What to Consider Before Getting a Dairy Cow

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Investing time and money into a large animal is a big decision but also a very exciting one. Knowing what to consider before getting a dairy cow is very important. Here’s what we’ve learned after several years.

A cow licking her calf

It can be hard to really know what to consider before getting a dairy cow. The best places to start are to talk to someone who has experience with owning a dairy cow and to do lots of research.

I read several books, searched the internet for other families who kept dairy cows and talked to as many people as I could to get an idea of what we needed to know.

Owning a dairy cow is an incredible experience. They are such lovely animals that provide so much more than just milk. If you are interested in going this route, I certainly recommend it.

But I also encourage you to learn as much as you can so you will be ready when that special day arrives and you get to bring home your first cow.

Here is a list of what we’ve learned over the years of having a dairy cow and now two dairy cows.

Where to Buy a Dairy Cow

This will depend on several factors including where you live, what type of dairy cow you want, and your budget. Here in Alaska, it took us a while to find what we were looking for but our cow was worth the wait.

In the Lower 48, dairy cows are more readily available so you might not have any trouble finding one for sale. Prices can range, depending on the breed and age, from under $1000 to over $2000.

You’ll need to decide if you want a dairy cow that has already calved and is in milk or a heifer. There are pros and cons to both so it’s a personal choice and will also depend on what is available in your area.

A grown dairy cow that’s already experienced and trained to give milk is a great option for a new homesteader. You’ll be able to jump right in and the cow will know what to do.

A heifer that hasn’t calved yet is untrained so you’ll be starting from scratch once she calves and goes into milk for the first time. But with practice tieing her up and handling her often, she will be used to it when the time comes.

Two cows standing in snow

While spending some time searching and having no luck, we were introduced to an amazing dairy farmer in southern Alaska. After getting to know her, she offered one of her heifer calves for us to buy. So we decided to start with a heifer and get used to having her around before dealing with a calf and milking.

She has since become a dear friend and we talk quite often. She’s always willing to give advice and help with issues I’m having with our cows. I’m thankful that we bought our cow from a trusted farmer who has kept in touch with us and held our hand along the way.

If you can buy a cow or a heifer from someone like her, I highly recommend it. If not, hopefully, you have another friend that keeps a family cow that you can go to when you have questions.

Where to Keep a Dairy Cow

You don’t have to have hundreds of acres or a fancy barn in order to have a dairy cow. few basic creature comforts will work for them.

We are fortunate enough to have a small barn on our property. The cows have a large stall with a door that’s always open so they can go outside as they please. We use straw for bedding so during the winter months or on rainy days they can lay inside.

Our pasture area is fenced off using electric rope and t-posts. This was relatively easy and not too expensive to put up.

Make sure you have good fencing with some room for the cow to walk around and enjoy the outdoors. If you don’t have a barn, at least provide a place where they can lay down and get out of bad weather, such as an overhang of some sort that they can lay under.

Barn door open with a brown Jersey cow looking out the door

Breeding Dairy Cows

Dairy cows need to be bred to produce milk. Before getting a dairy cow, you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to breed her.

Artificial insemination is common but unless you learn how to do it yourself, which is a great idea, you’ll need a tech who can do it for you. Research who has experience in your area and come up with a breeding plan from the beginning.

AI can be expensive, depending on your semen choice and AI tech fees. You must be very in tune with your cow and track her heat cycles so that you know when to call the tech out to perform the procedure.

Breeding your cow with a bull is another option. Maybe there is a farmer in your area that will rent out a bull to you or that you can take your cow to. This option will cost less.

We were able to have our cow, Honey, AIed by our friend for her first breeding but due to distance, are unable to do that anymore. The second time around, after an expensive AI fail, we opted to have her bred with another friend’s bull.

Be sure to know who can help you get your cow bred and how you want to have it done. You don’t want to wait until the last minute and not be able to get her bred at all.

Buying Hay for Dairy Cows

This is very important as this is the majority of what your dairy cow will eat. Cost and availability will depend on where you live. But you need to know where you will be buying your hay before you bring a cow home.

We have a couple of farmers that we purchase hay from, depending on the time of year. We feed hay year-round so it’s important that we always have plenty. Especially here in Alaska where it’s winter for half of the year, we can’t risk running out.

Be sure to have a shelter where your hay will be kept. You don’t want it getting rained on and moldy. Moldy hay is not good for dairy cows! A simple structure, tent, or tarp will do.

Buying hay is costly. You might have plenty of land so you won’t have to feed your cow much hay. We hope for that someday but for now, our pasture area isn’t large enough to sustain them all year.

2 cows standing in the snow outside a barn

What Else to Feed Dairy Cows

Water for Dairy Cows

Dairy cows drink a lot of water to produce all of that milk, over 30 gallons a day at times. Plan ahead as to where you will keep their water trough and how you’re going to fill it. A small bucket will not be sufficient for a cow.

If you live in a cold climate, you will need a heater to keep the water thawed all winter. A heavy-duty hose is helpful to have in freezing temperatures. Be sure to keep an eye on the heater to make sure it’s always working and their water isn’t frozen.

A live stock water tank being filled in the winter

Illness and Injuries of Dairy Cows

We can all hope that our cows stay healthy and with proper care, they most likely will. However, things can happen and you might find yourself with a sick or injured cow. You need to have a plan and be prepared for these mishaps.

Be sure to form a relationship with a trusted large animal veterinarian before getting a dairy cow. That way, if something does happen, you’ll know who to call. Having a friend or being able to contact the person you bought your cow from is also very helpful as they might be able to tell you what to do.

Brown Jersey dairy cow standing in snow with trees in background

Have a few basic items on hand including a thermometer to take the cow’s temperature if needed. I also keep a bottle of iodine from the local feed store for any cuts that need cleaning.

Where to Put Dairy Cow Manure

I know this sounds silly but trust me, it’s something you need to know! Cows poop…a lot. Where are you going to put it? And what are you going to do with it?

Find a designated place where you can pile up what you scoop out when cleaning their stall. You can compost it and use it on your lawn or garden. You can usually find other gardeners who would love to take some of it off your hands.

It piles up quicker than you can imagine so plan ahead where would be a good place to make the pile. You want it to be easy to access when you’re doing the scooping.

Trimming Dairy Cow Hooves

Something else you might not have thought of but need to plan for. Dairy cows need their hooves trimmed regularly. You can either do this yourself every so often or you can pay a professional farrier to do it.

To do it yourself, you can purchase hoof trimmers and trim a bit here and there while they’re already tied up for milking. This is what we have to do as there isn’t a farrier in our area who can do it.

Depending on where you live, there might be a farrier who will either come to you once or twice a year to trim your cow’s hooves or you can bring your cow to them. Research to see what your options are.

Hoof care is very important to the overall health of a dairy cow so be sure to know how you plan on maintaining them.

I hope that this helps you and doesn’t make owning a dairy cow seem too overwhelming! It is a big commitment and a lot of work but the reward is well worth it. We absolutely love our cows!

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