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The perfect house cow

Bella has turned out to be the perfect house cow for us, although she might not have suited other people, we find that she is just the right size and the right temperament to be exactly what we needed.  When looking for a house cow, it is important to consider what you really need from a cow, as a good cow for one family may not be a good cow for another.  I've listed below a few points to consider, unfortunately you may not have a huge number of cows to chose from, but at least this will help you to think about which cow will work for you.

Our two dairy cows
Breed and size of cow
Bella is a pure-bred Jersey cow, all Jerseys are relatively small compared to other breeds, and Bella is particularly small even for a Jersey cow.  This means that she is very easy to manage.  If she is being naughty, we can just push her around, unlike a big cow.  It also means that her milk production is lower than a big cow.  We don't need heaps of milk, so it suits us just fine.  She produces about 12 L per day at her peak production, but towards the end of her lactation we were taking about 4 L once a week, which was plenty for our daily milk consumption.  If we wanted to keep making cheese, we could have milked her daily instead.

Horned or polled
When we first saw Bella she had one horn growing around towards her head, so we asked the farmer to cut her horns.  This is not a pleasant process for the cow, and I would never have asked if I didn't think the horn  could potentially damage her.  It is best practice to remove horns from calves as young as possible.  We have left Molly's horns to grow and as long as they keep growing strong and straight, she can keep them.  The main reason that dairy farmers remove horns is to stop cows from hurting each other in the close quarters of the milking shed, and because horned cows can also hurt people if they decide to swing their heads around.  We hope that Molly will stay tame enough that we won't have a problem with her, otherwise future cows will be dehorned at a young age.  The advantage of horns is that it gives the cow a little extra protection against wild dogs so that she can look after herself or her calf.

Although of course the one of the right is still a heifer until she has a calf
Bella is an unusual cow as she was born at a dairy, but hand-raised by a neighbour, and then returned to the dairy after her first calf, because the neighbour moved.  She is very tame, in some ways she is too tame as she has no flight-zone, so she is not scared of us at all and will happily eat things that she's not supposed to while we are yelling and pushing her away.  She is perfect for us as we wanted to use a milking machine, and having spent a few months at a dairy with all the other cows, she was used to going through the milking shed and having milking machine teat cups attached to her.  If you want to hand milk, this isn't so important, and if you are using a machine on a cow who's not used to it, you just have to introduce her to the noise and make sure she's not too scared of it.  I think it would be very difficult to keep a house cow that had not been hand raised or at least had an awful lot of interaction with humans (like Molly, who is not as tame as Bella, but will come to me for a pat).  The important thing is to spend lots of time with the cow and pat her and talk to her while she's eating, eventually she will come to you for a pat and a chat, most dairy cows will follow the cow in front into the milking shed and stand still as she's squashed between other cows, but if you tried to lead her individually to a stall, she wouldn't go with you, dairy cows will still try to walk away from humans, even though they see the farmer twice a day, they are a little tamer than beef cattle, but not completely tame.  As Bella was hand-raised she has always been tame enough to go where we need her to go, especially if we have a bucket of grain or a wooffle of hay in hand!  We have worked hard to spend time will Molly and she is nearly as tame now (although she did recently kick me in the knee when I was trying to remove a burr that was stuck to her udder, thanks Molly!).

Bella also hates dogs.  If the dogs come near her she will try to bunt them, and then chase them away.  Even if they are just standing in the same paddock, she will try to chase them.  Although I feel sorry for the dogs, who only mean well, it is reassuring to know that if any wild dogs or neighbour's dogs come into our paddocks, Bella will defend herself and her calf against them.

Even though she's nearly as tall as her mum!
Teat size
Unfortunately modern cows are bred to have smaller teats to suit milking machines, so if you're planning to hand milk, make sure your cow has nice long teats, otherwise it will take forever to milk her.  Little Bella only has very short teats, and if we hand milk, we can only use a couple of fingers rather than our entire hand.  The bigger cows tend to have longer teats, but Bella's are short even for a Jersey!

