Milkcow Blues

When I was planning our transition to the homesteading lifestyle I imagined that we might someday have or make everything we need, here on the farm. Some of the things we did, such as planting fruit trees and gardens, made good sense.  Other things we did were, in hindsight, probably not great ideas. For example, I bought hay equipment, even though we were using very little hay.  At the time my thinking was that we should not buy anything we are capable of producing ourselves.  It would have been wiser to consider the cost of the hay we would need in relation to the cost of buying and maintaining the machinery to make it.  There are other things I’d planned to do that never happened.  Some of them, such as generating electricity here, I still hope to do. But with some of the other things I had on my homesteading checklist, I’m glad we never went forward with them.

For example, it seemed obvious to me at the time that we should have a milk cow. Why buy milk if we can keep and milk a cow instead, I reasoned.

When I was growing up my grandparents had a milk cow. In the summer milking was sometimes one of my jobs. The cow was milked, by hand, every day before dawn and then again at dusk. I didn’t know there was any other way to do it.

So I imagined that we would have a milk cow and she’d be milked twice a day, every day of the year.  In my mind, that was just part of living on a farm.

I decided we should have a Jersey.  In the industrial system Jerseys have been replaced by the more prolific Holsteins, but the consensus among people whose opinions I valued was that Jerseys produce the tastiest and most nutritious milk.

Here’s a little aside about our modern industrial milk production (because I can’t resist).

Whereas in 1900 eighty percent of American farms had milk cows, today only 8 percent do and nearly half of those are on farms with over 1,500 cows and $1 million in annual sales. Four companies control 70% of the milk sales in the U.S. In 1950 the average dairy cow produced about 5,300 pounds of milk per year. By 1965 production had increased to over 8,300 pounds per cow. Today, amazingly, the average is close to 22,000 pounds of milk per cow, about four times more than the production of a generation earlier. As Joel Salatin would say, “Folks, that ain’t normal.”

So (returning to the story) I put an ad in the local paper for a hand-milked Jersey and a few days later I got a call from someone who lived very close by who had a milk cow for sale.  Excited, I went to see her.  She was a beautiful sad-eyed hand-milked Guernsey.  I didn’t buy her on the spot, but I left fairly convinced that it was the thing to do.

Luckily some semblance of sanity came over me.  In those days I was still commuting to Florida and was only home on Saturdays and half of Sunday. That twice-a-day chore would have fallen almost entirely on Cherie, who already had a full plate and had never milked a cow before (and it certainly wasn’t what she signed up for when she agreed to marry me).  Furthermore, as Cherie gently reminded me, we use very little milk.  There’s no way we could use the several gallons per day that we’d be getting.

So we didn’t get a milk cow after all.  A wise decision.

17 comments on “Milkcow Blues

  1. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    As visions of butter, cheese and ice cream danced in her head…
    So, was that HAND milked? As in, sit on a stool, wipe off the teats, four-fingered-squeeze, into a pail milked? Twice a day. Every day… Hrumph!
    I remember going to get the cow (So Boss!) I remember helping with the milking. I remember the smell of the Milk House. I totally remember the sound of the separator (and how excited Aunt was when she got the new electric model from the Eaton’s catalogue; ) What I don’t remember (it was a VERY long time ago; ) was how long all of that actually took…
    But I sure do remember what that real milk and cream and butter tasted like!: ) And that Jersey calves look like baby deer… *sigh*


    • Bill says:

      Yep. Carry the pail out to the barn (before sunrise) with some water in the bucket to wash off the teats. Milk the cow while hoping she doesn’t kick the bucket over, swat you with her tail or decide it is an opportune time to go #2. Then lug the bucket back to the house (it weighing nearly as much as me, or so it seemed), while trying not to spill any of the milk.

      My Granny would churn it to make butter and buttermilk, and we had fresh real (unpasteurized, non-homogenized) milk at every meal.


      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        So why is it, when we all drank real, whole milk every day, three times day and none of us were overweight, sickly or lactose intolerant?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Joanna says:

    I never realised until I got to Latvia that milk varies in taste depending on where the cow is kept, what it eats and what time of the year it is. We now get ours from two local farmers and we get raw milk. Very nice! Ian would also be the one with the responsibility and so we will not be having a cow, we might borrow a goat though if any of our young alpacas need supplemental feeding. It will save traipsing across the countryside every other day to get fresh milk for it.


    • Bill says:

      When the cows eat wild onions in the early spring the milk tastes like onions. I remember that us children thought it was quite a treat when the cow got in the onions and we got to have store-bought milk. I loved the fact that you didn’t have to blow the cream back while pouring it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. BeeHappee says:

    You can still get a goat. 🙂
    The production increase from 5,300 pounds to 22,000 pounds of milk is crazy. That is something like 5% increase every year or so (my math is bad)? The joke in Soviet Union always was the 5 year plans, and the milk production increase. There were always plans, but it never actually materialized in reality, only on papers. Ironically, this reality was achieved here in USA.

    Joanna, interesting you mentioned Latvia. I am from Lithuania next door. Yes, even the milk from my 2 grandmas tasted totally different. When we buy here in IL from local farmers, milk definitely changes flavor depending on season.


