How Much Does a Dairy Cow Cost?

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How much does a dairy cow cost? We get asked this question quite often. While it’s hard to put an actual cost, here’s some information so you know what to expect.

Face of a jersey dairy cow

It’s been four years since we brought home our first family milk cow, a Jersey cow we named Honey. We have her first calf, Buttercup, and the two of them live happily on our property here in Alaska.

We don’t have them to save money but for many other reasons. Of course, the fresh, raw milk and multitude of dairy products that we get from them are good reasons for us! And we just love having them around!

Because we don’t live in one of the dairy states, it’s costly for us to have a dairy cow. What we spend might be vastly different than what you would have to spend. But here is an idea of the cost of owning a dairy cow.

Buying a Dairy Cow

The first cost will be that of the cow. This cost will depend on what age the cow is that you’re purchasing, where you’re purchasing her from, and what the farmer is willing to sell it to you for. A milk cow can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a couple of thousand dollars.

There are several dairy cow breeds to choose from. We chose to go with a Jersey milk cow and love her dearly. Research what breed and size will work best for your small farm.

There are a few options for the type of cows that you can get:

  • Bottle Calf– A dairy cow must have a calf in order to produce milk. But not everyone wants to keep the calf. Maybe you can find a fellow dairy farmer with a bottle calf for sale. You will need to continue feeding it a milk replacer until it is old enough to be on hay alone, depending on the age of the calf when you bring it home. You will raise it until it’s old enough to be bred. This will give you a chance to get to know your new cow before dealing with calving and milking.
  • First-Calf Heifer- You can often find a bred heifer that’s had her first calf already and is in milk. Or is old enough to be bred and calve for the first time under your care.
  • Family Small-Breed Milk Cow- Some people choose to get a miniature milk cow that needs less space and eats less. The size of the standard milk cow is pretty big, around 1000 pounds, so you could start smaller. Small-breed jerseys have become quite popular and they’re so cute!
  • Older Cow- A great introduction to having a dairy cow is to start with an older cow that has calved before and is a good, well-behaved milker. She’s already trained and you can jump right in and enjoy gallons of milk. The price of a proven family cow will depend on the folks selling her.

Feeding a Dairy Cow

This is the main aspect that concerns those wondering how much does a dairy cow cost. They eat a lot! However, feed costs can be difficult to calculate and will depend greatly on where you live.

If you live in a warm area with a large pasture, your cow will most likely be able to eat fresh grass much of the year. This will greatly reduce your feed cost.

However, for us here in Alaska where it’s winter six months out of the year, we rely on feeding hay to our cows most of the time. They can enjoy fresh grass during the summer months at least.

Hay costs will vary depending on the region where you live and the average prices there. It will also depend on the economy, believe it or not. For example, feed prices drastically increased this past year due to the increase in fuel and fertilizer costs.

A pile of bales of hay

To give you an idea, our average cost is $3000 a year on hay. But, as I said, we rely on hay for most of the year. We also don’t live on a large, flat pasture so we even rely on hay during most of the warm months.

We have a few local farmers that we get our hay from each year. They have become friends and we greatly appreciate all of their hard work to help us feed our cows.

Before you decide to get your own cow, ask around and find out who you can purchase hay from. Ask them about their hay quality and price then, as cutting season approaches in the summer, check in with them to make sure they let you know when their hay is baled and ready for pick-up.

You can save money by purchasing from small family farms that have you come out to the field and pick up the bales yourselves. Having hay delivered is an extra cost but can be more convenient.

Don’t let people tell you that you can feed your dairy cow cheap, moldy hay like beef cows! Although a lower price, moldy hay can cause miscarriage in dairy cows, and don’t you want your cow, who is producing your milk, to eat good quality hay?

Other than hay, we give our cows some local grain while I milk them. We find it necessary here in Alaska to help them maintain their health during the freezing winter months.

The cost is around $12 for a 50-pound bag and it lasts us a couple of weeks when they’re in milk. I don’t feed grain when they’re dried off and expecting.

Supplements

Other than hay, your cow will need a few minerals and supplements, depending on where you live and what nutrients are in the grass. This is where it’s important to have a friend or mentor that also keeps a dairy cow and can give you advice. You can even ask any dairy farmers in your area.

