way to preserve milk for drinking is to store your fresh milk in freezer safe containers or bags and store in the freezer.  Frozen milk is best used within six months.  A lot of people are put off by the texture of frozen milk and if that is something that is of a concern to your family, you can warm your milk up to body temperature (99-101 degrees approximately) and stir vigorously.  This will give the milk more of the texture that you are use to when drinking.


A Historical Account from a Journal Entry Dated 1950

The following is an actual journal entry that includes in it's story, Mike's grandfather, Boyd Cupp.  I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Mr. Cupp and how he cared for his farm and animals.  Boyd Cupp milked Guernsey cows on his farm and also had a non paying position as a lay minister with the local Church of the Brethren community.  The farm mentioned is where Mike's mother still lives and the farm that we rent in addition to the 50 acres we have where our house is built.  

April 1, 1950

The week before Easter, a friend sent M money to buy a calf to raise as a family cow.  Fletch took M to get the calf this evening.  It was dusk when they got back, M and the calf crouching in the open trunk, their heads looking out together at the twilight and the radiant excited faces of L, K, G and M who had come whoopping when they saw the car coming up the lane.

A and the kids had been busy that afternoon in the straw shed making a pen of saplings and cardboard cartons.  "That wonderful Mr. Cupp," M said, "wants us to make a good start.  He says we are right to buy a calf.  A good beginning.  And to wish us luck, he sold the calf to us for $20 instead of $30.  How he loves each cow in his herd.  And how he knows them!  Whose grandmother, whose daughter is each one.  And how he feeds them!  Such a fat farm!

The calf was established in it's pen in the straw shed, and all evening, M or one of the children was there, talking to her, fussing around so she wouldn't be lonely.

April 4 or 5, 1950

"I don't think the calf is doing so good," M said after the first few days.  "she is too quiet.  She doesn't have the joie de vivre.  She doesn't run or jump in the air.  She is too quiet.  Not good."

At first we thought M was too sensitive.  The calf ate.  Didn't have scours.  Perhaps she hadn't a lively temperament.  She lay in the sun, played with the children.  But M was worried that if anything happened to her first calf, she would lose her nerve.  It would be a bad sign.  We reminded her that all spring calves had had their troubles, and all spring, Doc Berry had been giving shots for colds, pills for scours.  Some calf always in trouble or just out of it.  M had been anxious over each one, and Madame had cried havoc and wolf-wolf so often in the kitchen that I was mildly fed up with the pessimism.  All the calves had recovered.  Why worry because this one was quiet?

Then one morning M knocked on the West Room door, as she always did, and came in and asked me to call the vet, Doc Berry.  "It is silly, I think, to spend $20, on a calf and not to spend another $2.50 on a vet when it is sick.  Something is wrong.  I don't know what she has, but she doesn't eat good."


So Doc Berry came and gave a shot to M's calf and to one of ours, said they probably both had colds, and to call him if they weren't better in 48 hours.  Everyone feels considerably cheered and M is pampering the calf with a little more hope.

"I do for the calf simply what I would do for a small child who is sick.  The rice water for the tender stomach, the coffee for blood and spirit."

All day she had been running from house to barn with rice water and coffee.  Sometimes, of course, the rice on the stove was forgotten, boiled over and burned.  There were cries of distress and Madame would appear on the gallery, wringing her hands.

But in spite of Doc Berry's shot and the rice water and coffee, the calf grew weaker.  It got to it's feet only with urging.  Thursday night, about ten o'clock, M came to the West Room door.

"Dear lady, I  know I am mad, but what is there to do about it?  I must live with my madness.  I think the calf will die unless Doc Berry can do something.  Will you do me the favor to call and ask him to come now?  I am afraid to wait until the morning.  I think it will be too late.  If I am mad, I am mad - nothing to do."

I called Doc Berry again, who in his horse croaking voice agreed to come right over.  M went up to the barn to wait for him, and soon afterwards, I heard his car.  When he had gone, she came down to the house.

