Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Cow Does Not A Pet Make



How now guard cow?

In our 20 plus years of farming together (and he did it for 10 years before he met me) Keith and I have run across all kinds as they have run across us. We have met the coolest Jane and John Does who have the deepest and most sincere desire to run a simple (they hope) and somewhat sustainable small farm. We often have young and not so young folk who come to us for advice (we have lots of that ) or wisdom (this supply runs short) or just to chew the Red Wattle fat about farm life in general.

We learn from them they learn from us and sometimes in appreciation we get cool stuff from our followees like poetry books by Wendell Barry! Thanks again Ben. I did love the one in "The Mad Farmer" titled Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.

Enough off topic verbals, back to the cow.

Another cow
If there was one piece of advice I would give new homesteaders it would be this. Do not make a pet of your cow. Do not think of her as a pet. Do not treat her as a pet. Do not take her with you to school on Bring Your Pet to School Days.

Cows are not pets.

I understand it is easy to make that mistake especially if you come by them when they are calves. Calves are quite stunning with their doe eyes, quivering ears and graceful necks. Once you begin to bottle feed them they will indeed follow you to the ends of the earth and quite possible up the stairs into your master suite.

Milk on tractor wheel. Not your ideal storage place
just a photo op.

But they are not pets, they are...get ready as this next word may be hard to take...livestock. They were made for two key purposes; to produce milk and to produce more bovines. And when they get to that point when they can no longer successfully do either of those tasks they have one last purpose, to produce several hundred pounds of yummy ground beef.

What we have seen happen too often is folks mistake their cow or maybe their two cows for dogs. It's easy to make that mistake. They both have four legs, they both speak no English (Italian, French or Gaelic for that matter) they both enjoy defecating wherever they please, they both enjoy scratches behind the ear but when an intruder pins you against your barn wall demanding all your raw milk be poured out on the ground for a trumped up rule breakage which "pet" will most likely buy that bad guy/gal in the leg?

That's right, it will be Fido, whereas Betsy will merely walk away in search of the proverbial greener pasture. Seriously though, making a pet of your cow can be dangerous to you directly as well. My husband warned me in the earlier years about not rubbing a cows head to hard or for too long. The occasional rub behind the ears and nice pat on the flanks for a milking job well done is one thing but over doing your physical demonstrations can lead a cow into thinking you are her equal and you might very well find yourself on the wrong end of a strong head but, the kind that can land you on your back.

Cows with attitude problems are the cheap ones often up for sale. Women especially love to buy cows based on their looks, their carmel coloring, their big expressive eyes. But after they get then home they realize the animal won't stand to be milked, kicks off her milker or worse yet kicks at YOU or your child.

Folks have tendency to make this pet/livestock mistake with their horses as well. Letting them into your space without your permission, allowing them to be aggressive at feeding time,  rubbing hard against you to get a bridle off. These are not friendly gestures and allowing them can cause you harm.

Other potential issues with Miss Bossy relate to diet and health care. Too often we see folks not taking the time to do real research when they buy their first cow. What is the best diet ? (we think grass and no grain but that's just us) How will you get feed? How will you know the feed is good quality? How will you store all this feed? And remember grass is not grass is not grass. Different types of grasses, hays have different nutritional values.

Have you considered the equipment needed? Too often people have this very romantic idea that they will milk their cow by hand. This takes a long time. If you do get a milking set up do you know how to use it? To trouble shoot it when it fails to work? Do you know how to thoroughly clean it?

Think about vet care. Do you have a vet? Does he/she know cows or just dogs and cats? Fewer and fewer vets want to troubled with actual livestock care especially on those farms with very few animals. Will your vet come to you or will he expect you to bring the animal to him? Some do. Yes, even if it is a 1000 pound cow. Will they come out in the middle of the night if your cow now has milk fever after calving? Do you know how to treat milk fever if he/she won't or can't? What about mastitis? What about bloat? What about hardware disease?

Yeah, cows will eat nails and screws accidentally. Mechanical accidents happen.

Finally there is the milk itself. Cows produce a LOT of milk, anywhere from 3-6 gallons a day depending on breed and feed. That could add up to over 40 gallons of milk a week! Will you sell the extra? Give it away? Feed pigs with it like we do? Do you know how to strain the milk of any impurities, how to cool it, how to store it?

