Heresy On Best Homestead Milk Breed

Discussion in 'Cattle' started by Mark T, Jun 27, 2006.

  1. Mark T

    Mark T Well-Known Member

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    Questions about the “ultimate homestead cow” or best home milking breed are frequently posted on this board. I have bitten my tongue previously. I have recently been thinking about my initial decision-making process and now wish someone had made a nuts-and-bolts comment on one of those threads. So, at the risk of being flamed, here are my two cents on choosing a breed for a family milk cow.

    When I decided to buy a family milk cow, my first choice was a Dexter. There were so many internet sites extolling the virtues of the “homestead cow.” My wife and I put several hundred miles on the truck going to look at Dexter herds. We got almost to the point of buying from the closest owner, but was pulled up short by two things. The Dexter farmer did not want to sell a bob calf – he would only do so if I paid the same price as a yearling – he figured that since his calves were raised by their mothers, he had no extra expenses from birth to a year old. I wanted to get a young calf so bottle feeding would give me a tame gentle animal. Knowing that there was a risk to a bob-calf, I didn’t want to sink a lot of money into a chancy proposition, so we told him we would think about it. As we were driving away, another thing he had said made us pause. When asked if he would dehorn a calf that we would then buy as a yearling, he said that he never dehorned because dehorning made a cow more insecure and violent. I had never come across anything in any of my cow books that made that claim. The unusualness of the “dehorned cows get mean” position got us to thinking about his entire sales spiel. We realized this guy wasn’t really a cattleman; he was simply someone who got caught up in the Dexter marketing and was trying to make a return on his investment.

    Now that I have been farming a bit longer, I thank my lucky stars that we didn’t buy a Dexter. I know that this board has several Dexter partisans who are hot for their breed. I don’t mean to give offense, but I strongly believe that Dexters and the even more ridiculously priced minis are the wrong choice for a home cow.

    The main thrusts of my argument are size and beef production, risk and salvage value, heifer value, and milk production.

    Much is made of their small size. They are smaller. But, as my uncle used to say, “t’ain’t necessary a good thing.” You might get two animals for the same pasture acreage or feed bill. But those two animals will give less milk than one traditional breed and will give less beef. Two animals will require twice as many visits from the AI technician. Two animals will require more milking time since on a small scale the cleaning and prep time is greater than the actual milking time.

    Dexter and mini partisans like to point out that a small breed’s carcass will fit into a single freezer. If that is your goal, then I still recommend a larger dairy breed. The mini or Dexter’s calf at two years will be the same size as a full size calf at a year. Suppose you slaughter your calf at a certain size rather than a certain age. For Dexters, you end up having two calves per cow at once: this lactations and the previous year’s calf still growing. Together, they will eat as much grass a a full-sized cow’s current calf, who would be slaughtered in the fall and not carried over the winter. Notice that the full-size calf slaughtered at ten or eleven months is not overwintered on pricey supplements. You also don’t have the bother and stress of keeping calf and cow apart during weaning (a hard proposition if you are MIG farmer with electric fence – after all, an electric fence is really only a suggestion to a cow. Given the choice of taking a shock or being separated from momma, a calf will tear that fencing right up). Additionally, petit beef will be more tender than two year old beef. My calf this year weighed 708 pounds at eleven months with zero feed inputs – all on the milk my family didn’t use.

    Keeping animals has some risk involved – Dexter and mini folks like to claim that two cows on the same acreage spreads the risk. I’m not sure if I buy that. It seems to me that you are doubling your chances of something going awry. Particularly when you consider the narrow genetic base out there. Dairy breeds, particularly Holsteins and Jerseys, are inbred. But imagine how much more inbred minis would be. Breeders start with an already small genetic base and then breed smaller and smaller. Other traits like milk output, temperament, butterfat, fertility, calving ease go out the window in the single-minded pursuit of smaller stature.