"It is bad.  He says the calf has the bloody scours.  They nearly always die.  Now and  then one lives.  It is possible.  He has given me pills - sulfa, I think - to give every four hours, night and day.  If the calf lives another 48 hours, it may get well.  He says the rice water is good.  The coffee is good."

At about four in the morning, I wakened, hearing M's steps on the porch.  The calf still lived.  Perhaps it would pull through.  I slept again, dreaming it was miraculously recovered.


Today the house is deep in gloom.  The calf still lived but can no longer stand.  M was constantly at the barn.  Madame was full of sorrow for the young thing that must die and for the ill omen of this first venture.  We kept assuring each other that it was, after all, only a calf, but when M asked late Friday evening for the spirits of ammonia, K dashed frantically off to town, and even A got up in the night to give the calf it's pills.  But it died.

I had heard M or A up in the night at twelve and again at four, and thought surely the miracle has happened.

"And so it seemed to have, " M told me.  "When I went to the barn at four, the calf was standing!  It's ears were up, it looked bright, curious, well again!  And it drank all the rice water.  I threw my arms around it, and went back to bed, full of joy that the calf had recovered.  But at seven, it was dead."

After all the tender care and affection, dead.  Saturday morning, A dug a deep grave in the garden.  When he had finished, he went to the wall of the straw shed and removed some of the weather boarding.  Together, he and M lowered the calf into some burlap and carried it to the grave so as not to contaminate the barn yard.

(You may like to hear a good sequel to the unhappy calf story.  Mr Cupp, the full time dairy- man and part-time preacher who sold M her calf, insisted that he either give her another or return her money.  She felt that such generosity must be accepted and so she has another calf - a pretty little thing which has been from the start, she says, more lively and happy than the other.  In spite of the heartbreak over the first and anxiety over the second, M sought words the other day to tell Fletch that "life in America is an idyll - everyone is so kind, so gentle, so tender.  A man like Mr Cupp - so practical a man, with so beautiful a farm, to have the idee to give me another calf.  Mostly in life, the ones have have so generous a wish have nothing and those who could give, have not the wish.  Mr Cupp is a beautiful man.")


I love written words almost as much as I love cows and it was a pure delight to me when my dear father-in-law (now deceased) shared with me a hand typed copy of a journal.   I can still see the delight and anticipation shining in his eyes as he handed the paper to me to read.  I can't remember who actually gave Marcus the journal entry, but I believe it was a member of the Collins family.  The journal entries were said to have been  written by Margaret, wife of  Fletcher Collins.  Professor Collins, a neighbor of the Cupp Family was a " legendary professor emeritus of theater at Mary Baldwin College, was designated Cultural Laureate of Virginia, and established the Oak Grove Theaterthe secluded woodland stage he created with his wife, Margaret, which has nurtured countless actors and booked sold out perfomrances for decades: according to the information given by Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, VA.  To his wife, family and friends, he was simply known as "Fletch".

Just as a point of interest, although my notes are incomplete, the journal mentions Margaret being away for four days and returning with their new baby.  The dates of the journal coincide with the date of birth I uncovered for Margaret and Fletcher's  very well known son, Francis Sellers Collins.  Francis was born April 14, 1950 and is a physician geneticist noted for his discovery of disease genes and his leadership in the Human Genome Project.  He is currently the director of National Institutes of Health in Maryland.  

 The family interacting with the Collins Family in this particular story were Latvian immigrants who had found a place of refuge on the Collin's farm.  I believe my father-in-law told me that the Collin's opened their home to them.  It appears that the "Madame" must have assisted Mrs. Collins with helping in the main house.  I copied the journal as it was written with the exception of leaving out the full names of the Latvian family for the sake of privacy. 


Where Have All the Farmers Gone?