Age and calving history
We were so lucky to be offered Bella with her 3rd calf.  This means that we know that she calves well, and that she gets back into calf well.  If you start with a heifer, you don't really know what you're getting, and it can be difficult to AI a heifer (our dairy farmer friend puts all the heifers with a bull as he reckons he can never get them in calf with the AI).  This makes Bella about 4-5 years old though, so we won't have so many useful years from her compared to getting her as a heifer, and you will pay more for a cow than a heifer as you're not taking the risk.

Where to get a house cow??
You can often find house cows advertised on the internet and in the newspaper.  If possible, I would recommend making friends with your nearest dairy farmer.  If you buy from them, at least you know where to go for help!  Not all dairy farmers keep a range of breeds like our friends do, many will only keep (giant) Fresians, so you might have to take some time to find one that has the breed you want if you're looking for a smaller cow.  Offer to help out in the milking shed, we used to go and help milk most nights after work, just for something to do (I know, we're weird) and were rewarded with the occasional bag of feed or bale of hay, and discounted cattle.  This will help you to learn how to work with the cows, how to use the milking machine (and hand milk, as you take out a few squirts before you put on the teat cups) and allow you to ask a million questions while the farmer is stuck in the milking shed with you!  You can then ask the farmer if he has any cows or heifers that you could buy, he might have a small cow that doesn't give enough milk for the dairy, or a heifer calf that he wants to sell.  If you're lucky he might also be able to sell you milk to raise the calf.

And the view from the back
If you are already confident with cows (and dairy cows are a little different than beef cattle, generally more tame as they are used to being handled, and therefore easier to work with) you can probably just buy one from an ad, but if you don't have any experience I would try to get some dairy experience first, even if its just for a few days, so you know what you're getting yourself into!

Do you have a perfect house cow for your family?  Any tips?

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy


  1. Very practicle advice Liz. We have not gone down this path even though we really want too because we are considering making some major changes in the next few years that will leave us time poor. But one day we will get a cow for milk as it would save us a fortune, hubby drinks about 2lt of milk a day.

  2. I expect that the milk is much richer than factory cows put out. We had Guernseys when I was growing up and the milk was wonderful. She looks like a nice cow.

  3. Here I was thinking that if it had horns it was a bull- shows what I know!

  4. What a wonderfully helpful post Liz. I was particularly interested to read you comments about 'horned or polled'. I must admit I was pretty intimidated by the horns on the Jersey I milked last week. She accidently bumped my elbow when she shook her head and I was surprised by how much it hurt me. I was thinking after that that I would go for polled - but if the horns help them against wild dogs then I think they are worth leaving on. Our new property is very close to a large national park that has wild dogs.

    At the moment I'm thinking of going to a Dexter - mainly because of their small size - but I also like that they are good for meat and milk. Do you know anyone who is milking dexters?

    Regarding age and calving history - I'm planning to do something similar and get a cow that has had a few calves and is an experienced milker. that way were both not beginners.

    Thanks Liz for yet another helpful post :-)

  5. Thank you! That is just the info I'm looking for!!!

  6. A fantastic post Liz. Lots of useful information. Do you have an opinion on keeping a house cow vs a house goat for milk and cheese? We are looking at pros and cons for each. You've certainly made a good case for a house cow (and I was born on a dairy...)

  7. I do love your posts about Bella. Glad to see she has a friend now. :) I hope I get brave enough to do this for myself some day. Keeping this good info for when I do . . . :) Thanks for sharing!

  8. thanks everyone!

    We actually went to a Dexter show the other weekend (post to come) and none of the breeders we talked to had tried milking them! I know that they are a popular milking breed though, so just make sure when you buy one that she is bred for milking ability.

    As for goats, our neighbours keep them for milk. Although you get less milk from each animal, you feed them less. It would be easier to stagger your milking by keeping 2-3 goats and having them milking/dry at different times. They are also much easier to handle, being smaller and lighter than a cow. They need better fencing and shelter than a cow though and will climb/jump out if you're not careful! We already have cattle infrastructure, so it suited us to get a cow. Also I prefer the cow's milk taste and you have more cheese options and can make butter with cow's milk (goat's milk cream doesn't separate as its smaller globules, so can't make butter from it). I hope that helps!


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