    Dexter and mini prices are supported by the rarity of the product and the fervor of their devotees. They are not justified by the salvage value. Let us say that you pay $2000 for a cow in milk. Something goes wrong with your milking cow and she loses a couple of quarters to mastitis. You might, in a home situation, keep a two-quartered Holstein, but let’s say for the sake of argument that you want to get a fully functional replacement. At the sales barn you will get cull cow prices – say 35 cents a pound. A small Holstein at 1300 pounds would bring in the ball park of $500. A bad hit, but not a total loss. If you have any clientele built up for your beef, you could take her down to the local USDA inspected plant and shave her made into hamburger (she’d be too tough for pricier cuts). The same 1300 pound cow would yield 400 pounds of hamburger. A farm up the road gets $5.50/lb for cull cow hamburger. They’d turn a profit. I would probably charge in the neighborhood of $3.00/lb plus processing costs for organic, grass-fed hamburger should the worst happen and I had to put Bonnie down – and my customers would snap it right up. I would still be in the hole, but I’d have something towards buying a replacement.

    Consider the same scenario for a $2000 Dexter cow. First of all, you might have a real problem getting anything for her at the sales barn – commercial buyers aren’t interested in new and unusual like the hobbyists. But suppose you did get a salvage price of 35 cents a pound. If your cow weighs 600 pounds, you are talking a salvage value of $210. Ouch. If you market beef, the loss of meat pounds is even a bigger hit - $600 as opposed to $1200. Ouch again.

    Perhaps the risk IS spread out by halves. But the consequences of bad luck are more than doubled. I submit to you, dear readers, that this is not a good choice.

    A heifer calf is a wonderful thing. We all pray for a female birth and dance around when we see that the wee one is a she. We can build our herd or sell her. Once we have reached our ideal size, we will have to sell some of the heifers. Minis and Dexters bring the same price of are even more valuable than their full-size cousins.

    IF.

    Marketers who want to build fancy websites that rival the mini-cow bazaars that already exist and who enjoy chatting and pressing the flesh with customers might be able to command high prices – at least until, like emus, the tiny hobby cow bubble bursts and your high-priced herd ends up resembling a beanie baby investment in the eyes of your accountant. I tend to look at “hot” new breeds as a pyramid scheme. If you get in early and are a seller, you can do very well. But God help you if pay high dollar and the market crashes.

    Dairy heifers, particularly Holsteins, have immediate value with the “work” of one phone call. Demand is pretty constant and there are brokers who will pay good money for a day old calf and even more for a springer if you want to keep her for a while. Once I get to the size I want, I’ll probably sell the day old heifer for $500, buy two or three steer calves, graft and raise them on the cow during the year until fall and then sell them for $2/lb liveweight to my beef customers. At seven hundred pounds, that is $1400 per. Not bad of a return for a heifer calf without the work of weaning, overwintering, and breeding to get a springer to sell for $2000 two years later.

    Aside from beef production, salvage value, and heifer resale, dairy cows will live up to their name and produce much more milk than a Dexter or mini. I have seen the “small is good” folks try to turn this around by saying that dairy cows produce too much milk.

    Hogwash.

    For a homesteader, t’ain’t such a thing.

    Extra milk can always go to chickens, purchased bob calves (I’ll raise three calves on Bonnie next year), pigs, and if worse comes to worst, as a biodynamic boost to ye olde compost pile. It may take fractionally longer to milk a dairy cow than a dexter or mini, but since the major time spent milking is in prep and cleaning, the time is negligible – and will turn to the full sized cow’s advantage if the homesteader is milking two smaller cows. I will acknowledge that two cows would be able to give you milk year round if you stagger their lactations. If that is a consideration that, for you, outweighs all the other drawbacks, than by all means get two small cows (though if you have the land, two full-sized cows would be better). Most folks, however, would be glad to be relieved of milking chores in December and January.

    Bonnie is an Ayrshire. If I had it to do over again, I’d buy a Holstein. Holsteins have the best market and have the best size and production. Many folks favor the colored dairy breeds because of the higher butterfat production. But for cheese makers, one ought to remember that butterfat production is expressed as a percentage. A five percent Jersey milking three gallons a day on grass alone produces the same pounds of fat as a two and half percent Holstein milking six gallons a day. Assuming you have the grass and are not supplementing, the cost of production is the same, you get the same amount of fat for cheese, and you have all the extra “blue john” for the pigs and chickens.

    I’ve rambled long enough. Excuse me while I don flame-proof undies.
     