Are farmers at risk of becoming extinct?  Possibly to some extent.  While there are many reasons for the decline in agriculture as the chosen profession for today's younger adults, the fact remains that we may very well see a time when the majority of our farmers pass on and there are not enough younger farmers to take their place.

According to the Start2Farm.gov, a service of the National Agricultural Library (USDA):

"“We have an aging farming population. If left unchecked, this could threaten our ability to produce the food we need – and also result in the loss of tens of thousands of acres of working lands that we rely on to clean our air and water.” – Secretary Vilsack, August 12 Opening Comments to the Drake Forum on America’s New Farmers.

The average age of a farmer today in America is 57 years of age. Five years ago it was 55. We have had an increase of 30% of the farmers over the age of 75 and a decrease in the number of farmers under the age of 25 by 20%."
This subject happens to be one close to my heart.  My husband, Mike is a third generation farmer, is 54 years old and I am 47 years old.  None of our children or any of our nieces and nephews have chosen to pursue farming as an occupation.  Unless some of our grandchildren develop a love of farming, then what has been lovingly nurtured and tended to for three generations at the Cupp Farm will be no more.  This breaks my heart.  Of course, we would never try to coerce our children or grandchildren into a career that they don't willingly choose for themselves, but I do feel there are things we can do as adults to help the children learn to appreciate their farming heritage.  This doesn't just apply to farming families.  We need to be educating all of the children in our country of the importance of farming.  We should do so  not in an effort to convert them to choosing farming as a career choice (although that would be an awesome benefit) but rather to insure that regardless of a child's chosen path, he/she learns to really appreciate and support the farmers that put food on their table.  At one time it was common to have a kitchen garden and a family milk cow.  Now most of the families in the United States rely on a farmer to provide their produce, milk, and meat.  So many times, children are so far removed from their food source, that they don't even make the connection.  Unfortunately, a lot of adults are similarly removed.  I will never forget a conversation with a lady almost old enough to be my mother, who stated she didn't want my farm fresh eggs because eggs from chickens were disgusting and she would rather buy her eggs in the store.  I just had to shake my head and wonder if she knew that the eggs in the store came from chickens as well.

I believe educating our children is the key to insuring that we continue to grow future farmers and equally important,  a society that supports those farmers.  And how do we do that?  I have a few ideas that I would like to share.
1.  Make everyday activities into educational opportunities:  Talk to children of all ages about where their food originates.  Having eggs for breakfast?  This is a great opportunity to talk about chickens and the farmers that care for them.  Making a salad for dinner?  This is a good time to discuss how things grow seasonally.  One can expand the conversation to fit the age of the child. Look for opportunities to discuss farming and agriculture as you travel in the car or watch a movie.  Any opportunity you can find to discuss agriculture with your children is a learning opportunity for them as well as a way for the two of you to connect on this important issue.  

2.  Grow something.  Anything.  Even if you don't have ground to grow a garden or access to a community garden, plant something simple in containers and let the children in your life help.  Let them see the progress as the plant grows and produces.  And, if what your planted ends up dying, use it as an opportunity to explain that many times farmers face crop failure.  Anyone who gardens, produces crops, or tends to animals is going to eventually have loss and failure.  In addition, empathy for the farmer who struggles and joy for the farmer when he is successful is a good lesson.  
3.  I am not one to advocate everyone trying their hand at raising livestock.  There are so many people who do not understand the level of expense and commitment it takes to raise their own livestock.  However, if you are up to the challenge and have done your homework, raising livestock is a great way for children to learn more about the agricultural lifestyle.  If raising animals is not the right choice for your family for whatever reason, then see if you can find a working farm with livestock for your child to visit.  (Please be considerate of the fact that not every farm has very expensive liability insurance it takes to welcome visitors and be respectful of the fact that not every farm can accommodate visitors for this reasons or simply because of their work load.  Consider it a privilege when you are able to visit a working farm and don't begrudge any cover charge for your visit as it helps to offset the expense of the insurance needed to provide the opportunity to the public.)