A jersey cow looking into two hanging buckets that container loose minerals for licking

We give our cows free-choice minerals and baking soda. These can be expensive but a 50-pound bag lasts us several months.

A protein tub lick is also important when they’re in milk to give them the extra nutrients that they need.

Ask around and find out what others are feeding their cows but be sure to account for the cost of extra supplements to keep your dairy cow healthy.

Water

Water can be overlooked as an expense when it comes to the costs of a dairy cow. As always, this will depend on where you live and whether or not you have to pay for water.

We have our own well so we do not have to pay for water. However, many people here in Alaska who don’t have a well have to get their own water to fill their tanks. This cost can add up when you consider how much a dairy cow drinks. When in milk, they can drink anywhere from 10 to 20 or more gallons a day!

a cow looking into a water trough with a heater in it

A small water bucket will not do for a dairy cow, since they drink so much for milk production. They must always have access to fresh water. You will need to purchase a large water trough so that they always have enough water.

We have a 75-gallon trough and with two cows, we have to fill it every two days. I hope to get a larger trough in the future, at least 100 gallons, but for now, we pull the hose out and fill it up every couple of days.

Another cost to consider is heating the water. Here in the Interior of Alaska, we have below-freezing weather six months out of the year. We have to heat our cow’s water so this is an extra cost. If you live somewhere that’s always warm, then you don’t have to worry about this!

We have two livestock water tank heaters so that we always have a backup in case the one we’re using goes out. These aren’t too expensive, usually around $50 depending on the model you choose.

Be sure to check the size of the water tank that the model you’re looking at is made for. Don’t buy a heater for a 1oo-gallon tank if you only have a 50-gallon tank or you will be wasting electricity.

Heating water means an additional cost of electricity. Those heaters can use a lot of electricity and the bill can add up fast.

Person spraying water into a livestock water trough in winter

We have an outdoor timer to hook up to our water heater. This way, the heater isn’t running for as much time and we can cut our electricity usage in half. I set the timer for one hour on, then one hour off. The water still stays thawed and not freezing cold.

Of course, in the dead of winter when we’re well below zero, I have to switch it to two hours on and one hour off. But we still save money in the long run by not having it on all the time.

Bedding

This will depend on where your cow will be living. If you have a large pasture and they will be spending all of their time outside, then you won’t have anything to worry about! Your cow will gladly bed down on the grass and be comfortable.

We have a barn and the cows have a stall in the barn that opens up to their pasture. They can go in and out as they please.

We keep bedding on the floor of their stall during the winter. During the summer, they love to lay outside in the grass so rarely lay in the stall.

However, when it’s cold, snowy, and dark, they often like to spend time in their stall. We want them to have warm bedding, especially when they’re expecting to calve. It’s also important to have clean bedding when they’re in milk so that their udders stay as clean as possible.

Straw is the best bedding option for us because it naturally insulates. This creates a nice, warm bed for the cows to enjoy and helps keep them warm.

Straw is expensive here in Alaska. We currently pay $16 for a 50-pound bale. I like to give each of the cows their own bed with an entire bale. I replace the straw as needed as it gets messy. About once a month I buy them each a new bale so that can add up over the long winter.

Brown cow with snowflakes on her face

Milking Equipment

This expense will be based on personal preference. Do you plan to hand milk or use a machine? A good quality stainless steel milking bucket with a lid will work to hand milk.

Purchasing a milking machine is a big expense however it has its benefits. We bought a small machine before Honey had her first calf. We spent about $1200 on the whole set-up. It’s small, only a 5-gallon bucket and two inflations, but it’s perfect for a cow that isn’t a high-volume producer, like a family dairy cow.

This is a great way to train a newly freshened heifer. It is uncomfortable for them in the beginning so the quicker you can get them milked, the better. It’s also nice when it’s 20 or 30 below zero and I can milk quickly.

We also wanted a milking machine in case I wasn’t able to milk her and we needed someone else to. You can teach someone how to milk your cow using a machine quickly but you might not be able to find someone with the patience to hand milk for you in an emergency!