  2. Tango

    Tango Well-Known Member

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    That is well written and informative Mark. Consider sending it to Countryside.

    As for my opinion on the matter the argument extends to the dairy goat vs dairy cow argument. Dexters were too expensive for my small acreage in Florida and I convinced myself after reading and studying and speaking with others that a dairy goat was the way to go. Turned out not to be so for me. Sometimes it is a "live and learn" thing. For me it was. I lok forward to the exchange which should follow.

    Question: are there non-mutant Holsteins available commonly? One that still produces say 6 gallons a day?
     

  3. jnap31

    jnap31 garden guy

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    Tango what type of cow did you end up with?never mind jsut saw it is a jersey like i use to have. Mark T thanks you gave me much food for thought.
     
  4. Patt

    Patt Well-Known Member

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    I'll give you my perspective as a Dexter and Highland owner. I don't think there is a perfect homestead cow. Everyone's needs are different. :) For us even with feeder pigs and chickens a Jersey would be too much milk. We don't drink that much and I don't make that much cheese, etc. We get a gallon a day from one cow. We have 2 in milk so once the calves are weaned we could feasibly get 4 gallons per day if we wanted.
    I think your seller when he mentioned the problem with de-horning was probably thinking, what if I de-horn one heifer and this guy never comes back. Then she'll have to fight for position in a herd of cattle who all have horns. Not good. :) Personally I wouldn't poll any of ours because it is part of the personality of the breed. I also wouldn't sell a heifer to you if you expected me to lose money on it by selling it to you as a bottle calf. That's just silly from a seller's perspective. :)
    So as to your other points, there are ups and downs to every breed. I wouldn't take a holstein for free. :) Too much milk and it's a big ugly cow. No offense to any holsteins on here. :) I paid less than a $1000 for every cow we've bought Dexter or Highland. Shop around. They seem to be comparable to the other breeds. You can get a bottle Jersey or holstein because they come from dairys where they don't want calves just milk machines. I think that's sad personally.
    On the upside every cow we have is halter broke and easy to handle even for kids because of their small size. We get plenty of beef for a family of 5.
    I do appreciate your giving the other side though and I think it's good info to have. Anyone making a decision on their family cow needs all the info from every possible angle. So I'm not slamming your post just clarifying a few points. :)
     
  5. uncle Will in In.

    uncle Will in In. Well-Known Member Supporter

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    A good family cow most of all should milk easy. If you have hand milked numerous cows you have found that some have nice sized teats that are easy to grip. Others have stubby little things that wont reach past two fingers. Also some give out a huge stream of milk with a minimum of hand pressure. That's great, however some make you wonder if they even have a hole in the end of their teat. That's not any cow you want to hand milk for the next 15 years. And she may even be the better producing cow. That's the cow you need to raise two calves with if you already own her. This problem can happen with any breed. If you are looking to buy a producing cow you should sit down and milk her. That's the best way to get a preview of coming attractions.

    Some cows are gentle and others are not. I'm not talking about whether she is a pet or not. When every small farmer milked a small herd of cows they would nearly all have a cow that was inclined to kick or stomp around. They would put hobbles or some other restraining device on these to milk them. These folks mostly raised all their own heifers. You don't want to bother with one like that either.

    Many farmers would milk right out in a lot near the barn in hot weather. These cows learned to just stand still while they were being milked. They weren't pets, and most weren't even broke to lead.
     
  6. Patt

    Patt Well-Known Member

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    Just curious, how did they teach them to just stand in an open lot?
     
  7. savinggrace

    savinggrace COO of manure management

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    As someone 'in the market' for a family dairy cow, I greatly appreciate your commentary. I also appreciate Patt's opinion, as it is true, everyone's needs and wants are different. Uncle Will, you have given me great attributes to look for while shopping!

    Personally, with 4 children, we can't ever keep enough store bought milk in the house. I also own hundreds of chickens and we are about to get a couple of piglets. We like butter, soft motzarella, and cottege cheese a LOT. So, there is little to no chance we would find ourselves with 'too much' milk even from a holstein.

    As a frugal homesteader, I want a reasonable output of milk, for the minimum amount of feed costs. Immediately, that nixes the idea of a typical big bodied holstein. And, a large blocky milking short horn. I looked into Dexters, but became confused and worried about the whole 'short leg, medium leg, long leg' thing!