4.  Support your local farm stands produce auctions, and farmer's markets and take the children in your life along with you.  In this manner your are teaching your children to support local business, and to make healthy choices while they absorb the ongoing educational opportunities of being submersed in agricultural environment.

5.  Introduce your kids of all ages to books and literature that promotes farming.  Even the smallest of children love books of farm animals.  Read with them and discuss the things your read.  If you are unsure of something, then take the opportunity to research an agricultural subject together.
6.  Take your kids to the pumpkin patch, the local orchard, or the small family owned creamery if you have one locally.  Visiting the County or State Fair is a fun agricultural related field trip for the family.  (Make sure to visit the livestock and home preservation sections of the fair and discuss what you see!)  Some areas host Agricultural Field Days which can be a great conversation starter for you and your children.

7.  Get involved in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.  Don't just buy the products but talk to the children in your life about the products you receive and the work that was put into producing them.  Teach your children that we shouldn't take these things for granted and that someone worked very hard to provide this service to them.  
8.  Buy your milk from a local farmer if possible.  Depending on where you live and your personal preferences, you might be able to purchase raw milk or buy pasteurized milk from a small farm with a creamery.  Let your children help you make simple dairy products such as butter.

9.  Find blogs and Facebook pages on the internet that are age appropriate for the children in your life and share the pictures and stories with them.  A few to consider:  USDA for Kids, National Agriculture in the Classroom, My American Farm, National Agriculture in the Classroom, Education World, and others.   
10.  Get kids involved in agriculturally minded programs such as 4-H, Farm Based Education Programs, and  Farm to School among others.  
11.  Learn about food preservation, buy produce locally, and spend time together drying, canning or freezing summer garden goodness for future enjoyment.  A few links to help you get started:  National Center for Home Preservation, Ball Canning, and Canning Granny.  Here is a fairly simple and great starter project that I posted earlier on our blog for home canned grape juice.

My desire is that this blog entry will be an encouragement to all of us to support agriculture in every way that we can.  It may sound trite but No Farms/No Food is not just a nice bumper sticker but a reality.  It's up to all of us to see that our farms remain and that farming continues to be a career choice for our children.

Note:  Educating children about farm life is so important to me that I recently started a blog specifically for children.  I would love it if you would check it out and share it with the children in your life.  You can find T. Cupp's Junior Farm Friends at this link.  


Preserving Grape Juice ~ An Old Fashioned Method

If you have never tasted home made grape juice, then you need to try it!  The old fashioned method for canning grape juice is simple. One can put up a large batch of juice in a short amount of time.

This is a great activity in which to enlist the help of children to give them a "taste" of home preservation.  They will feel great pride in being a part of the process, especially when they are able to sample the juice and know their efforts helped produce it.

CAUTION:  Don't allow children to assist in the pouring of boiling water or in taking the jars in and out of the hot water bath canner.  These steps should be done only by a responsible adult.

Items needed:

Hot Water Bath Canner (Or pot large enough to hold jars covered with boiling water)
Rack for canner 
Quart Glass Jars produced specifically for canning (Jars not designated for canning can crack and break during processing.)
New lids (small or wide mouth depending on the size of your jars)
Metal Rings/bands to screw down on top of the lids
Sugar (optional)
Pot or Kettle to boil hot water
Old Kitchen Towels and cloths for cleaning up spills and to set the hot jars on once removed from canner (Grapes/Grape Juice will stain, so it's best to use old cloths you don't mind getting soiled.)
Jar Lifter
Grapes (Approximately 5 pounds will make seven quarts if you use 2 cups of grapes per quart.)

If you are new to canning, here is a couple of good posts from other sites to help you familiarize yourself and get your started:

1.  Wash and sterilize your glass jars.

2.  Fill your canner or pot with enough water to cover the jars when they are submerged and put on the stove to begin heating.  (It takes a while to get that much water to a rolling boil if you are using a quart sized hot water bath canner.  

