Breeding a Dairy Cow

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A family cow will provide you with an abundance of milk for all of your dairy desires. But first, your cow must have a calf! Breeding a dairy cow can be daunting so here’s an idea of what you can expect.

A jersey dairy cow laying in front of a barn

Almost four years ago we brought home our first family milk cow, Honey, a Jersey. We purchased her from a dairy farmer in southern Alaska who has since become a dear friend.

She was so helpful to us as first time cow owners and offered to have us bring Honey back to her once she was breeding age and she would AI her for us. This worked perfectly and we were incredibly thankful for the opportunity. Honey gave birth to her first calf, Buttercup, who is now our other milk cow.

We brought Honey home as a young heifer calf and raised her for another six months before it was time to breed her. You might be able to find a cow that is already bred and in milk. It will depend on your preference and what is available in your area.

There are so many questions to consider when it comes to breeding a dairy cow. Hopefully, you will have a friend and mentor as we did to help you along the way. Here is some basic information to help you get started.

A small jersey dairy cow in front of a barn

When to Breed a Dairy Cow

If you are starting with a heifer calf, as we did, plan for her first breeding to be around 1 year old. She will calve nine months later and will then be in milk! She will be a little under two years old for her first calving.

Typically, dairy cows are bred three months after giving birth. Their gestation is about nine months. So the schedule is:

  • Breed
  • Calve 9 months later
  • Breed again 3 months later

This will provide you with one calf a year. You don’t have to follow the typical schedule, though. As long as you continue to milk your cow, she will continue to provide milk even if you wait a little longer than three months to breed her again. Keep in mind her production will go down over time so don’t wait too long.

A jersey dairy cow standing in barn doorway

Dairy Cow Heat Cycles

Dairy cows typically go into heat every 21 days, give or take a few days depending on the cow. Signs of heat can include:

  • Mooing
  • Restlessness
  • Mounting you or other cows
  • Less interest in food

It’s important to keep track of your cow’s heat cycles. I keep a list and mark down the dates and the behavior I notice that tells me she’s in heat. Then I can count ahead 21 days to estimate the next heat cycle. These dates will come in handy when you’re ready to breed.

A grown jersey dairy cow laying in the sun

How to Breed a Dairy Cow

There are two options for breeding your dairy cow, use artificial insemination (AI) or a bull. Here’s a bit about each:

Artificial Insemination (AI) Pros:

  • You can choose the breed and traits of the bull that you breed your cow to.
  • You can choose semen that has been sexed if you’re wanting to have a heifer calf for sure.
  • The technician can come to your farm so no interruption in milking, if you are.
  • Dealing with a bull can be dangerous so AI is a safe alternative for breeding.

Artificial Insemination (AI) Cons:

  • Depending on where you live, having the semen shipped can be very expensive.
  • The cost of the semen itself will vary depending on the bull you choose.
  • Unless you are trained to conduct AI, you will need to hire a technician to do it for you.
  • You will need to know exactly when your cow is in heat and have the AI technician on standby to come out and perform the procedure. The breeding window is short!
  • The success rate can vary with AI.

Breeding with a Bull Pros:

  • High success rate since the bull will try hard to get the job done.
  • Less expensive than AI.
  • Can be easier to arrange than the exact timing AI requires.
  • The bull might be able to come to your farm so no interruption in milking.

Breeding with a Bull Cons:

  • You might have to take your cow (as we did) to the farm where the bull is so milking is interrupted.
  • Bulls are very dangerous if you do not know how to handle them so having one at your home might not be a good idea. That’s why we take our cows to our friend’s farm for breeding.
  • You can’t choose the exact traits or gender of the calf like you can with AI.

The main goal is to get the cow bred so that she will produce a calf and go into milk. Choose the breeding method that works best for you depending on where you live, the cost, and what you have access to.

Face of a jersey dairy cow

What to Do With the Calf

The answer to this will help determine how you breed your cow. Will you keep the calf, sell it, or raise it for meat?

The first time we bred Honey, we specifically wanted a heifer calf because we wanted to keep it, so we went with AI. We wanted Honey to have a companion and two cows seemed ideal for us.

But now, we do not plan on keeping any future calves so we aren’t as specific with our breeding. We attempted AI again but with unsexed semen (it costs less) since we didn’t have a preference. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.

Then we decided to breed her to our friend’s bull, an Angus. Because we knew we weren’t going to keep the calf, we didn’t mind the breed or traits that it would have. We just needed to get Honey back into milk. And it worked! We will raise the calf for about 18 months until it’s ready for butchering, and then it will provide food for our family.

You will want to decide what your plans are for the calf and that will help you find the best option for breeding your family cow.

Breeding a Dairy Cow

Breeding a dairy cow can seem daunting when you’re just beginning your adventure of having a family cow. A friend or mentor and lots of research can help you determine the best way to breed your cow.

And once she has provided you with a calf and all of that milk, you will be pleased with your efforts! Then it will be time to start planning the next breeding, about three months after calving.

It’s always exciting to breed a cow, wait nine months, and then see what she provides for you. And then the real fun of milking begins!

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