Backyard Cows FAQ

A candid and in-depth Q&A between Mimi Neandross and Ron, regarding her recently purchased heifer, Buttercup:




Q: Do I need a barn for her?

A: She does not currently have shelter day or night.  I'm assuming you’re in Southern California somewhere not too far from the coast.  In which case it will never get too hot or too cold for cows.  They don't like getting wet but they can handle it.  Cows were made to be outside.  If you do give her a shelter, the floor needs to be wood or concrete so that you can clean it and you will need to bed it and muck it which will be a lot of work.  It is easier if they just have a place to run and you just bring them in to milk them. If the shelter is made of redwood she will gradually eat it.


Q:  It has been suggested that I need a squeeze chute.  Do I?

A:  No.  We have 80 cows and have been in operation for nearly 100 years and we don't have and have never had a squeeze chute.  


Q: What kind of milking set up do I need?

A: The perfect situation for milking Buttercup would be in a shed or barn, with a concrete floor so you can clean it, with a stanchion (= head restraint) which has a manger behind it.  The stanchion can be made with 2x4s but should be securely anchored to something immovable.  There will be a frame to hold things but the meat of it is a vertical 2x4 which is fixed in place and next to it, at a distance greater than a cow neck but less than a cow head, a second 2x4 which pivots at the bottom so you can pivot it open, lead the cows head through it, and pivot it closed and lock it in place.  I'm sure you can find patterns on the internet.  This is how it has been done for centuries.  You can do the milking, and any vetting you need to do here. 

If you are serious about getting all the milk that the cow can produce and actually using It to drink or make other products, then I strongly suggest that you get a portable milking machine.  They come either electric or gas powered.   Hand milking a cow can be uncomfortable and painful, especially in second and subsequent lactations when she Is producing a lot.  The novelty of It wears off very quickly.  Also, the cow may be more susceptible to mastitis because the process Is dirtier. The benefits of a milking machine are that the process will be faster and easier, there will be more milk and It will be very significantly cleaner (very Important for shelf life and when making cultured products), and the cow will be less likely to get mastitis.  People often think that milking machines are difficult and time consuming to clean but this Is not true.  To clean It on a daily basis after milking you turn the claw upside down and suck up a bucket each of the following:

cold water to rinse

hot water to warm

hot soapy water to clean (use a dairy detergent)

cold water to rinse

dairy acid in cold water to remove minerals

Before milking you can rinse with a bucket of cold water.  If you are storing the machine outside or in a barn or some other dirty place you can do a bleach in cold water rinse before the cold water rinse.  

Then occasionally you can take It all apart and clean It thoroughly.

This Is essentially the process used on commercial dairies and It works well for backyard milking machines.


Q: I don’t have a pasture for her yet, so besides high-quality hay, what other foods/nutrients do I need to buy?

A: trace mineral salt block always.  When she is not producing milk you can feed her some sort of cheaper forage hay and nothing else.  When she is producing milk the highest quality alfalfa hay you can find and some sort of approximately 16% protein, grain based, supplement.  As much of the supplement as she can eat while your milking her should be sufficient.  You can adjust the supplement as necessary as her production changes over time.  If you are going to have a garden you can supplement her diet out of that as well.

The above diet if you want to get all the milk out of her that she is capable of producing.  If you’re ok with less milk then you can feed her cheaper feeds.

You will need to adjust her diet as she grows and cycles.  If she is getting fat cut back, if she is getting skinny give her more.  She is going to start off giving a little milk, then reach her max production after about two months, and then gradually taper off from there.  For example, if you continue to feed her the same amount during her lactation, she is going to get very fat towards the end of the lactation as her production gets low.  So just watch her.  In a Jersey cow in good condition you should be able to see her ribs.

Introduce any changes in diet (especially grain) gradually.


Q: I really want to start milking ASAP.  Can I buy a cow that is already in milk?

A: I never have sold a cow In milk for a backyard operation. The logistics are difficult. The training required for a cow in a commercial operation is exactly the opposite of that for a backyard cow. So a cow in milk would be trained all wrong. So she would have to be retrained. Then everything down there would have to go perfectly. If she is resistant to her new surroundings and you don’t get her milked for a few days she will stop producing.  Also, she may have a lot of milk. You would definitely need a machine like we talked about. But the reason why we do it the way we do is to maximize the chances of success. 



 Q: Buttercup sometimes does this strange running/jumping/dancing thing.  It is weird, is she ok?


A: If the dance she is doing is sort of hopping up and down and throwing her head then that is her happy dance. It means she is ecstatic.  It's how cows communicate with each other when they are excited.


Q: Do I need to put the halter on her every day?

A: You don't need to halter train her daily.  They remember things for an amazingly long time.  Just once in a while will be fine


Q: Lately when I have been bringing Buttercup her hay, she does her happy dance and then butts her head into me.  I am afraid she is going to ram me. What should I do?