3.  Fill your kettle or additional pot with water and heat to boiling.  (This water will be used to pour over the grapes in jars.  

Next few steps are fun for the children to get involved:

4.  Wash your grapes.  Hopefully you can find grapes that have not been sprayed.  Either way, wash them well because spiders, spider webs and bugs like to hide in the clusters  

5.  Remove grapes from stems.

6.  If you are using sugar (or other sweeteners) pour into bottom of glass jars.  (Suggested amounts are 1/4 to 1/2 cup per quart.)  I do not sweeten my grape juice.  Sugar is not necessary for preservation and is only added for taste.  Note:  You may see sugar in the bottom of your jar after your have processed the juice.  It sometimes takes several days for the sugar to dissolve in the jar.  

7.    Put 2 cups of grapes in each quart jar.  (Some recipes call for as little as 1 cup of grapes per jar, but we like our juice more concentrated.  One can always dilute the juice later by adding more water adjusting to individual taste.)

These next steps should be performed by an adult as children can easily get burned:

8.  Pour hot boiling water over the grapes (and sugar if you added it) filling to 1/4 of an inch from the top of the jar.  (Spacing is important when you are canning, so always follow the instructions regarding the fill line.)

9.  Carefully wipe the rims of your jars.  You don't want any juice, sugar or debris on the rims as this could keep the lids from sealing properly.  

10.  Place your new lids on the jar.  (Follow the manufacturer's instructions for prepping lids.  It use to be that one was instructed to place the lids in hot water before putting them on the jars.  Recently, some of the manufacturers have changed the instructions for their lids and boiling them in hot water first can actually cause them NOT to seal properly.  Each box of lids will have the individual manufacturer's instructions written on them.)

11.  Tighten down (finger tight) the bands/rings over the lids.

12.  Place your jars in the canner once the water has come to a boil.  Always be very careful as you work around the boiling water.  It's really easy to get burned.  The water should cover the tops of the jars.  You want them to process at a gentle boil.  

13.  Process for 15 minutes. (Some recipes call for processing as little as 5 minutes but I chose to process for the longest recommended time.)

14.  Carefully remove jars and place on towels in a safe place where they will not get bumped, pulled from the counter/table by little hands or burn someone while they are cooling.  As the jars begin to cool, you will hear the lids pinging.  It's always fun to enlist the help of the children to count the jars as they seal.  It's a great feeling to know they have all sealed properly.  

15.  When the jars are cool and sealed, you should remove the rings.  Leaving rings on the jars sometimes causes them to rust and they can be very difficult or next to impossible to remove.  They are only needed temporarily until the lids have sealed.  

16.  Wipe down your jars to remove any sticky residue, label the lids if you like.  I always at least put the year the item was canned on the lid so that I can rotate my stock.   Storing  your juice in a cool, dark place is the best way to preserve the quality of the product.  

17.  Allow your grape juice to set on the shelf for several weeks to  a month  before sampling.  Simply strain off the juice from the grapes, dilute if desired (or not if you like a stronger taste) and enjoy!  I actually drink the juice and then  smash and pour water over the grapes that remain and get a bit more juice from them!  You could also use a cheese cloth or flour cloth and squeeze the grapes into the jar of juice or simply just eat the yummy grapes.  

Note:  This may seem complex and overwhelming if you are inexperienced with canning, but once you get into the swing of it, canning grape juice is actually quite simple and moves along rather quickly.  In my opinion, it's a great first time project!


How Do I Train a Cow to Milk?

