Questions about the âultimate homestead cowâ 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 âhomestead cow.â 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 â he would only do so if I paid the same price as a yearling â 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 didnât 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 âdehorned cows get meanâ position got us to thinking about his entire sales spiel. We realized this guy wasnât 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 didnât buy a Dexter. I know that this board has several Dexter partisans who are hot for their breed. I donât 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, âtâainât necessary a good thing.â 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 breedâs carcass will fit into a single freezer. If that is your goal, then I still recommend a larger dairy breed. The mini or Dexterâs 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 yearâs calf still growing. Together, they will eat as much grass a a full-sized cowâs 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 donât have the bother and stress of keeping calf and cow apart during weaning (a hard proposition if you are MIG farmer with electric fence â 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 â all on the milk my family didnât use. Keeping animals has some risk involved â Dexter and mini folks like to claim that two cows on the same acreage spreads the risk. Iâm 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 letâs 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 â 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 (sheâd 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. Theyâd 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 â and my customers would snap it right up. I would still be in the hole, but Iâd 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 â commercial buyers arenât 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 â 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 âhotâ 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 âworkâ 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, Iâll 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 âsmall is goodâ folks try to turn this around by saying that dairy cows produce too much milk. Hogwash. For a homesteader, tâainât such a thing. Extra milk can always go to chickens, purchased bob calves (Iâll 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 â and will turn to the full sized cowâs 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, Iâd 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 âblue johnâ for the pigs and chickens. Iâve rambled long enough. Excuse me while I don flame-proof undies.