    • Bill says:

      We raise goats, but they’re not dairy goats. Still, I could get enough for my coffee in the morning whenever we have kids on the farm. But I’ve never tried it. My daughter spent a month in Guatemala last summer and she sent me a picture of a young woman leading some goats through a city street. She would knock on the door and ask if the family there wanted milk that day. If so she’d milk it for them right on the spot. Doesn’t get any fresher than that.

      The per-cow increase in milk production comes at significant cost to the animal of course. And the cows that can be manipulated to give that kind of production (the Holstein breed) have become essentially the only type of cow on the industrial-scale farms. It’s pretty rare to find a hand-milked Jersey these days.


  4. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, Ha, you made me chuckle just a little. I saw myself in this post with grandiose ideas that couldn’t possibly be accomplished with the time I could put toward them. In the end those ideas always failed and became a dreaded rushed chore instead of something I enjoyed. It was one of the reasons I finally gave up on gardening until a few years ago when time wasn’t an issue any more. Many times wisdom comes with patience and practical thought instead of excitement and spur of moment decisions. When I milked 13 cows morning and night, my favorite cow was the small Jersey cow that gave the smooth creamy milk compared to the Holsteins. We separated the cream from the milk mechanically and fed the twenty some gallons of milk a day to the pack of hogs we were raising. They loved it and grew by leaps and bounds with slick shiny hair. It was a symbiotic relationship that worked great. It was a lot of work and took three hours a day wrapped around school, home work, and football practice when in season. I didn’t have time to get into normal teenage trouble. I’m glad that you didn’t jump into homesteading over your time commitment and become burned out.

    I’m seeing more and more community gardens spring up in my city and surrounding cities. The cities are becoming more and more open to allowing community gardens on empty city lots. In my city they have special funding to help those that want to put gardens on city owned lots. The down side to all that is that at any time the city can decide to build or use the lot for their own use and the gardens would be scraped away. I like something a little more permanent and stable.

    Have a great wisdom filled decision day.


    • Bill says:

      Pigs and chickens would love to have the extra milk. We didn’t have pigs at the time and I didn’t think about using it to feed the chickens.

      I only milked when I was staying at my grandparents’ house in the summer. Most summer days we went there to work on the farm, but unless we spent the night there the milking was already done by the time we got there. So while I’ve done it, it was never a routine 3 hour per day chore for me.

      I’m excited and encouraged about the increasingly popularity of urban farming. As I mentioned, we have friends who are launching a community garden on land that was donated to them (they are an intentional Christian community living and serving in the inner city).


  5. valbjerke says:

    One Jersey heifer, one calf born April 7/2014. One hubby who swears he will learn to milk but fails miserably, one wife who takes over the chore, and now gets up at four in the morning to accommodate new chore. Sharing the calf with the cow til Sept 19 weaning, twice a day milking since.
    To date: 101 lbs butter in freezer, 220 gallons of milk – 140 gallons of which has been turned into soft cheese, hard cheese, clabber for the chickens. No room left in my freezers.
    Expected dry up date – end of February.
    Average increase in chore load for milking, butter making, cheese making, scrubbing milk pails and jars – about three hours a day.
    Oddly enough – still married 😄
    One smart lady, your wife.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      I tip my hat to you. I am amazed at all the things you are able to do and wondering when (if?) you sleep. 🙂

      I’ve often joked that if I had brought that cow home it might well have landed me in divorce court. I don’t think that would have happened but I do think we might have had quite a few quiet suppers around here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • valbjerke says:

        Thats funny – the cow is named Daisy – and on more than one occasion I’ve mumbled under my breath that I should have named her ‘Divorce’ 😄 Years ago – the discussion centered around not getting a milk cow until at least one of us was home full time. Still not exactly sure how I got bulldozed into a pregnant Jersey considering we both still work……
        Ulimately – it does have it’s up-side. Dairy was the last food item we were still buying at the store. I used to have dairy goats – but there is no butter to be had in any kind of volume and without a lot of work.
        I think your dairy prices down there are reasonable – up here butter is four dollars a pound, organic is nine dollars a pound. Milk – around six dollars a gallon, organic about ten. Cheese is out of this world. Daisy Duke has more than earned her purchase price back and then some.
        Sleep? Yes – I’ve scheduled some of that around the end of February 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  6. shoreacres says:

    No milking experience here, except for memories of squirting milk to the barn cats where friends and family had cows. What I do know is that the consensus about Jerseys is right on. There’s an all-Jersey herd that produces milk for Promised Land dairy here in Texas. When I tasted that Jersey milk, the skim tasted like the best whole milk I’ve ever had. Wonderful stuff, and they have the best lowfat eggnog in the world.

    And of course, being from Texas and all, my first thought was of this.


    • Bill says:

      Jersey milk is creamier (as Dave noted). It has a much higher butterfat content than Holstein milk. Good that you have access to the good stuff!

      Thanks for the Bob Wills. 🙂 I usually write the title of the post last. Even though there isn’t anything blue about this post, writing about milk cows put the old blues tune (best known to me through John Hammond) in my head.


  7. Been there, done that, as a youngster on a small farm. My mother had a glass separator on the porch. She sometimes froze the cream and we had treats with homemade chocolate syrup. “Those were the days, my friend…” 🙂


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