I am often asked if it's better to purchase a trained cow or buy a heifer calf to raise and train as a family milk cow.  It seems that most people are persuaded to get a cute little calf with the idea they can bond with it and then train it more easily.  While this is true on some levels, the process can be a lot more difficult and involved than what many family cow owners have considered.   Sometimes we tend to forget that animals are not human and while human/animal relationships can and are formed, bovines are bovines and process accordingly.  We rely on their instinctive nature to birth and nurture a calf, but we often times get frustrated with them when they don't understand what we are asking of them.  For this reason, I always recommend  to start out with a healthy, well trained family cow. Starting a home dairy is hard enough without adding the stress of teaching a newly freshened heifer how to be a milk cow.

With that said, there will be those who can't resist the chance to buy a cute little calf to raise.  Or, if one does buy an already trained cow, eventually that cow will have a heifer calf and your family might just want to keep her  to raise as a replacement or to provide additional milk.  Training a first calf heifer without some prior planning is probably not a good idea.

A lot of people like to halter and lead train their family cows.  In theory, this makes it easier to move the cow from place to place, to trailer the cow if necessary, and to direct the cow to the milking parlor and stanchion.  This blog post is not about halter breaking and lead training a cow.  To be honest, I do not halter or lead train my cows and have not had any issues in getting them to respond to me.  If you will find it necessary to move your cow across a busy road or through an area that is unfenced on a regular basis, then haltering and leading training would be beneficial.  Otherwise, with a good set up, it's not a requirement.  Knowing more about the nature of cows and how they think will help a person regardless if they halter and lead train or not.  An excellent chapter in the book ANIMALS MAKE US HUMAN by Dr. Temple Grandin explains the nature of bovines in detail and is a must read in my opinion.

So, let's assume that you have a cow that is not lead trained and you want to milk her.  Perhaps she is tame but even if she is not, most cows can be lured into a stanchion with treats.  For most people this would be grain but for those who choose not to use grain with their cows, it could be a piece of hay or some alfalfa pellets.  It won't take but a few times for most cows to understand that their treat is waiting for them in the stanchion.  (And that brings up an important point.  There are some cows that can be milked without a stanchion but most cows require a headgate to secure them and bars on either side to keep them from swaying . ***** Don't have stars in your eyes and your head in the clouds and assume that your sweet cow is just going to stand in the field and let you milk her.****  While this is true of some cows, it's not true of most.  Most require a restraint of some sort just to provide them with boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not.)  There are some cows who may completely refuse to go into a stanchion if they have not previously been in one.  This is why it's advantageous to begin even before the baby is born to acclimate the cow to the stanchion  and begin familiarizing her with the process. If your cow is not lead trained and can't be lured, then you will have to drive the cow into the stanchion.  This is sometimes easier said than done and often requires at least two people, especially if the cow has not been handled a lot.   (On a side note, bovines will fall into a routine within a few days.   If you have other cows to milk, the heifer in training can be a nuisance wanting in for their treats while you are trying to milk the others.I also advise to only offer treats or grain in the stanchion and not in the field.  Otherwise, you can create a monster that approaches you quickly and aggressively in the open field looking for a handout.  This can be dangerous and is not advisable.)

Getting the cow into the stanchion and comfortable can sometimes be the easy part.  Many times a cow does not want her udder handled.  She instinctively knows that part of her anatomy provides for the baby and she is protective.  If you are able to touch the cow's udder and let her familiarize herself with your touch before the calf is born, this is good.  Word of caution:  Do not actually milk the cow before she gives birth.  Just touch her udder and her teats and let her learn to trust you.  She may kick at first,  so be careful.

If you are fortunate enough to have your heifer trained to come into the stanchion and tolerate your touch before she calves, you are miles ahead of the game.  However, once the calf is born, the heifer's body will be under the influence of some powerful hormones making her extremely maternal and protective.  Your sweet, compliant cow may be a beast you don't recognize.  BE CAREFUL.  Even if you think she is completely trustworthy, be smart and very aware as you handle her and the calf.