Keith and our youngest GK, Wesley

I am not saying all small homesteaders who want to produce their own milk for cheese, yogurt, long milk baths, etc...must be experts in care of bovines, even Keith and I are still after many decades learning new ways to care for our animals,  but PLEASE I am begging you, do your homework!!  Learn from someone whose been doing it for many years. Volunteer to help a dairy farmer with his chores in exchange for picking his brain or watching him milk.  Purchase the books you need. The Internet is full of them. Mother Earth News is a great place to start. Read all you can, learn all you can  first before you buy the cow and get into real trouble. Have a good conversation with your vet. Farm calls can range from $100 and up. Volunteer to go with your vet on a day he is treating cows. Help a friend who has a cow by taking are of it for an entire week (dairy farmers rarely get vacations.) Eat, sleep and be the cow.

In other words do the work BEFORE you get your four legged dream ice cream machine.

Just another public service announcement from your local Midlife Farmwife. You may now resume regular programming.


  1. I knew a girl who allowed her foal to rear up, put his front legs of her shoulders and walk with her. Has to be the epitome of 'dumbness'.

  2. Replies
    1. I lost track of her but I was almost more concerned about the horse and what happened to it once it got big and that wasn't "cute" any more. When idiots ruin a perfectly good animal it's usually the animal who pays the price.

  3. What's going on here? A Nigerian witch doctor?

    I can honestly say that I've never known anyone treat a cow as a pet, but I can imagine it happening if you have just ONE or TWO.

  4. We (finally) bought our 10 acres!! We are another bright-eyed, young couple (with actual brains though) who are planning a sustainable farm. Our plan is meat goats. Everyone who we talk to thinks we are horrible (okay, horrible is exaggerating, but you get it) because we are not going to have a petting zoo. Our animals will be livestock, they will be treated as such, kindly, but loose attachments will be formed.

    1. Most do have brains it the heart that gets them in trouble. Good luck with your farm!

  5. Our two house cows aren't pets, they are nearly family members! But that doesn't mean we don't discipline them. They do get everything they want though, special hay that they like, extra minerals and back scratches. I reckon they give us a real gift with their milk, and I don't mind thanking them for it. It is different if you're running a business, and we certainly don't get like that about any other farm animal, just the cows are special :) I did enjoy your post, you made some good points!

    1. Liz, when (IF) we get to move to our smaller farm we will have just one milk cow and I can only imagine she will be very special to us as well. Gratefulness for gifts given is well...a given.

  6. Yes, a cow is not just for Xmas!

    I was rereading James Herriot recently and he included the example of two very spoilt dogs who were dangerous with their nipping - because they hadn't been disciplined or learnt how to obey. He made the point that not only were the dangerous (and a pain in the neck) but they were unhappy as they had no boundaries. Translate that into larger animals and yes, you have a problem.
    When I was a kid, we had a great guard dog Alsatian but the problem was it got to the stage that we couldn't control him, he was put in when friends came to play but one day he escaped and the results could have been nasty. Now I think it was bonkers that we kept him to be honest even though he did become more docile but I would never keep an animal that could be dangerous.
    Have you come across people who had great intentions, perhaps with starting a small holding and then found it was too much? Not being able to look after animals properly can be cruel too - unfortunately.

    1. Hey Lorna, yes this post for education as well as a reminder to ourselves. We once owned sheep (in our earlier years)and made them pets and one got quite aggressive and knocked over a niece of mine and THAT WAS THE END OF THAT SHEEP! I learned then that if livestock do not know from the beginning who is in charge (in a humane way of course) people can get hurt

  7. When a new calf was born, our youngest siblings would pet and scratch through the fence wire. When it came time to send Spot/Blackie/Silver/whatever to see Mr. Smith, they had no problem with it. This always happened.

    This is a very wise post, esp. for the non-farm generations. Food is food. Milk is great for cream, butter, whipped cream, and drinking.

  8. This post ought to be mandatory reading for new farmers and homesteaders! I think folks have a problem with the "livestock" concept in general. It's been years and years since I've had a cow, but of course I have those chickens and goats, and now the pigs. Even though we decided from the beginning not to think of them as pets, we were only used to dealing with animals on a pet level. Different thinking wasn't something we grew up with and it's something we've had to learn. Dan still is surprised every time I say I'm going to sell a goat. "Not So-and-So!!!" Yes, So-and-So, because we have too many goats. We either need to find them new homes or eat them! That usually settles it.

    1. The other thing that "settles it" for Keith and I is the fact that we run our farm on just farm income, no outside income. We cannot afford to feed a mean animal or one that does not produce. The only exception is my horse as she is cheaper than therapy for this Midlife Farmwife :) Hope all is well with you Leigh!