We have found having a milking machine to be a good investment so I definitely recommend looking into it. You can still hand milk like I love to do, but it’s nice to have as a backup!

A cow licking her calf

Other Expenses

Other expenses will arise over time so you need to be ready. The main ones being medically related. Always have a relationship with a large animal veterinarian so that if you have an emergency with your cow, you can call them. Vet bills can be high but it’s a cost you need to be ready for when owning a large animal.

Most issues, however, you can manage on your own. We have dealt with a case of mastitis, a torn teat, a frostbit teat and a cut on a leg. These all ended up being minor thankfully and I was able to handle them on my own with some guidance from my dairy cow mentor and friend.

Udder mint cream for mastitis is something I always keep on hand as well as a large animal disinfecting solution. I purchase these from the local feed store and a bottle can be expensive (over $20) but they last a long time.

How will you breed your cow? Your cow must calve in order to produce milk for you. Unless you keep your own bull or know how to perform artificial insemination, you will most likely have to pay to get your cow bred.

Renting a bull is the less expensive option as long as you can find someone with a bull to use. We have used this method with a friend’s black Angus bull and it works great.

Breeding a cow with AI can be very expensive, depending on the semen you choose and the fee of the technician who will come out to your farm to perform the procedure. We ordered semen and after shipping costs, we spent over $400. Then a friend came over and performed the AI for us.

You will also need basic equipment such as brushes and rope halters for your cow. These are not expensive.

Fencing is another cost that can get high, whether you choose wooden or electric. If you already have a fenced-in area, you’re all set. We had to put up an electric rope fence that cost a few hundred dollars.

A barn wall with halters hanging from hooks and brushes on a shelf

Other Options

If you aren’t able to afford the cost of a cow right now, there are some other options out there for you until the time is right.

Dairy Goats- Dairy goats are a great introduction to the world of dairy animals. They cost a lot less than dairy cows yet will still provide you with fresh milk. They might also be easier to find and a good idea if you want to start small.

Local Dairy Farms- Is there a local commercial dairy farm in your area? You probably won’t find their milk for sale at a large grocery store. Here where we live, we can buy milk in glass bottles from a local dairy. It’s only sold at the feed store and a few other small, local markets. If our cows are dried off for calving, this is the only milk we buy. Try finding a source of local milk and you’ll soon taste the difference!

Herdshare- You might be able to find a small dairy farmer in your area that does own a dairy cow and offers a herdshare. A herd share is a way for you to share in the ownership of the dairy animal and therefore enjoy the milk it produces on a weekly basis. Always check the laws and regulations in your state as many do not allow the sale of raw milk in any way. But if you can find someone to purchase raw milk from, they can also be a mentor to you as you look to own a dairy cow yourself one day. They will let you come out to their farm and interact with their cow, observe milking time, and answer any questions you may have. This is one of the best ways to learn about owning a family cow.

How Much Does a Dairy Cow Cost?

Here’s a summary of the costs to account for when getting a dairy cow:

  • Feed (hay, grain)
  • Supplements
  • Supplies (brushes, halters, etc)
  • Veterinary care
  • Breeding
  • Water
  • Bedding
  • Medical supplies
  • Milking equipment

I hope this give you an idea of how much it will cost you to invest in your own dairy cow! Do a lot of research on the prices in your area.

They aren’t cheap but are well worth the expense and will pay you back ten-fold in more ways than one!

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8 Comments

  1. We’re looking at getting a place outside the city to do a mini homestead and my wife’s first statement looking around the property was where a cow would be good. I’ll forward this on to her

  2. I love this! We have a mid-size Jersey dairy cow and we love her so much, too. Things are different for us in central Alabama but it’s nice to get other perspectives! I’m glad you mentioned a milking machine. I’ve been on the fence about purchasing one because it’s therapeutic for me to hand-milk our Belle. Which milking machine do you recommend?

  3. I have always wondered about the costs of keeping a dairy cow. This post has been very helpful, thank you for the concise information!

  4. Saving this post for the future as we would love to have a milk cow one day in the future.. so much good info. thank you for sharing what you have learned through your experiences!

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