I personally allow the mother and calf to bond and don't try to milk her for the first 12 hours after the calf is born.  The calf gets as much colostrum as he wants during that time.  After 12 hours I bring the cow in to the milking parlor to be milked.  I personally DO NOT bring the calves into the milking parlor, although there are a number of homesteaders who do.  They bring the calf to keep the cow happy and they sometimes use the calf to get the momma cow to let down her milk.  This post is written with the assumption that you are milking the cow separate from the calf.  At first the cow may be hesitant to leave her calf but she will learn with time that the calf is fine there without her.  (I am also writing this on the assumption that the reader is leaving cow and calf together and not taking the calf away to bottle feed.)

At this point the cow's udder is very tender and often very swollen.  Remember that it's just a normal reaction for them to kick at something that is uncomfortable to them.  Wash the udder gently.  I use barn towels and a solution of iodine.  Some people use just water or water and vinegar.  If you are hand milking, you have the advantage of a quiet environment.  If you are machine milking, it's actually important to expose the heifer to the sound of the machine as she is in the stanchion prior to milking her for the first time.  If you have not done this, the first time she hears the vacuum pump start it will be an additional fear for her.

We personally always try to milk without using restraining devices on  the heifer/cow.  We don't want them to get use to being restrained in order to be milked (aside from the boundaries provided by the headgate and stanchion bars). Training them from the beginning that kicking isn't acceptable is our goal.  However, if one is a novice, afraid, or it is evident that the heifer is going to be uncontrollable, then one would want to use some method of restraint.  There are several ways a cow can be restrained.  There are several different types of anti kick devices like the Kick Stop and the Kow Kant Kick, hobbles, or even a rope used properly can work. Do be careful using restraining devices.  If used improperly, they can cause injury to both the cow and the individual milking the cow.  Always remember to remove the restraint when you are finished milking.  This may sound evident, but it's not uncommon to forget this step and cows can be injured when turned out with restraining devices still in place.

 If you have two people available, you can also do what is called "tailing" a cow.  One person simply stands directly behind the heifer/cow and holds her tail straight up firmly where the tail and rump meet.  When held straight up, theoretically, the cow can't kick.  My husband and I actually use this method quite often the first time we milk a heifer if it is evident that she is going to kick.  (Warning:  Heifers are nervous and will often poop and pee while in the stanchion the first few times.  If you are tailing a cow, you will end up very dirty.)  While this method works in most cases, if done incorrectly it can be dangerous.  It is best if you can get an experienced individual to show you how to tail a cow and then let you try it with help.

Try to stay calm, no matter what happens when you are milking a first calf heifer.  She will pick up on your fears, anger, frustration, etc.  Be sure to praise her when she does what you want her to do.  Speak gently and firmly to her.  Explain what you want.  She will learn key phrases over time.  On the other hand, don't be afraid to use your voice to let her know when she does something you find unacceptable.  If she kicks, loudly yell at her "No".  I find that cows will either kick at the machine/hand that is milking them (a perfectly normal reaction.  Think about if you just had a baby and someone restrained you and tried to take milk away from your baby.  You would kick as well, whether out of fear, anger or because you were sore and uncomfortable.)  or, if you have a more aggressive cow, she may kick fast and hard at your body.  These are the cows I consider more dangerous.  A cow can have unbelievable good aim and strike with great force causing serious injury.  A balance between being cautious while not being fearful is of great importance.

My way of training a newly freshened first calf heifer is not the only way, but it is the way that works for me.  I believe strongly in allowing the cattle to be cattle and live as naturally as possible.  They raise their own calves, graze, live in a herd setting, are bred by a bull and even my training methods for milking are gentle and as carefree as possible.  I have found that familiarity, gentleness and consistency are far greater teachers than ropes and halters at least for our farm.  Restraint is used when necessary to protect us from a cow that is kicking dangerously but those restraints are used as a last resort and discontinued once the cow is no longer a danger to the person milking.  On a side note, it has been interesting to observe over the years that my cows who were my biggest pets were usually the most difficult in the stanchion in the beginning, while those who were still a bit shy seemed to be more compliant once they learned that a treat was available for them in the milking parlor.