    I keep coming back to Jerseys, guernseys and brown swiss. I can find brown swiss, and jerseys, but few guernseys in this area. Unfortunately, it seems 'Gone are the days' of affordable 'homestead suitable' cows. (my budget is max 2,000)

    So, my search continues. Someday, I will find one of those great deals that I hear others celebrate on this and other family cow boards.

    Thank you again for posting this topic, and all the helpful replies!
     
  8. Jennifer L.

    Jennifer L. Well-Known Member Supporter

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    Savinggrace, if you don't want a Holstein you don't want a Brown Swiss, either. Those are very big cows.

    Honestly, I don't see the reason for so much negativity towards Holsteins. Yes, they can be large cows, but most of mine run around 1300 or so. That's not too big. And they only put out large amounts of milk if you pop the good feed to them. Put them on a small amount of grain and hay/grass and they'll adjust their milk production downward. If forage costs are a very big problem for you, then a 950 Jersey might do you better than a 1300 Holstein, and certainly better than a 1600 pound one, but if have your own field that you take hay off of, there's really no need to save it.

    I agree with Uncle Will compleatly that the thing you most want in a homestead/household cow is good temperament and easy milking. I sometimes play a game with myself when the cows are being milked, " which cows would I keep if I could only keep three cows from the herd and had to sell all of the others?" Hands down it's the easy handling cow. The one that takes 6 minutes to milk instead of 18, the one that has good legs and feet and the one that doesn't enjoy kicking the machine off, and getting a few licks in on you if she can do it. I've milked all different breeds of cows at various times and amount of milk and butterfat are usually secondary to getting along with them and getting the milk out easy.

    Jennifer
     
  9. Marjorie Dickso

    Marjorie Dickso Well-Known Member

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    Hurrah on your post. Makes wonderful sense to me. I have an Ayrshire (big)., A Guernsey (also big) and a Jersey that I am currently milking. Of the 3, they all are of nice temperment but that Guernsey has the best teats/bag of the lot. She is old and I will miss her when she is gone. I will try to breed her one more time to a registered bull and hope and PRAY she has a heifer. Like everything else, it is the genetics of the parents, that make a desirable udder/teats. It isn't the breed that makes the cow easy to milk. The Jersey has very soft bag and teats but the teats are small.

    We have a 1/2 mini Hereford 1/2 Jersey who has a wonderful bag and teats but don't give much milk. That cow is as big as any other beef cow on the place. I've seen her parents so I know she is part mini. She is just raising her calf because of low milk production.

    Yesterday, I accquired a milking Devon. She is only 1 yr. old so I don't know about her milking future.She also has horns and if she gets to handy with them I will either blunt or remove them.

    When we were just milking the Ayrshire, we raised her calf plus 3 others. Then at 5 months after weaning, those calves went to pasture and she is now raising 4 more. I don't know how many calves we have to buy now for the 3 cows we have. I just know hubby said "We have enough animals now!!"
    Poor guy puts up with my "wants". I also have a few milk customers and would like more to make this milking pay off.

    When looking for a cow, look at the udder. That will give you a good indication of how much milk you will get. Then be there at milking time, YOU do the milking to see if you have to have Popeye arms or she is an easy milker.

    The best part of all this is: Damn, that milk is delicious!!
     
  10. willow_girl

    willow_girl Very Dairy

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    LOL, I was making some of the above arguments to someone considering a Dexter ... not because I have anything against Dexters per se, but simply because I'm suspicious of exotics of any stripe, and the hype.

    One point you missed was that it's easier to find a bull for a cow of a common breed. Go with an exotic, and AI may be your option.
     
  11. milkinpigs

    milkinpigs Dairy/Hog Farmer

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    Good to see you back Willow............I agree, I don't understand why some of the folks new to cattle lean towards the devons and dexters and others.I'm not belittleing their choice and if you want exotics to have something different than the everyday cow , that's fine.If a person wants a cow for home use, why not get what people who dairy in your area use? With the main breeds, dairy or beef, you have so many choices when using A.I..If you want bigger or smaller, more butterfat and protein, if you need to get a better udder orbetter legs then you can "custom" breed your cow, if calving ease is your aim, the major dairy breeds clearly identify easy calving bulls. Not trying to bad mouth anyone's cattle, but it can be confusing to folks.
     
