A reflection on why we keep a family milk cow, suffering through hardships and heartbreaks, because the in the end it makes our farm and family whole.
For all intents and purposes, we live a pretty amazing life. Out in the country, eating what we produce, even making a small but countable income from farming… It is a very, very good feeling. It all takes a lot of hard work and commitment – and truth be told, a lot more patience and money than you ever anticipated. And for all this, there are two types of “homesteading” farmers: those that milk cows and those that do not. Because we feel strongly about providing fresh wholesome milk and dairy products for our family, we have chosen over the years to keep a family milk cow.
This is not a post about the politics of raw milk or a testimonial about our experience with consuming unpasteurized dairy. I will surely write one soon, but not without first telling you our story, the good and the bad. Farming isn’t always bucolic pastures of grazing cows and chirping birds. Sometimes it is muddy, nasty and heartbreaking. I would love for somebody considering keeping a family milk cow to read about our experiences and take away from it what they will.
In early 2010, we decided, and rather suddenly I might add, to purchase a couple of Jersey milk cows and a bottle heifer from a local organic dairy. The cows were older, seasoned ladies no longer up to the output requirements of a “production dairy”. Avril was a big ole girl with a funny eye do to an injury she sustained as a calf. Usually a “one eyed” cow is too flighty and nervous to be a good milk cow –Avril was the exception. To say she was unflappable was an understatement. Inga was a sweet, refined, even elegantly boned cow with nurturing instincts. And little Jezibel – a bundle of wild energy and naughty personality with specialized grass fed genetics from New Zealand. Jezibel was love at first sight. We spent the next three years raising Jezibel and milking the girls with relative ease and unflagging commitment to the twice a day, everyday milking chores. Calves were born and we were even blessed that Jezibel produced the loveliest heifer that we named Kate as her first calf. Times were good. Times were great, in fact. We sold the fresh raw milk to those that were seeking unpasteurized milk from a small, grass fed, organic family farm and I was making cheese and yogurt like a mad farm woman. I was turning people away left and right. That said, Avril was still milking, but had not conceived her own calf despite multiple artificial insemination attempts and pasturing with a small Jersey bull. We decided to sell her and move to a larger property to grow our farm business. Avril went to another farm with a larger bull that didn’t care about her ugly eye and we found a lovely, larger property a few miles up the road.
And that’s where things started to go wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.
In the weeks preceding the move, my Nitty Gritty Man fastidiously mended tired fences, cleared pastures of brush and random bits of debris and built an amazing milk stanchion for the cows. But after the move, Inga and Jezibel changed suddenly. Inga was having trouble getting up after a rest. Her old age and light frame were failing her. Her pain upon movement was evident and it seemed that the only humane thing to do was to have her put down. Simultaneously, Jezibel went from producing 4-5 gallons of milk a day to being completely dry, not eating or drinking and hunching up in obvious discomfort. With the vet, we treated her for a bowel impaction, but she steadily worsened. Cows can be indiscriminate eaters and it was clear she had ingested something. We dropped more magnets down her, treated her with pain meds but sweet Jezi continued her downward spiral. Then fever indicated active infection, her bowel had perforated. And on a rainy, ice cold November morning, with both of us crying and the vet blinking back tears of his own, we humanely euthanized her.
Devastation does not begin to describe what we felt. I still swallow back the lump in my throat as I write this… In the months that followed, we found fragments of tarp and random pieces of fencing material, previously hidden in the grass, any of which could have been the lethal offender.
Last winter we pastured young Kate with our bull and beef cows (all of which remained healthy) in hopes that she would conceive. In the meantime we were offered the opportunity to essentially lease a cow from a fellow farmer that hadn’t a need for an extra milk cow at the time. Derby was a newly freshened Jersey Holestein cross, big, black and maybe not the smartest cow, but I was ready to love her. Three weeks into her freshening she started to act funny. Lazy, not grazing much and burping a lot. Then her milk production took a nose dive and she would laze around all day. She was losing weight and rapidly. Over the course of the next three weeks I worked with no less than THREE equally perplexed vets producing no lasting improvement. At last it was surmised that she was suffering from a chronic rumen wasting disease that she contracted as a calf from her mother. Johne’s disease lays dormant for months or years until a stressor like calving or transportation triggers the mycobacteria (selective to only ruminant animals) to proliferate. There are four stages of this incurable disease and blood test will not yield positive results until the animal is already circling the proverbial drain. We lost her.
Insult to injury. We wanted to quit everything. We had no aims to replace our family milk cow and didn’t know if we were cut out for this milk cow business anymore.
But then slowly things started to get better. Over this last year we kept working on the property, making repairs, finding and removing foreign debris. The rest of the cows (which actually had never been pastured with Derby, thankfully) continued to be healthy and fat. And Kate’s belly started growing. And growing. Our bull had done his job. And we started to feel optimism for the first time in months. During the wee hours of March 1, 2015 our lovely farm raised baby, gave birth to her own little girl. Lissee-bee is a naughty little carmel colored heifer with all the attitude of her mama and grandma. Her sire is Inga’s first calf with us. This calf brings us full circle. A rebirth for our farm. A homegrown bundle of joy. A family milk cow to be.
Kate and Lissee-bee are doing great. Kate has trained to the milking stanchion in record time and is producing amazingly well – especially considering we are pasturing her full time with her always nursing baby. Kate has all the hallmarks of becoming a fantastic family milk cow. And Lissee-bee provides us with smiles, satisfaction and pride in what we do.
Sometimes I look back at those first years – void of troubles or concerns. We were so lucky. We knew some, but not a lot about keeping a family milk cow and we could have suffered from our missteps at any time. It was only later, with experience and knowledge firmly under our belts, when we thought we were doing everything right, that we suffered in ways that we hadn’t imagined. I wish I could go back and change so much to save ourselves the heartbreak of losing some of our most treasured partners and companions on the farm. But I wouldn’t rewind to the day we brought home our first cows and change our decision.
There are two types of homesteading families – those that keep family milk cows and those that do not. We are those that do. Proudly.