The information in this post is by no means exhaustive but perhaps it will be a starting point for those contemplating milking a first calf heifer for the first time.

Happy Milking!


Better Late Than Never! (Why Doesn't My Cow Calve?)

Humans often get worried when babies aren't born when they think they should be born, and sometimes there are some reasons for concern.  However, often, the time simply isn't right for the calf and the cow.  We try to let nature take it's course here at the farm.  That is why we prefer our cows to be pasture bred rather than artificially inseminated.  We also prefer to not use any types of hormones or antibiotics unless they are deemed absolutely necessary.  Inducing a cow that is "late" is not something that we do.  Don't get me wrong.  If there were some type of life threatening condition that warranted such, then we would do what was necessary but too often we as humans try to take matters into our own hands rather than just letting nature take it's course.

One issue that comes up when a cow does not calve on schedule is the question of if the cow is actually bred.  This is a valid question and for beginners who aren't able to palpate or "bump" a calf to determine if the cow is bred, it is always wise to have your local Vet come out and verify that the cow is indeed bred.  This is especially important if you don't have a bull that runs with your herd.  A cow that was simply exposed to a bull once could very well not be bred.  If your cow has been in with a bull for many months, it is likely that she is bred, but sometimes there are other issues that cause a cow to not conceive.  Making sure the cows is indeed bred is important.

In our case, we have a cow that was put in with the bull when she cycled and her due date was set for March 5th.  Her due date arrived and I told my husband that she didn't look anywhere near ready to calve.  I decided then that she was either late or hadn't bred on that initial cycle when she was serviced by the bull.  We waited and counted the days, watching her carefully for signs of change.  Exactly 21 days from what we thought was her initial due date, she gave birth to a healthy bull calf without any assistance from the farmers.  We know now that she was indeed bred on her second cycle after she was put in with the bull.

We welcome Princess' healthy calf to the world on this cold, windy, snowy, spring day.

Good job Momma Cow!


I Want to Keep a Family Cow: Where Do I Begin?

I frequently get requests to mentor folks regarding the care and keeping of a family cow.  In addition, individuals often want to know if I have any advice for them on running a cow share program.  While I greatly enjoy sharing information with others, you can see by the frequency (or should I say infrequency) of my blog post that I am no longer able to spend a lot of time doing that.  There was a time when I spent hours responding to questions and helping people as a moderator on a fabulous  forum called Keeping a Family Cow.  This forum is a fantastic resource and I highly recommend your starting with it, as most of your questions will be answered simply by reading past posts.

While the forum will give you an excellent starting point and  some quick answers to commonly asked questions, I also highly recommend that you buy the book Keeping a Family Cow. The author,  Joann S. Grohman, has written  the best book on the subject to date.  Originally written in the 1970's the book has been updated and remains relevant to the small farmer and homesteader of today.  Joann continues to milk her own cow and is currently in her 80's.

To truly understand the nature of cattle one should take the time to read articles and information shared by Dr. Temple Grandin.  Specifically read the chapter on bovines in her book Animals Make Us Human.

If you are able to find a small farm or willing farmer who has the time to share hands on experience with you by meeting with you privately or offering classes for a fee,  take advantage of those types of training experiences.   Please don't begrudge the farmer for charging for their hard earned knowledge.   In addition to the worth of their knowledge and experience,  farms who offer classes must be insured to cover liabilities and that expense can be quite costly.

If interested in share programs or selling raw milk, the best resource is the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense organization. This organization will provide legal guidance as well as training with occasional  online courses.

In closing, let me just briefly say that I always encourage people to begin this journey only if they have a burning passion for owning and keeping dairy cattle. Keeping a family cow is not just a job, but it is a lifestyle.