A: She won't ever ram you.  And she is never going to be aggressive in an angry way, though she may be, and apparently is being, aggressive in soliciting attention.  It is common for Jerseys to develop this habit of pushing people to get attention but you have to make her stop it because it is dangerous, not just annoying.  The way to get her to stop is to tap her on the nose (with some moderate force because she is a cow) every time she does it. She will learn very quickly.  In fact, this is the thing to do anytime she is misbehaving in any way.  They absolutely hate it.  Don't argue with me.  Just do itShe needs to learn to behave or someone is going to get hurt and she is going to end up going to slaughter and it will be your fault.  So it's good for her to learn.  And she will learn and take it in stride and she won't hate you.


Q: When do her hooves need to be trimmed.

A: Most cows go their entire lives without needing their hooves trimmed.  Sometimes they do though, although never as young as Buttercup is. But if you want to get ready for it you can, by training and persistence, get her to allow you to lift up her hooves so you can trim them.  Just regularly and repeatedly try lifting them up (careful with the back legs so you don't get kicked) and eventually she will become accustomed to it.  Jerseys will learn most anything with repetition.  When I had just a few cows I used to lay down with them in the pasture on nice days and take a nap (see website home page).  When they got used to this it was easy to trim their hooves while they were laying down.  It may take a few days to get it done.  it doesn't have to be done all at once. I usually don't trim cow hooves until it is causing discomfort or affecting how she walks.  But it won't hurt anything if you wanted to trim them just for aesthetics.


Q: I noticed what looks like an abscess near buttercups udder.  It seems to be fluid filled and she doesn’t mind if I touch it.  Is it something the vet should look at?  


A: That's her belly button.  First lactation heifers usually get a lot of edema in their utters and surrounding areas.  That is what is happening.  Totally normal.  It will go down eventually.


Q: How do I get her ear tags off? 

A: You can cut the ear tags off from behind with a pair of scissors.  If she has a metal tag leave it on.

Q: when the vet came out, the week Buttercup arrived, she heard congestion in one of her lungs.  She asked me if she had been coughing and I confirmed she had.  Vet gave her an antibiotic.  Although the cough isn’t as pronounced as it was and is not as frequent, she still coughs some.  Does vet need to come back out?

A: if she has some sort of lung infection it would be good to resolve it if you can.  If it's bacterial you have a chance.  So, I would follow up on it.  There are a lot of antibiotics to choose from, so if one doesn't work another might.  Or maybe a longer course.  So I would consult the vet again to see if further treatment was warranted.  If it is a longer course of antibiotics you can give the shots yourself.  Sometimes there is some lung scaring which is not necessarily a serious thing.  But cows cough sometimes just like everybody else. 



Q: I am concerned about being able to get a vet out here when she is ready to deliver.  What do I need to know to be prepared?

A: Let me just state that it is very, very rare that things don’t go well and she needs help. Here are the things that you should have on hand for birthing:

1) A livestock thermometer (the mercury kind if possible)

2) Two bottles of calcium gluconate plus i.v. tube and needles to administer.  Under the skin is fine.  You don't need to get it in the vein.  

Milk fever is a calcium deficiency that Is not uncommon in jerseys when they deliver and start to produce milk.  It Is the most common birthing problem you are going to encounter.  If the cow has a low temperature (102F Is normal) and Is stumbling around or can't get up It needs 2 bottles of calcium gluconate immediately.  They can die very quickly from this but with calcium gluconate they will be fine.

3) A quick source of antibiotics 

If the cow's temperature is elevated it probably has an infection and antibiotics will probably fix it.  This is the second most common birthing problem you may encounter.

4) Maybe you should read up on what the proper presentation is in calves in case you have to adjust it and pull it. This is the third most common birthing problem but is very rare.

If you have trouble getting the calcium gluconate (it requires a vet) let me know and we can send some down. 

Having said all that let me just restate that the vastly most likely thing is that you will get up in the morning and the calf will already be out and walking around. 

Q: Does the baby need a blanket at night?  It is pretty chilly.  

A: No. We never give them one. Even when it’s freezing. 



Q: Hi. Why is there a pink line in the milk?  Is it safe to consume?

A: Well, it's cow blood.  That's where it ends up, right at the cream line.  Sometimes it takes a few days or a week for cow udders to settle down when they start lactating.  It's not uncommon for there to be blood in the milk at first.  Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, sometimes none at all.  Its perfectly normal.  It will clear up shortly.  It's safe to consume if you don't mind drinking blood.


Ron’s Two Cents 

A family cow is a relationship.  We get them to do what we want willingly and they do because they want to please.  Jerseys are the oldest breed of dairy cow and they have never existed outside of their relationship with humans.  Jerseys have been doing the backyard milk cow thing for centuries if not millennia. The relationship between a Jersey cow and its family, based on daily intimate contact and mutual trust is one of the most astonishing things in the natural world.  I feel sorry for people who haven't experienced it and can't comprehend it.