  12. Marjorie Dickso

    Marjorie Dickso Well-Known Member

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    Bulls..don't mention bulls to me. I hand raised a dang bull who is currently at the neighbors. He also spent last summer there. His absence has cost me lots of calves. I guess those cows are better looking than his own here OR the prairie grass is sweeter on the other side of the fence. When/if we ever get him back he is going to the sale. The vet AI'ed my Ayrshire after Semex delivered the semen. Since I have various types of registered cows, AI'ing is how it will be done here for now.
     
  13. dezeeuwgoats

    dezeeuwgoats Well-Known Member

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    I have a question. I do NOT have a cow... I would like one. I do have dairy goats, but the ol' cream separator thing is not for me. Don't ask - but my kids learned LOTS of new words and there was milk on the ceiling.......

    Here's my question: IF a holstein was on pasture, and supplemented and gave less milk than those at a dairy - would the percentage of butterfat be higher? Say, she milked half the volume - would the butterfat remain the same, or be twice as concentrated?

    I've always figured I'd get a jersey, but if a holstein will milk a decent butterfat % due to less volume, I'd consider it. My friend just lost her jersey to milk fever, and she'd had it more than once. I'd like to avoid that if at all possible. We drink goat's milk - but I want cream! (lots and lots of cream)(and more skim milk for the piggies)

    Niki
     
  14. RLMS

    RLMS Well-Known Member

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    Guernseys-

    We milked them at home when I was growing up. We have one here and three, various stages of growth, in the wings.

    Good-best-temperment, wonderful milk, terrific growth and longevity.

    The steers cut as very good meat.
     
  15. JeffNY

    JeffNY Seeking Type

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    Butterfat isn't breed dependant. There are holsteins that outproduce a Jerseys as far as BF goes. I have seen some go 5.0%+, not too much higher than 5, while some Jerseys are under 4%.



    Jeff
     
  16. jnap31

    jnap31 garden guy

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    I butchered a guernesey bull at 9 months last Nov I had bottlefed, he was so tame and followed me around the yard, My mother assured me he would not be safe around the kids when he got a little older I dont know. But he sure was hard to kill and butcher nice as he was.
     
  17. tyusclan

    tyusclan Well-Known Member

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    Your mother was right. In another 3 or 4 months he would have started being dangerous for anyone to be around. It's good that you butchered him, if you didn't want to castrate him.
     
  18. jnap31

    jnap31 garden guy

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    I guess they usually are hard as it may be to admit at times.
     
  19. Horace Baker

    Horace Baker Well-Known Member

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    The premise of this thread assumes a lot of things that aren't neccessarily so. It has been my experience that there is usually more difference between animals and herds within a breed than there is between breeds. There are "breeders" in all breeds that merely multiply cattle, and then there are real breeders who cull and select with performance (not just production) in mind. Really good animals are hard to find, the key is finding a really good breeder who manages his herd the way that you would like to manage yours. Taking a confinement dairy cow and trying to make her a grass fed hand milked family cow is usually a disaster, as is trying to rodeo a range raised, unhandled animal.

    Picking a family cow breed based on Sale Barn salvage and replacement values is very limiting and may cause you to pass by the cow/breed that will be a perfect fit for you. There is no sure thing in the cattle world, least of all commodity values. Most owners of family or homestead cows operate in an economy that isn't commodity based.

    I say pick a breed that captures your fancy, then do your homework and find the right breeder.
     
  20. tinknal

    tinknal Well-Known Member Supporter

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    Good points. The only thing I would ad, in defence of Gurnseys and Jerseys is that a smaller cow is easier to handle and train, especially if you get a late start. If you get a heifer from a comercial dairy, it will probably not be halter broke. They usually just wait til they freshen and put them in a stantion, or run them through a parlor. I butcher my own beef, and a Holstein is just a little bit bigger than I want to mess with. A 2 yo Jersey is still managable for me. A holstein also consumes massive amounts of feed.